By Nicholas Anastasopoulos
Where we are
We have already passed the tipping point in which more than half of the earth’s population lives in urban conditions. As urbanisation is a trend which will only intensify, and as climate change is becoming a threat to life itself, we have entered what is now known as the Anthropocene, a geological epoch identified by a term which recognises the unprecedented impact humans have on the surface of the earth and on its atmosphere. Alternatively this has euphemistically been called the “City of 7 Billion”. This means that we need to intensify our efforts and focus much of our research and resources towards a better understanding of the complex and often controversial nature of cities in order to seek answers to the most pressing questions of the urban condition. And while the urban condition may differ wildly from one city to the other, there are characteristics that allow us to look at the urban phenomenon as a whole. Represented in sheer numbers of population, activities, networks, functions, resource and waste management, goods and energy consumption, urban complexity becomes the horizontal common denominator for cities in the 21st century. More and more cities acquire a role, which bestows them with powers sometimes superseding those of national governments. And while cities seem to be the generators of many of the problems we face today, they also seem to hold answers to these challenges.
What we’ve learned – Habitat III
This year Habitat III focused on the urban conditions of a rapidly urbanising planet. HIII has produced the New Urban Agenda, a roadmap towards devising strategies for the next twenty years. It is an attempt to address the complexity of problems related to humankind’s future and our role on the planet. The terms sustainability (and its derivatives), participation and equality are some of the key concepts being recognised as main goals for the cities in the 21st century. These main quests of sustainability, participation and equality require us to address systems of organisation, governance, self-sufficiency, and resilience. We therefore need to acknowledge the political dimension in the challenges that the world faces, which often go unnoticed or don’t sufficiently enter the sustainability debate. We know very well that decision-making and the future of the world today is defined by politics, as well as by the interests of multinationals.
It is now that these major critical questions need to be addressed, in parallel and not in isolation of the one from the other.
Some ideas and guidelines for what lies ahead
Customarily in the context of representative democracies, decision-making at all levels gets degenerated as a process left in the hands of elected presidents, cabinet and party members and perhaps the instrument of an assembly. But alternative voices everywhere question the legitimacy and efficacy of this system. Especially after the controversial recent elections in the US, and problematic developments in several countries in Europe, representative democracy feels outdated and failed. It is becoming increasingly clear that discussions about the future of our cities, the future of humanity and the planet are a political discussion and ultimately a discussion about governance.
Viewing the world and many apparent dead ends through the lenses of the Commons, (a term being used in order to describe a variety of elements which are collectively owned and managed, such as the natural commons, territorial commons, urban commons, knowledge commons, digital commons, cultural commons, patrimonial commons, global commons, etc.) makes more sense than ever. Some movements such as the movement for the commons and cooperative economy initiatives, as recently present at a high political level with the 1st European Commons Assembly, are cause for optimism.
Commons may be viewed as a tool which many people think of as the means to bypass the public-private dilemma.