The limited-equity cooperatives that emerged in Washington, D.C. in the 1970s and '80s were a form of the commons: a resource that is governed collectively by its members, and is used not to extract profit for a few individuals, but to support the lives of a group. The commons are a dignified basis of survival for poor people who are largely cut out of capitalist markets, an alternative to both market- and state-oriented approaches to managing resources and sustaining life.
The commons is increasingly invoked as a way to envision new worlds. One strand of commons research focuses at the local scale, on small groups in “traditional”, mostly rural societies; this research asks how commons are maintained over time. Another strand focuses on the commons at a global scale; this is political research that asks how commons can be reclaimed from a capitalist landscape.
A review essay of three books that take up the urban commons: Dellenbaugh, Kip, Bieniok et al. (eds.), 2015, Urban Commons: Moving Beyond State and Market; Borch and Kornberger (eds.), 2015, Urban Commons: Rethinking the City; and Ferguson (ed.), 2014 Make_Shift City: Renegotiating the Urban Commons.
Provoked by mass evictions and the onset of gentrification in the 1970s, tenants in Washington, D.C. began forming cooperative organizations to collectively purchase and manage their apartment buildings. These tenants were creating a commons, taking a resource—housing—that had been used to extract profit from them, and reshaping it as a resource that was collectively owned and governed by them. In Carving Out the Commons, Amanda Huron theorizes the practice of urban commoning through a close investigation of the city’s limited-equity housing cooperatives.