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Mapping the ‘Urban Commons’ of Rio de Janeiro, Istanbul and Athens

Street protest of teachers in Rio de Janeiro (Oct 7, 2013). Photo shared on the Facebook page Mapeando o bem comum do Rio de Janeiro

Street protest of teachers in Rio de Janeiro (Oct 7, 2013). Photo shared on the Facebook page Mapeando o bem comum do Rio de Janeiro (Mapping the commons in Rio de Janeiro, in Portuguese)

A group of activists, artists, social scientists and students of various studies are working to map the urban commons of Athens, Istanbul and Rio de Janeiro. Urban commons refer to non-private or institutional resources which are shared by all and generated as a result of collective participation. The “commons” include natural resources, urban public spaces, creative works and even cultural traditions and knowledge which are exempt from copyrights.

The project Mapping the Commons is part of a survey carried out by Pablo de Soto (@pablodesoto), a doctorate student of the Communication School of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. The hypothesis raised by de Soto is whether it is possible to map out the commons through collective creativity as a form of debating the control governments have over society's commons:

Which is the commonwealth of the contemporary metropolis and how can it be located? How are the commons being protected from enclosure by totalitarian neoliberalism’s public-private enterprises? Which new practices of commoning are emerging in the cycle of struggles that began in 2010-11? What are the advantages and the risks of such a cartography in times of crisis and rebellions?

In practice, the research method proposed by the project is based on nomadic and temporary workshops where the urban commons are discussed, parametrized, charted and represented in short videos.

Mapping Rio's commons

In October 2013, the researcher brought [es] the project to Rio de Janeiro, thus starting the mapping of the “practices of common doing” in Brazil, as explained [pt] in the Portuguese language page of Rio's project:

O Brasil, como América Latina toda, é um país especial nas práticas dos commons. O comum bebe de tradições ibéricas (faixanais, rossios, propriedades comunais), da cultura afro (quilombos, criação cultural coletiva, propriedades conjuntas) e indígenas (propriedade coletiva, malokas). Do mutirão ao conceito de ‘comunidade’ que substitui a palavra ‘favela’, o Brasil é uma celeiro de práticas do comum. Porém, o mercado e o capitalismo estão castigando o comum sem piedade.

Brazil, as the whole of Latin America, is a special country regarding practices of the commons. The “common” derives from the Iberian traditions (faixanais, rossios, communal properties), from the African culture (quilombos, collective cultural creation, joint properties) and from the indigenous cultures (collective property, malokas). From the mutirão (crowdsourcing) to the concept of “community” which replaces the word “favela” (slum), Brazil is a storehouse of common practices. However, both the market and capitalism are punishing the common without mercy.

Taking on the concept of “rebellious cities”, coined by social theorist David Harvey, de Soto adds that recent protests in Rio de Janeiro – “the demonstrations, the popular assemblies, the urban interventions” – point to a new demand for the right to the city, “a new common and participative space of coexistence”. He also explained to the English-language audience of the website that:

Rio de Janeiro, a city branded as “the marvellous city” has probably one of the most exuberant assets for natural and cultural commons in world. Those commons are disputed in a metropolis of enormous inequality and historically under state of exception.

Present days where the city is going to host mega events as the World Cup and the Olympic Games, where conflicts of housing evictions flourish in many areas, where protests that began last June have pointed to the mobility as a common and the right to the city, have opened an excellent opportunity for a political discussion on the urban commons.

Between 21 and 23 November 2013, there took place the mapping out workshops

#MapeandoOComum (#MappingTheCommons). A mapping workshop on “The struggle for the shared commons” took place in Rio de Janeiro from November 21-23.

The Mapping the Commons activities, which took place in Rio last October, included the seminars Metrópoles globais e Cidadania Insurgentes (Global metropolis and emergent citizenships) [pt] and O que pode a cidade? (What can the city?) [pt]. Working groups were created to take care of the parametrization and the mapping of the commons in Rio. The process has been disseminated through Facebook on the page Mapeando o bem comum do Rio de Janeiro (Mapping the commons in Rio de Janeiro) [pt]. The final presentation of the results of the project took place on December 14. 

Athens, Istanbul and the commons

Before being introduced in Brazil, the Mapping the Commons research project had already been discussed in workshops in Athens (2010) and in Istanbul (2012). The videos which resulted from these workshops were also presented in Rio.

The rescue of Gezi Park, for instance, and the popular turmoil which took hold in the central area of Beyoglu, Istanbul in 2013, when the population camped on site against the demolition of the park as part of a urban renewal project, were the subject of the research.

The video below shows how the rescue of the commons in Istanbul turned into political strife after the police reacted with brutality against the demonstrators:

The video produced in the Greek capital, Athens, focuses on language issues, taking as a starting point the literature by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt in their book Commonwealth:

Language like affects and gestures, is for the most part common, and indeed if language were made either private or public — that is, if large portions of our words, phrases, or parts of speech were subject to private ownership or public authority — then language would lose its powers of expression, creativity, and communication.

A philosophical elucidation about the commons, as suggested [pt] by de Soto on the project's Facebook page, can be found on Iohannes Maurus's blog [es], which links the theme with Marx's perspective. 

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