The Memory, Playfulness and Imaginary of English Urban Commons

Last month I brought together representatives from each of the four urban commons central to the AHRC-funded project on which I am a co-investigator (I previously posted a general introduction to the project here). They travelled to Brighton from Newcastle representing the Town Moor, Bristol for Clifton Down and Norwich for Mousehold Heath to join those of us who know Valley Gardens in Brighton itself. They described their love of, and sometimes fears for, the common open spaces they cared for. Over the three years of the project we will meet many more users and stakeholders of these urban commons. This, very briefly, is what we did:

Four Commons_Programme_RevA


  1. representatives of each ‘common’, prompted by the Project team, talked about their experience of managing/using their ’commons,’ good and bad. We then drew out common themes across the 4 case-study commons.
  2. three invited speakers talked about methods of open space management and policy and public engagement.
  3. three parallel workshops brought the expertise of the three speakers together with the commons’ representatives and their ‘on the ground’ knowledge and understanding of those open spaces.

Wastes and Strays co-investigator Rachel Hammersley will have more to say about the event on her blog. I look forward to seeing everyone again, perhaps in their native, urban commons, habitats!


Next month I will be travelling to The City as Commons symposium at the University of Pavia to talk about the Wastes and Strays project but also to develop some thoughts about commons and commoning a little outside of the remit of the project proper; how the term ‘common land’ contains within it its own antagonisms and opposites: tensions to do with the land itself against its embodied hierarchies; the legal construction of urban space against the design of that space; procurement versus gift; the tangible and the intangible.

The paper will present the aims of the Wastes and Strays project – what the urban common can do for the city – but will also ask what the city can do for the urban common and, more broadly, the commons. In particular I am interested in tracing a theoretical lineage of common land as a set of ideas from the res nullius of Roman law to the radical and often forgotten – or at least certainly neglected – notion that commons in a pre-modern sense are a set of rights which (more or less) ordinary people had over the land of landowners in spite of that ownership. It will be exciting to see how these notions continue to be played in our case-study urban commons.

Roman law suggested, broadly, two ways of thinking about ownership and the commons: Res nullius was “that which belongs to no one but which may be appropriated – or owned,” the often cited example is a fish swimming in the ocean – and res communis, “something that was owned by many people and could be used by all but appropriated by none,” an example of this might be the ocean itself.[1]

Thomas Hobbes and John Locke were the next significant thinkers about notions of the commons. Hobbes’s saw as inevitable a “war of all against all,” his assertion that without subjection to an authority there would be anarchy, every person would take, violently if necessary, absolutely everything that is common for themselves, that life would be, as he memorably put it, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”[2]

Locke instead thought that civil rights were gained in return for our acceptance of the obligation to respect and defend the rights of others, that it was a reciprocal arrangement, but that in doing so we must give up other freedoms. Locke said;

Though the earth and all inferior creatures be common to all men, yet every man has a “property” in his own “person.” This nobody has any right to but himself. The “labour” of his body and the “work” of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state that Nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with it, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. […] For this “labour” being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good left in common for others.

It will, perhaps, be objected to this, that if gathering the acorns or other fruits of the earth, etc., makes a right to them, then any one may engross as much as he will. To which I answer, Not so […] As much as anyone can make use of to any advantage of life before it spoils, so much he may by his labour fix a property in. Whatever is beyond this is more than his share, and belongs to others.[3]

So his view was that it is by ourselves and through our actions – the only things owned by us by natural right – that other stuff out there, by nature in a state of commons (for Locke given by God to all) becomes owned, becomes property. He then says;

We see in commons, which remain so by compact, that it is the taking any part of what is common, and removing it out of the state Nature leaves it in, which begins the property, without which the common is of no use.[4]

For Locke, without the commons, there cannot be ownership of property.

These positions have been echoed in more recent times by Garrett Hardin in his Tragedy of the Commons – the idea that people will always take more out of the commons than those commons can sustain[5] – and with Elinor Ostrom’s ideas of “common pool resource management” – the idea that people, with help, will spontaneously develop sustainable structures of commons management.[6]

At Valley Gardens, Mousehold Heath, Clifton Down and the Town Moor we will see how the pressures of preservation (heath versus woodland) utility (people versus cars versus bicycles) freedom of expression (demonstration versus commercial sales or performance) relate to these more intangible theoretical positions. For me the tangible is always an expression of the intangible: theory and practice being forms of one another. A common, then, is either a space of contestation as is it often characterised or perhaps a place of generosity: of offer and exchange.

In Pandora’s Hope Bruno Latour argues for reciprocal acts of generosity between entities: an “offer” made between “bodies”[7] For Barbara Stafford, “it is an offer extended by one body or thing to another inviting it to relate in a new manner. Each entity is forced to pay attention to the other, and, in so doing, both diverge from their customary paths to venture onto territory which, although it appears foreign from each of their unique vantage points, nonetheless belongs to an interdependent existence.” [8]

I would argue that a common, or acts of commoning, engage with just such reciprocating offers; they are places where we “pay attention” to one another.


Hardin, Garrett. “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Science 162, no. 3859 (1968): 1243-48.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan.  Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968.

Holder, Jane B., and Tatiana Flessas. “Emerging Commons.” Social & Legal Studies 17, no. 3 (September 1, 2008 2008): 299-310.

Latour, Bruno. Pandora’s Hope : Essays on the Reality of Science Studies.  Cambridge, Mass. ; London: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Locke, John. “Two Treatises of Government.” In The Works of John Locke. London: Thomas Tegg, 1823.

Ostrom, Elinor. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Stafford, Barbara Maria. Visual Analogy: Consciousness as the Art of Connecting.  Cambridge, Mass. ; London: MIT Press, 1999.


[1] Jane B. Holder and Tatiana Flessas, “Emerging Commons,” Social & Legal Studies 17, no. 3 (2008): 301-02.

[2] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan  (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968).

[3] John Locke, “Two Treatises of Government,” in The Works of John Locke (London: Thomas Tegg, 1823), 116.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science 162, no. 3859 (1968).

[6] Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

[7] Bruno Latour, Pandora’s Hope : Essays on the Reality of Science Studies  (Cambridge, Mass. ; London: Harvard University Press, 1999).

[8] Barbara Maria Stafford, Visual Analogy: Consciousness as the Art of Connecting  (Cambridge, Mass. ; London: MIT Press, 1999), 183.

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