The glossary entries are the result of a collaborative process among OpenHeritage consortium partners and have undergone an internal review. However, they only express the perspective of the authors listed under each term, not of all partners. You can find information on the glossary production process and the full glossary here.

David Amacher
Georg-Simmel Center for Metropolitan Studies, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Berlin, Germany;

Short definition

The term commons is used to conceptualize non-capitalist modes of social organization based on cooperation and solidarity beyond state and market principles. A commons is often characterized by three intertwined dimensions. 1) common resources 2) communities (commoners), and 3) institutions (i.e. commoning practices) (Kip et al. 2015, 13).

Key discussions around the term

At the latest since the awarding of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2009 to Elinor Ostrom for her contributions to commons research, the concept of the commons is widely discussed and used. Ostrom (1990) has shown that common pool resources (CPR) are being managed in a self-organized, sustainable manner on a larger scale beyond market or state principles. Based on her extensive work Ostrom has developed eight design principles for commons.

The term commons originates in medieval-area English property law to conceptualize social arrangements of meadows, fisheries forests, and peat bogs in which communities collectively manage these resources without ‘owning’ them (Caffentzis 2016). While the land was owned by the royalty, church or belonged to manors, the so-called commoners had a ‘usufruct’ – a right to use that was structured through customs, but also through struggles between the commoners and the landlords, the latter possibly using violence and parliamentary legislation for their advantage (ibid.).

While the power over land in England had been traditionally exerted through extrajudicial force, the 18th and 19th centuries demarcate an important turning point in which legislation was altered to enclose the commons. Marx later described this process as the primary accumulation, demarcating an important historical process in the emergence of capitalist modes of production and the landless proletariat (Wood 2017).

While the idea of the commons has largely been supplanted by capitalist modes of property regimes in Europe, authors such as Federici (n.d.) stress that modes of collective management over resources have been practiced in the Global South much longer. However, these have also been under pressure through colonial and imperial expansion of capitalist regimes peaking in the capitalist land grab during the so-called debt crisis in the 1980s which have been referred to as the ‘New Enclosures’ (Caffentzis 2016).

Peter Linebaugh (2008) connects Marx’s analysis of primary accumulation in medieval times with the waves of privatization of public resources and land through neoliberalization. While Linebaugh historicizes these recurring waves of privatization he also refers to recurring ideas and practices of reclaiming and maintaining commons and thus explains the renewed interest among movements and scholars.

While there is a strand of literature focusing on rural commons (e.g. Ostrom 1990), the concept of the commons has been extended to ‘urban’ commons in the 1990s framing urban gardening, communal basic infrastructure, or self-organized, decommodified housing as such as well as other initiatives operating within urban conditions (Kip et al. 2015; Iaione 2016). From this second stream of literature authors such as Iaione (2019) have used the concept of the urban commons concerning heritage reuse. Other strands of literature focus for example on virtual commons in knowledge economies (Carlsson 2008).

However, as Caffentzis (2016) points out, the uses of the term commons are conflicting and have been usurped into neoliberal and neo-Keynesian politics, e.g. through the United Nations policy of branding certain cities as ‘heritage of humanity’ and thus opening them up to commercial exploitation. Authors such as Federici (n.d.) have shed a light on the unequal effects that enclosures of the commons produce shaped by gender and neocolonial relations. A feminist conceptualization of the commons, therefore, aims at “a profound transformation in our everyday life, in order to recombine what the social division of labor in capitalism has separated.” (Federici n.d..). Federici therefore differentiates between “adaptation[s] of the idea of the commons to market interests” and the possibility to “resist dependence on wage labor and subordination to capitalist relations” (ibid.). Central criteria for anti-capitalist commons could therefore not only be the degree of self-organization but also the degree of decommodification (Balmer/Bernet 2015).

The idea of the commons has had an influence on policy and practice regarding heritage reuse. One example is the change in urban policy and practice in the city of Naples where the idea of the commons was introduced to (collectively) manage abandoned real estate and heritage sites (Ciancio 2018, Iaione 2019). Regulations have been passed that reinterpret the historic usufruct rights into a new ‘civic use’ category (uso civico). The regulations are reinforced through the creation of institutional bodies that seek to promote principles of the commons.

Institutional arrangements and frameworks can thus promote or hinder the application of design principles of the commons for adaptive heritage reuse.

Reference list

Caffentzis, George. “Commons“. In Keywords for Radicals: The Contested Vocabulary of Late-capitalist Struggle. Edited by Kelly Fritsch, Claire O’Connor, and AK Thompson, 1st edition. Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2016.

Carlsson, Chris. Nowtopia. Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2008.

Ciancio, Giuliana. “When Commons Becomes Official Politics Exploring the Relationship between Commons, Politics, and Art in Naples”. In Commonism. A New Aesthetics of the Real. Edited by Dockx, Nico, Gielen, Pascal, 283-94. Amsterdam: Antennae-Arts in Society Valiz, 2018.

Federici, Silvia, „Feminism And the Politics of the Commons“. The Commoner, n.d.,

Iaione, Christian. “The CO-City: Sharing, Collaborating, Cooperating, and Commoning in the City”. American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 75/2 (2016): 415-455.

Iaione, Christian. “Pooling urban commons: the Civic eState”. Urbact, 2019,

Kip, Markus, Bieniok, Majken, Dellenbaugh, Mary, Müller, Agnes Katharina and Schwegmann, Martin. „Seizing the (Every)Day: Welcome to the Urban Commons!“. In Urban commons: moving beyond state and market, Edited by Dellenbaugh, Mary Kip, Markus, Bieniok, Majken, Müller, Agnes Katharina and Schwegmann, Martin, 9–25. Bauwelt Fundamente 154. Berlin, München, Boston: Birkhäuser, 2015.

Linebaugh, Peter. The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All. University of California Press, 2008.

Ostrom, Elinor. Governing the Commons. The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Wood, Ellen Meiksins. The origin of capitalism: a longer view. London, New York: Verso, 2017.

Wood, Ellen Meiksins. The origin of capitalism: a longer view. London, New York: Verso, 2017.