A tale from Stockholm in 2041
This utopian essay is playing out twenty years from now (in 2041) and is grounded in on-going research (in 2020) on the new urban gardening commons in Stockholm City, Sweden (an example of the co-management of urban space) by Nathalie Bergame. Although based on what people actually said during fieldwork in 2020, all names, locations, and direct citations are invented.
Two decades ago, in the early 2020s, the management of the city’s parks and urban green spaces was divided between the City District Administrations of Stockholm, private landowners (such as housing associations), and other state institutions. At that time, however, from the side of the City, there were aspirations to transfer responsibility and management to residents through tenure agreements; through these formal contracts, so-called “brukaravtal” in Swedish (literally “user agreements”), the right to manage public green spaces was transferred to engaged residents of Stockholm organised as civil associations.
What started as a small, and some said marginal initiative for residents cultivating edibles and flowers in public urban parks, turned in the subsequent years into a full-fleshed city-wide program: public green spaces are today in 2041 entirely managed and administered by residents when in 2020 less than 2% of the public green spaces was tenured by residents. While some spaces like the green areas adjacent to housing buildings have remained the responsibility of the respective housing associations, today in 2041 the larger publicly accessible urban parks, as well as green micro-pockets of the urban landscape, are managed by resident-based committees and associations.
In order to find out what it was that led up to this point, in the following I sketch out observations from little more than 20 years of research. In my research I have been following the movement of the new urban commons, a form of social organisation that reappeared globally in the 2010s which commons theorists Dardot & Laval back then in the 2020s interpreted as a sign for “a new era of emancipation.”
“We make the city through our daily actions” and become part of something bigger than ourselves
During autumn 2041, I follow Maia Urbanusson, an ardent gardener and commoner since a few years back, through the Vasa park in Stockholm to find out more about what the transfer of governing power over public spaces from the municipality to resident management has meant for her. She muses, “I know my city better now. Before I could go years without really getting to know a new person, I was just not connected to my fellow city residents.
This all changed for me in the twenties – and yes… I would say that it is because we have to speak to each other now.” She tells me that she now spends much more time organising and meeting other people within their park management association, listening to their perspectives, desires, and needs than when she was working full time in Stockholm before everything changed. Through economic development programs in the late twenties, starting after the global COVID-19 pandemic that hit Stockholm and Sweden hard, additional time capacity was created when the city started granting a basic income to those involved in managing urban green spaces.
Maia was one of the first to take part in the basic income scheme introduced in 2028 in Stockholm, changing her life and her relation to the city radically: “Before I just paid my taxes and then someone from the city district managed and maintained the park. We as residents were not involved, and honestly, it also felt nice to just be able to visit the park and relax. But today, I feel I am part of something bigger. And frankly, being able to secure an income through it was also a big benefit for me. But really, it is a win-win I feel.”
Maia’s case shows that through her gardening activities, in the public green space association of the specific park she is part of managing, she has changed not only the city but also herself: Urban geographer David Harvey explains this by pointing to the dialectical relationship between societies and the urban and says that: ”We individually and collectively make the city through our daily actions and our political, intellectual and economic engagements. But, in return, the city makes us.”
Through gardening in common, she has become an urban actor applying direct civil power to what she and her association wants the city to be, forging what commons theorist and activist Sylvia Federici describes as the “material means […] by which collective interest and mutual bonds are created.” Through these material means, such as the shared garden, and the responsibility to manage it in common, not only social collective relations and infrastructures are created, but also, as Olivier Weinstein stresses “new ways of life and new subjectivities.” Thus, it is through everyday practices in the public through which residents “produce and transform their own urban worlds […], leading to the formation not only of new urban spatial configurations but of new visions of the potentials being produced and claimed through their activities” the political economists Brenner & Schmid claim.
The benefits and difficulties of managing resources collectively
It is a rainy September day in Vasa park in 2041. The soil and benches where people gather for their meetings in summer are wet today, but on a sunny day, even in November, members of the local association are out here – to meet other members, discuss and plan for the upcoming year, and work the land. Maia describes how the associational park management has made her ultimately a part of decision-making processes, a time-consuming undertaking that, as she confesses, can be difficult at times.
In the park managed in common, residents gather around a common purpose, that, as Massimo De Angelis a leading theorist on the commons, notes, rewards the commoners “affective links to replace the tenuous, formal or alienated connections that exist in the neoliberal city always on the run.” And, through commoning, people are assigning representational power and responsibility over their direct environment. When successful, these collective relations bring about a “movement from the ‘Me’ […] towards the ‘We’ which together seeks strategically to transform […] structures.”
De Angelis claims further that through the form of social organisation for a common good, social complexity can be anticipated. This means also that a multiplicity of relations and unexpected evolutionary changes can be handled to a more satisfying degree than social systems which are governed by market and state forces, often alienated from the processes they govern, Massimo De Angelis claims. In that, a commons-based management of urban green spaces is different from a “development-led urban development regime” harnessing neoliberal investor-based urbanisation processes that became increasingly prevalent at the turn of the millennium in Stockholm, researchers Zakhour & Metzger found. Such capitalist urbanisation was characterised by efforts to attracting (foreign) investments, business, and developing the city as a global player, to the detriment of local needs.
These newly established public green space commons are certainly also part of wider relations that play out in urban space. More than twenty years ago in 2018, researchers Egerer & Fairbairn described the social tensions within gardening communities in their study on community gardens in California; tensions that originated in struggles over resources and equality from the wider social contexts of the urban. The commons is thus not a strategy that, like a technology, can be applied and deliver predictable outcomes, such as sustainability, democracy, and equality automatically. The success of the common is always conditioned by its commoners, and the structural environment they act within.
And while the commons seems like a blueprint for direct democracy in theory, in practice there are all too frequent power struggles among association members. A member from another public green space, Zeus Svensson, tells us that they have had problems reaching agreements in the past five years since he joined. “Some have very strong opinions and then they can take over the whole discussion and not everyone is trained to confront them and stand up for their own opinion. It has been a good school for everybody here on how to organise collectively and to learn how to listen to each other.”
Depending on the size of the park but also on the type of management required, some associations have several hundred members, other associations count less than twenty members. The organisational capacity and the social infrastructures needed for reaching agreements were partly helped by exchanges with those involved in the famous Participatory Budgeting program inaugurated in 1989 in Porto Alegre.
Change in management of urban space started slowly with only a few initiatives
Organisation and management of public urban green spaces have not always been resident-based in Stockholm. From the 2000s to the 2020s, residents’ participation in the planning and management of urbanisation was mostly confined to formal dialogues, so-called ‘citizen-dialogue’ [medborgardialog], taking place preceding changes in urban plans in Sweden. The citizen-dialogue was based on workshops and meetings during which the planning process, otherwise kept closed for the public, was opened up for all residents affected by changes of the urban landscape and those interested in local city-making. The dialogue was often subject to criticism with regards to its lack of outreach and engagement, and its inability to transferring real deciding power over public issues to the public. “In the end, decisions weren’t based on our suggestions, we didn’t feel taken seriously.” Cassandra Hansson, a beneficiary of today’s’ common-management of public spaces and former critic of the citizen-dialogue, explains.
Whether in reaction to the increasing privatisation and enclosure of public space through the development-led governance regime or due to the unfruitful citizen-dialogues, the zeitgeist around the beginning of the 2010s was conducive to uptake of commoning such as community gardening by the residents of Stockholm. When asked how it all started to grow, the residents involved at that time told me that it started with one or two initiatives in central Stockholm, which lifted the visibility of alternative and resident-based urbanisation activities and eventually opened the eyes of Stockholm’s inhabitants to urban gardening in public spaces in general.
What started small gained momentum during one decade with gardening initiatives popping up on public land, where interested residents started cultivating edible plants in raised beds in many places in the city. This development demonstrated “that the market and the state are not the only possible systems of production” reflecting what Elinor Ostrom, political scientist, and Nobel laureate, described in her studies on collective action and common goods in different geographical contexts.
Until the introduction of the basic income scheme in 2028, the production of common space on public land was, however, organised under the rather precarious user agreements [brukaravtal]. Unlike today in 2041, where public land is leased on a long-term basis, those earlier agreements did not provide the conditions for long-term management of public green spaces. In 2020, gardeners witnessed that “we don’t really know how long we will be able to stay here, our tenure agreement for managing the land can be canceled with one month’s notice. Our city district administration has been very helpful and supportive, but they also told us that in case they need the land for housing we will have to find a new spot for gardening.”
A cry for autonomy and “the right to the city” through gardening
With rather high initial investments for establishing a good soil quality, buying fruit-bearing bushes and other perennials as well as seeds and the looming risk of being evicted from the plot of urban land, residents who were engaged in park management in the 2020s began to demand more long-term based public land leases from the City District Administrations. Viewed from the perspective of the “right to the city,” conceptualised more than seventy years ago in 1967 by urban theorist Henri Lefebvre, the residents performed their urban duty and demanded the full rights to their labor on public land and by that claimed their right to the city. While they could attain the rights to participate in creating and appropriating the edible produce the community cultivated, they did not own that right autonomously, neither did they own the right to the land. When city districts needed whole or parts of the public urban land for development projects such as new housing, infrastructure, or commercial activities, the commoned garden that had been created by the many gardeners was at risk of facing demolition.
The gardeners of the commoned urban green spaces were successful in inserting their political claims for longer-term leases by referring to the well-established and culturally integrated allotment gardens; Stockholm’s historical allotment gardens date back to the beginning of the 20th century, with the first built in 1905. Despite great popular interest in gardening in Stockholm’s allotment gardens, with 10 thousand residents in the queue in 2020, the last new allotment garden was established in 2002. The demand for allotment gardens coupled with the economic relief when transferring the lease to civil associations (instead of managing public space by the municipality) asserted sufficient pressure on the City that led to a shift in the governance of public spaces after the onset of the global covid-19 pandemic. Not only did people spend more time at home, working in “home-office,” but they also felt relieved to be able to socialise again out of doors when the first waves of covid-19 subsided in 2021. The organisational form of an association required people to meet and discuss, and in union demand rights over public space, activities that they would not have had time to under full employment and with the need to commuting to work every day.
Public green spaces provided with resilience for times of crises
Even though the size of the land used for gardening in common appeared marginal in 2020, a new culture emerged in favour of sharing responsibility for managing urban space between residents and city administration officials. Stockholm was perhaps lucky to have a relatively high share of green space (40%) available for the cultivation of food and communities that supported the gardening activities. While 68%13 of the landscape of Oslo consists of public green space, other cities are less well-stocked on publicly available green space, with Paris only amounting to 9,5%13 or Istanbul with 2,2 %13 of their city being publicly available parks. Were Stockholm’s public urban spaces not so abundant, maybe the development would have looked differently. The access to green spaces became really a substantial asset for Stockholm’s inhabitants during the time in the 30ties when heatwaves plagued Europe, coupled with heavy rainfall due to the exacerbation of climate change’s effects, leading to the loss of crops in those countries Sweden derived their staples from. The commoned green spaces all comprised of small-scale and diverse cultivation plots that could quickly be turned into small productive farms providing some of the staples that had failed in other more southern European countries where the climate had become too extreme.
Commons form an active citizenry
Through the resident-based management of public spaces, people have formed collective relations with each other, stepped up in their agency and political power over urbanisation, have inserted claims based on their personal or their community’s needs. With that, they have actively changed the culture of the city and the role they have as residents. Through commoning and establishing the city that its inhabitants want, the city is not only for the people it is also by its people. And, gardening in public space and transforming it into a commons that is administered by residents has also changed the spatial fabric of Stockholm. I could observe how the spatial change that was accomplished through the gardening in common was adamant for changing city life, agreeing with Lefebvre when he says that ”to change life, we must first change space.” As different people are part of the public park management today in 2041 than there were in 2030, the urban spaces will evolve in accordance with the needs of the people in the city. Structural changes, such when the corona pandemic changed work-life or decision making began to be transferred to the urban populace, will continue to inform the management of public space and vice versa, the management of public space and the subjectivities that are formed in its context will continue to inform the wider societal landscape. There are no guarantees that the Stockholm I live in today will remain to be reproduced in this way. The dialectic never stops.
Nathalie Bergame, September 2041
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