Commoning. A counter movement.
- What we can learn from Berlin's unique approach to community building
The counter-movement that's taking control back over streets, neighbourhoods and cities.
According to Tim Rayner “Commoning is a process by which a group of people agree that a set of goods and resources should be held in common, and act together to preserve the commons”.
Berlin, the once anarchistic city with its own set of rules and unlimited amount of possibilities, is now facing similar issues as other major European cities have gone through in the last 30 years. Exploding rents are putting pressure on existing communities and are changing the fabric of the city. In this free-spirited city where activism is celebrated, what actions are people taking to claim land back and save their neighbourhoods from the same faith as other cities? We travelled to Berlin to meet our cultural correspondent Katleen Arthen who has worked and lived in the city for the past 11 years. Working as a scenographer, Katleen has a specific interest in how public spaces are staged and the ways in which it engages different types of behaviour. She speaks to us about Commoning, a counter-movement seen all-over the world, where people take control back over their streets, neighbourhoods and cities and explains us why it is relevant to Berlin now.
An island with it own set of rules
To understand how this movements is grounded in the mindset of the city, we need to look at its past. Berlin is an unconventional city, for a long time there was no economic interest in the city due to the state it was left in after the wall had come down in ‘89. During the war, the economic centre of Germany had shifted to the west which meant that Berlin offered an extreme situation to live in. “It was an island with its own set of rules which created a sense of freedom and attracted many artists and intellectuals from around the country” Katleen explains. As people had moved away, the city was left with an abundance of empty buildings. This meant you could live in the city for rock bottom prices which allowed for people to informally come together and shape the city in their own way. Over time, much of the land was sold to private developers in order to rebuild the city — until early 2000’s central government wasn’t sure if there was an interest in Berlin. This changed quickly with the result of a significant increase of housing prices and the loss of communal land and properties. The relatively new economic interest created a clash with the established communities, from this point commoning grew out as a counter-movement and was first introduced around 10 years ago as a way to look for affordable and new ways of living.
Although commoning is a movement seen all-over the world, there is no universal organisational blueprint. The way projects are set up will depend on the needs of those involved. Speaking to Katleen, we establish the idea that commoning in Berlin takes different forms. It varies from people coming together to start a project that responds to the needs of the area, to a more institutional approach where the outcomes are being used within a wider discourse. What connects all of these approaches is the idea that these projects are self-initiated and organised and therefore are bottom-up. They also prioritise the social aim rather than the economic. Commoning aligns with the principles of Social Design but distinguishes itself by being initiated by the community or from a community need.
The neighbourhood approach
The projects within this approach often respond to a need in the area. A group of people come together to lease a piece of land which is accessible to anyone in the community. It often has a social aim for the neighbourhood, is self-funded and might run on volunteers. For this reason the project is shaped quite organically and might change overtime as the needs of the people change too.
Hidden in an oasis full of trees, Prinzessinnengarten brings nature back to the heart of Kreuzberg. It’s a community garden initiated by Marco Clausen and Robert Shaw and built by the people in the area. Together they cleared the former car workshop and transformed it into a garden that has been running for the past 10 years and is accessible to anyone to come and help out, visit, buy their weekly vegetables or try the local produce in the cafe. It’s a freely organised project that is ran by volunteers and self-funded with the help of the people in the neighbourhood. “Prinzessinnengarten has given a great example for the city and other parts of the world as a way of self-empowerment.” Katleen says. Currently the association Common Grounds is working on a plan called Wunschproduktion with the aim of safeguarding the common good-oriented uses at Moritzplatz for the next 99 years.
The institutional approach
Tying into a wider discourse, these projects often provide a testbed for people to come together to explore and discuss topics. Often bringing together a network of practitioners and institutions with an international focus. The principles stem from the idea of commoning as a bottom-up, self-sustaining approach.
Located at the back of Tempelhofer Feld, Floating University is an offshore campus that experiments with bringing theory and practice together around dedicated themes, this years’ is around climate care. Set-up as a satellite of spaces, the campus is able to accommodate different types of practice — a laboratory for active experiments, educational room for sharing knowledge and a stage where a public discussion takes place about the research. Floating University is a project initiated by raumlabor, a group of architects who work on the intersection of architecture, city planning, art and urban intervention and actively engage with commoning projects in Berlin by mobilising their network of practitioners.
Haus der Statistik
An impressively static, former DDR building located at the centre of Berlin — also known as ‘Haus der Statistik’ — will be transformed into a place for culture, learning and living. The development has been initiated by Initiative Haus der Statistik, a group of committed artists, architects, creative artists and politicians who managed to join forces with the city of Berlin and prevent both demolition as well as an investment sale of the building in order to develop a use that is catered to a common good. The existing building and around 65,000 m² of new construction will create space for ateliers, social and cultural facilities, affordable housing – including homes for refugees – and a new town hall for the city centre.
The Baugruppen Approach
Baugruppen is a cooperative living concept specific to Germany where people get together to pitch, finance, design and develop the buildings they eventually will live in. In doing so, they are able to design the living conditions around their needs and form a community of like-minded. There is a secondary benefit to local architects, who benefit from this movement as they are more likely to be commissioned to design the buildings.
Fizz 23 is a unique project located opposite from the Jewish Museum. It’s the first ‘Baugruppen’ project that benefitted from a change of strategy by the city of Berlin where, instead of selling the land to highest bid, its concept driven and by doing so it was opened up to the larger public. As a cultural co-ownership project it’s made up of a mix small units that houses a variety of uses: 32% education, 22% creative industries, 15% retail, 15% short-term living, 12% culture.
The need for a catalyst, lead-actor, figure head
Commoning needs a figurehead who is invested in the project and devotes time and effort to set-up and sustain a group who can drive the project forward. A leader who represents the voices of the community and works for a common interest.
It requires a dialogue between individuals (civic) and politics to re-define the measures of value and to define processes that can accommodate civil/commoning initiatives in cities. This process is long and slow, and requires personal investment of time for a social purpose. In Berlin, members and supporters of the Initiative “Stadt Neudenken” (Think City New) have played an active role in changing Berlin’s legislation on the sale of land owned by the state.
Big idea wins the price
Land is not being sold to the highest bidder but to the best concept. This requires a change in strategy from councils and developers to become enablers who empower local people and organisations to open up small pockets of land for a community purpose without too many barriers and risks.