Book review of “Common Space: The City As Commons”

Written by Mehmet Penpecioglu for the International Development Planning Review, 2019

The urban commons is a growing field of both academic inquiry and social struggle. In this book, Stavos Stavrides approaches the urban commons with a comprehensive and coherent analytical  framework that  builds on its theoretical heritage. Key cases are presented from diverse sociopolitical geographies which explore the concept’s potential to animate actually existing anti-capitalist spaces. As De Angelis explains in the preface, the book traces diverse and innovative urban practices and sets out a political ground for the ‘heterotopias of commoning’. The book is situated in the Lefebvrian tradition of urban scholarship, but it also incorporates key concepts from Benjamin, Foucault, Turner, Bourdieu, Ranciere, Hardt and Negri, Agamben, Holloway and Zibechi. Stavrides argues that urban commoning is animated by ‘collective inventiveness’, and that it has emancipatory potential because its practitioners can transgress the borders of capitalism. The book consists of three parts and a total of nine chapters. The first part includes two chapters that introduce the main theoretical and conceptual arguments. In Chapter 1, Stavrides puts forward the notion of ‘urban sea’ as an explanatory metaphor for grasping the notion of the capitalist metropolitan city. The urban sea consists of multiple and diverse territorial ‘urban enclaves’. Governing these unjust and segregated urban geographies entails new mechanisms of power and disciplining arrangements. Revisiting Agamben and Foucault, Stavrides points out  how governments employ  ‘state of  exception’ as a ‘power mechanism’ to maintain social control. Chapter 2 starts with a powerful critique of the economy-oriented perspectives of commons. He argues that commoning is not about managing and creating alternative economic resources. Instead, he explains that it is a political vision of egalitarian society and it depends on a continuously expanding network of sharing and solidarity that constitute an alternative form of life beyond the borders of capitalist accumulation.

The second part of the book has four chapters (3, 4, 5 and 6) and it elaborates on ‘inhabited common spaces’ by focusing on social housing, housing movements, metropolitan streets and occupied squatters. Throughout this section Stavrides investigates inhabited common spaces. Firstly he explores the ‘spaces of thresholds’ as the sites of ‘encountering with others’ through analyzing the history of a social housing complex in Athens. He shows how producing, using  and sharing common spaces in a neighbor- hood cultivates co-habitation and encourages different identity groups to learn how to share a common ground for life. Then he concentrates on variegated geographies of urban commons including movements of homeless people, landless peasants from Brazil, housing experiences in Chile, social housing projects from USSR (Chapter 4), metropolitan streets and informal transportation networks in Kenya (Chapter 5) and occupied squatters in Greece, Egypt and Turkey (Chapter 6).

In the final part, the author directs the reader’s attention to ‘envisaged common spaces’ in three chapters (7, 8 and 9) that shed light on the practices of ‘defacement’, ‘thought-images’ and ‘representations of space’. Stavrides indicates how ‘defacing acts’ (Chapter 7) and ‘thought-images’ (Chapter 8) reshape urban memory and thus operate as weapons in the struggle over the meaning of common space. He deepens the Lefebvrian perspective and shows how urban commons (parks, squares, streets etc.) as ‘representations of space’ operate as the strategic terrains of diversities, multiplicities and emancipatory movements (Chapter 9). Envisaging common spaces, creating ‘thought-images’ and struggling for emancipatory symbols have all got strategic meanings in the collective memory of cities. Thus, Stavrides concludes that urban commoning  practices should include a political-ideological struggle over the contested meanings, symbols and images of today’s neoliberal metropolitan city.

One strength of the book is that Stavrides moves beyond the borders of Western epistemologies, by drawing on case studies that represent a diverse global geography. Across this diverse geography Stavrides employs key critical concepts, such as Benjamin’s ‘flanuer’ and ‘porosity’, Foucault’s ‘heterotopia’, Turner’s ‘threshold’, Zibehci’s ‘societies in movement’, De Certeau’s ‘tactics of everyday life’ and Holston’s ‘insurgent citizenship’. By engaging  with  postcolonial  tradition and autonomist Marxist accounts, Stavrides achieves a holistic perspective of urban commons animated with theoretical innovation and empirical variegation while systematically comparing urban practices across the world. Thus, this volume is useful for scholars of urban studies, as well as those of related disciplines (political scientists, sociologists, human geographers, planners, architects, etc.). One minor shortcoming of  the book   is that one wonders how relevant its insights are in the contemporary political environment. Indeed, in the years since this book was published many developing countries have witnessed marked political shifts to the right and regressive  urban  politics.  Thus,  a series of questions immediately arises: Is urban commoning possible in  the  context of increasingly authoritarian (urban) governance in many developing countries? What are the restrictions and most appropriate strategies for urban commoning practices in such regimes/countries? How can multiple social movements and bottom-up initiatives build urban commons under the influence of top-down oppression, commodification and dispossession in such countries? The specter of these questions looms large throughout the book. We can only hope that Stavrides takes on these questions in a sequel to this book with the same theoretical sophistication and geographical breadth.

Stavros Stavrides, Common Space: The City As Commons. London, Zed Books, 2016, 320 pp, ISBN 9781783603275

May 14, 2019

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