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A ‘Commons Transition Plan’ for Ghent

Michel Bauwens and Yurek Onzia present the conclusions of their research into the possibilities for and role of Ghent as a commons city of the future.

After 3 months of participatory research, the Belgian transition theorist Michel Bauwens and project manager Yurek Onzia concluded their study on the possibilities for and role of Ghent as a commons city for the future. Ghent is the first city in the world to specifically request a Commons Transition Plan on the basis of Michel Bauwens’ expertise in the field of global commons.

The terms ‘commons’ or ‘shared property’ refer to property that is managed by users themselves. What is central to the concept of commons is not so much the shared property itself, but shared management. The commons is manifested in a variety of initiatives linked to production and consumption that strive for more sustainable communities.

The research conducted in Ghent has led to a Commons Transition Plan, which is the outcome of extensive field research and conversations with ‘commoners’ in the city. The researchers looked at the role of and the possibilities for the City of Ghent to strengthen citizens’ initiatives of this kind.

Ghent is a city in which there is a great amount of citizen engagement and where citizens’ initiatives thrive. This is no coincidence: as the city council, we have long invested in participation, co-creation and ‘having your say’. Nonetheless, we are continually asking ourselves how we as public authority should position ourselves with respect to commons-focused citizens’ initiatives and how we can give them even better support. /Daniël Termont, Mayor

The research was successful in setting up a wide consultation and participation in Ghent’s commons initiatives:

  • 80 commoners and commons initiatives in Ghent were interviewed
  • 70 initiatives took part in an in-depth survey about the nature of commons in Ghent and the role of the city council
  • 500 initiatives in Ghent were mapped out on
  • 13 municipal services, the mayor and relevant councillors were interviewed
  • 9 workshops were organised (in collaboration with Timelab) on themes including food, living & space, inclusion, health and the ‘Commons Finance Canvas’ (a financial model for the commons)
  • 1,100 active members belong to the Facebook group ‘Gent als Commonsstad van de Toekomst‘ (‘Ghent as Commons City of the Future’) 

The enthusiastic support that we receive from the city council, the administration and the many civil initiatives and organisations shows that the commons idea is alive and kicking in Ghent, responding to a real need. But the challenge is not inconsiderable. There is still a wide gulf between the initiatives and the approach. How can we achieve more connection and alignment between the projects? How can we have a greater say and more political strength? How can we offer the commons the necessary infrastructure, such as space and land? These are important questions, as the transition to these commons models is vital for the transformation to a sustainable society. /Michel Bauwens, transition theorist 

Besides the dynamic that the research has created locally, there has also been national and international interest. During the research, Ghent got a visit from commons groups from Lille, Rotterdam and Brussels, and interest from various city councils abroad. Ghent can continue building on this dynamic to make the City a ‘partner city’ that can empower its citizens to co-create ‘common wealth’ in a more systematic and successful manner.