The Publicness of Urban Commons. Insights from the Brussels Commoning Scene.


  • Verena Lenna VUB


publicness, welfare, urban commons




If care is one dimension of welfare that we need to reappropriate to protect the foundations of a democratic society and democracy (Tronto, 2013), publicness is the other. Well before and independently from the current privatization processes resulting from the market intervention, “the organizational mold of the welfare state at the various levels in which it translates collective, public values, interests, and goals - from everyday practices to systemic organizational effects - tends to generate communication blocks, separations, and segmentations of social relations, isolation, irresponsibility, indifference, privatization of issues - in short, privatism' (De Leonardis 1998). The final consolidation of the institutions and the operating systems of the welfare state corresponded in fact to the loss of a lively public sphere - as a basic, fundamental public good - which was animated and precisely constituted around the collective definition of welfare problems and solutions.

While these observations were formulated at the end of the 90s, in the context of an emerging welfare mix season and its ambiguities, they appear to be still very - or even increasingly- relevant today, given the more recent developments of the welfare systems and in particular, given the proliferation of urban commons. Centred on care practices and fueling social cohesion, while improving the conditions of our living environments, urban commons almost inherently represent a complementary layer of existing welfare infrastructures - as the working hypothesis at the core of my ongoing research project. However, their operational systems and conditions may fuel the risk of increasing privatism in the sphere of welfare.

Vis-à-vis such a risk, in this paper, I will investigate the publicness of the urban commons as a capacity to contribute to the identification of welfare problems and issues and the elaboration of solutions in the public sphere, as they concern the very social bond that we share. To critically assess such a capacity, I will examine the commoning scene of the Brussels Capital Region, based on my direct implication as an activist and researcher since 2011 and having co-coordinated a regional study on the local urban commons (2022-2023). I will focus in particular on three initiatives, considering their long-lasting and mature trajectory, which led them from being bottom-up, precarious initiatives and the initiators of the commons movement in Brussels to becoming influential policymakers. The Community Land Trust of Brussels (since 2012) is an organisation aiming at making homeownership accessible for low-income families; Etats Généraux de L’Eau à Bruxelles, since 2002, aims at the collective and individual re-appropriation of water management infrastructures, from the micro-scale of a private garden to the macro-scale of a valley; Communa (since 2013) operates as a platform for the temporary occupation of vacant buildings. As markers and their conditions of publicness, I will address the following dimensions and their triangular relationship: 1. the porosity of their operational conditions, allowing for a de-fragmentation of concerned communities, and their welfare needs, rights, and responsibilities; 2. the transcalarity of their ecologies, necessarily implying a multilayered and complex approach to problems and solutions, thus generating communicative and participatory dynamics and sustaining the public discourse around welfare issues; 3. their transformative capacity of policies and the related narratives, allegedly allowing to overcome the privatism of contract-based agreements at the origin of numerous forms of common-public collaborations.


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