Jeff Hou is Professor of Landscape Architecture and Adjunct Professor in the Department of Urban Design and Planning at the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle. His work focuses on community design, design activism, public space, and transcultural urbanism. In a career that spans across the Pacific, he has worked with indigenous tribes, farmers, and fishers in Taiwan, neighborhood residents in Japan, villagers in China, and inner-city immigrant youths and elders in North American cities, in projects ranging from conservation of wildlife habitats to rebuilding of indigenous villages and design of neighborhood parks and streetscapes.
Do You a Flavor is an experimental social start-up formed by a group of young protesters who participated in Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement in spring 2014. During the movement, students and activists occupied the Assembly Chamber of Taiwan’s National Legislature for twenty-three consecutive days to protest against the passage of a trade agreement with China. The agreement, by opening up the country’s service sector to large corporations from China, was expected to adversely impact a large segment of Taiwan’s economy that was already faced with declining wages and a shrinking job market. The unprecedented occupation ended peacefully on April 10, 2015, after the trade agreement was successfully stalled. As an outcome of the movement, new political and civic organizations have also emerged to address a broad range of social, economic, and political issues facing the country. Do You a Flavor is one such group that focuses on helping the urban poor—homeless individuals, street vendors, and scavengers that have long been stigmatized and marginalized in the society.
In bringing people together and sharing what they have with others, Do You a Flavor is one of many recent examples of urban commoning—formation of alternative space and social relationships based on sharing of material and social resources—now spreading through East Asia in cities such as Hong Kong, Seoul, Taipei, and Tokyo. I spent my sabbatical leave in 2015 studying emerging cases in Taipei and Hong Kong, including Do You a Flavor.1 In this research, I am interested in exploring organized acts of communing that transcend social and spatial divides in the contemporary city. Through a variety of cases, I learned about the contexts in which groups like Do You a Flavor have emerged, how they are organized, and whom they have collaborated with and engaged.2
To address the theme of urban divides, this essay focuses on acts of commoning and their potential for overcoming social, political, and spatial divides—divides that have become deeply entrenched in cities and societies today, as manifested in new and old spatial forms, including gated communities, privatized public spaces, and enclaves of migrant workers. They also include nonspatial barriers such as patented seeds and privatized natural resources that are equally, if not more, significant in their impact on the everyday life and struggles in the contemporary society, with worsening economic disparities, stagnant wages, and growing social tensions. Such disparities have contributed to the widening divides between the haves and have-nots, privileged and disenfranchised, and documented and undocumented in today’s neoliberal systems.
It is precisely against this background of enclosures and divides that the expanding acts of commoning around the world are significant and intriguing to observe. Through acts of commoning, citizens and activists engage in self-organized social and spatial configurations that enable individuals and communities to thrive in niches within market-based economic and state institutions. They create alternative social and economic networks and relationships across economic and class divides and put social justice and equity ahead of financial and self-interests. In the context of the planning and design profession, these acts of commoning suggest ways to move away from the current paradigm of neoliberal, market-driven practices to rethink how architects, landscape architects, and planners can play a more critical and proactive role for social change, which citizen groups and community organizers have already started to do. These acts of commoning represent hopes and possibilities in overcoming the ever more entrenched urban divides that characterize cities and societies today.
Commons and Commoning
Commons and commoning have emerged as an important intellectual framework behind recent social movements around the world. They represent distrust against the state institutions and their role as no longer the sole provider of social good and services in a neoliberal era.3 Furthermore, the concept of commoning also suggests forms of participatory self-governance that set them apart from state institutions.4 According to Charlotte Hess, the rise of new commons represents reactions to “increasing commodification, privatization, corporatization, untamed globalization, and unresponsive government.”5 She further describes the recent movements as developing “new forms of self governance, collaboration, and collective action.”6
With the renewed interest in the notions of commons and commoning, there have been efforts to articulate their contemporary meanings. For instance, political philosophers Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri suggest that the commons can be understood as both the commonwealth of the material world (air, water, place, etc.) and the results of “social production that are necessary for social interactions and further production”(knowledges, languages, code, information, affects, etc.).7 Specifically, they argue for a notion of commons that focuses on “the practices of interaction, care, and cohabitation in a common world, promoting the beneficial and limiting detrimental forms of the common.”8 Similarly, Hess defines commons as “communities working together in self-governing ways in order to protect resources from enclosure or to build new openly-shared resources.”9 In examining the process of space commoning in the recent movements manifested in occupied squares around the world, including the Arab Spring, the Spanish Indignados, and the worldwide Occupy Movement, Stavros Starvides notes that in these movements, space served both as a good to be shared and as a form of organizing shared practices.10
In a recent publication on the urban commons in the Delft Architectural Theory Journal, it is further noted that most contemporary definitions of commons comprise of three parts: commons as resource, institutions, and communities “who are involved in the production and reproduction of commons.”11 Also, using a three-part framework, philosopher Adrian Parr suggests that urban commoning refers to three processes working in tandem: first, “a political project that seeks to construct coalitions between individual, local, regional, national, and even international struggles”; second, “an urbanization process that constructs alternatives to the production and realization of surplus value”; and third, “collaborative activities involved in concretely transforming the system of exclusive ownership that renders the common non-common.”12 In short, urban commoning suggests a vision of society distinct from the predominant, neoliberal paradigm that has dictated the transformation of cities and privatization of urban spaces in the recent decades.
Urban Commoning in East Asia
Aside from the context of radical social and political actions, urban commoning also takes on other more quotidian forms, as reported in several case studies in the Western Hemisphere where commoning and commons are enjoying a resurgence of interest among activists and scholars. In Helsinki, Amsterdam, Berlin, Vienna, and Naples, for instance, a variety of social actors, including squatters, transformed the cities’ abundant vacant lands into alternative venues for art, entertainment, commerce, and housing.13 In Dublin, against the rising cost of rent, artists and residents developed mechanisms for space sharing and created the so-called independence spaces by collectively paying rent through donations, membership, fundraising, and providing food.14 In cities around North America, the growing movement in transforming vacant sites and parking spaces into parklets and pop-up spaces also represents a desire for alternative forms of urban public space. Branded as tactical urbanism or creative placemaking, efforts like these have catalyzed new forms of social spaces and sociality, which challenge the conventional norms of public space and formalized spatial planning. More importantly, they represent experiments in the making of alternative social, economic, and political relationships through a more inclusive urban landscape with more open spatial and social boundaries, all in the face of growing privatization and enclosure of urban spaces and public institutions.
In East Asia, where there is no shortage of economic and spatial enclosures in the form of privatized public space and land expropriation for industrial and urban development, a substantial number of urban communing cases have also emerged. A majority are self-organized initiatives, but some also intersect with state institutions and resources. In Taipei, a variety of new urban commons have mushroomed in recent years. They range from self-organized placemaking activities to community-driven initiatives to activate vacant sites with the support of city resources. These activities include community gardening, urban farming, appropriation of residual spaces for social events, and salons hosted by independent cafes and bookstores. In Hong Kong, instances of urban commoning have emerged against a backdrop of significant social and political shifts since the handover from the United Kingdom to China in 1997.15 Some efforts have strong ties to the recent protest movements, including the occupation of Queen’s Pier, the movement against the high-speed railway connecting to China, and more recently the Umbrella Movement. Specifically, many of the recent communing initiatives have been organized by activists who participated in those movements.
In Seoul, responses such as Bin-Zib shared housing have emerged in the context of declining income and job opportunities for young people, coupled with high living costs in the city.16 With the election of Mayor Park Won-Soon, a longtime human-rights lawyer, the Seoul Metropolitan Government launched an aggressive Sharing City initiative in 2012 to address issues of transportation, parking, residential, and environmental issues through sharing policies. In Tokyo, there are also a variety of commoning initiatives, ranging from Curry Caravan, a moving feast of curry rice to catalyze social interactions and activate public spaces, to more established initiatives, such as the 3331 Arts Chiyoda, a vacant public school transformed into a hub for artists and designers.
Figure 2. Curry Caravan serves hot curry rice for free in parks, streets, and other forms of public space to catalyze social exchanges. Photograph by Jeffrey Hou.
For the purposes of this essay, I focus my attention on a few selected cases in Hong Kong and Taipei. My notes are based on fieldwork conducted in summer and fall of 2015. During that time, I spoke with local colleagues who have been involved in the growing number of cases. They then introduced me to other important actors with whom I conducted more interviews. Much of the network also occurred through social media.
In examining the cases in Hong Kong and Taipei, I found many parallels in the typology of the organizations. I also found notable differences in the political and institutional contexts—which may have influenced the paths that the movements have taken—with a stronger focus on social entrepreneurship and community collectives in Hong Kong on one hand (having less opportunities for political participation), and stronger institutional support and collaboration with professional actors in Taiwan, on the other hand (having a longer history of professional and government support for community initiatives). Before I begin to introduce the cases and my observation and analysis, I must caution that the typology of Movement Spinoffs, Social Start-Ups, and Makerspaces I have outlined here is not an exclusive categorization, as some of the cases clearly overlap in their scopes and orientations.
Reprinted with the permission of Perspecta, Yale School of Architecture.
Figure 1. Occupation of Taiwan’s National Legislature during the Sunflower Movement in 2013. Source: Voice of America.
1 My research in Taipei was made possible through a Fulbright Scholar Grant from the Foundation for Scholarly Exchange (Fulbright Taiwan) and the Council for International Exchange of Scholars (CIES). A research grant from the China Studies Program at the University of Washington, Seattle supported my research in Hong Kong.
2 This focus on commoning, sharing, and border-crossing builds on my earlier work, including Insurgent Public Space: Guerrilla Urbanism and the Remaking of Contemporary Cities (London: Routledge, 2010) and Transcultural Cities: Border-Crossing and Placemaking (London: Routledge, 2013). In the earlier work, I examine how citizens and communities create their own “public space” often at border of regulatory domain, and how places and placemaking serve as a vehicle and medium for cross-cultural understanding between diverse social and cultural groups.
3 Heidi Sohn, Stavros Kousoulas, Gerhard Bruyns, “Introduction: Commoning as Differentiated Publicness,” Footprint: Delft Architecture Theory Journal, 16 (2015): 1–8.; Markus Kip, Majken Bieniok, Mary Dellenbaugh, Agnes Katherina Muller, and Martin Schwegmann, “Seizing the (Every) Day: Welcoming to the Urban Commons!” in Urban Commons: Moving Beyond State and Market, ed. Mary Dellenbaugh, Markus Kip, Agnes Katharina Muller, and Martin Schwegmann (Basel: Birkhauser Verlag, 2015), 9.
4 Kip, et al., “Seizing the (Every)Day,” 9.
5 Charlotte Hess, “Mapping the New Commons,”(paper, Twelfth Biennial Conference of the International Association for the Study of the Commons, Cheltenham, UK, July 14–18, 2008), 3.
6 Ibid., 3–4.
7 Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Commonwealth (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009), viii.
9 Hess, “Mapping the Commons,” 40.
10 Stavros Starvides, “Re-inventing Spaces of Commoning: Occupied Squares in Movement,”Quaderns-e 18, no. 2 (2013), 40–52.
11 Kip, et al., “Seizing the (Every) day,”13.
12 Adrian Parr, “Urban Debt, Neoliberalism and the Politics of the Commons,” Theory, Culture & Society 32, no. 3 (May 2015), 87.
13 Urban Catalyst, “Patterns of the Unplanned,” in Loose Space: Possibility and Diversity in Urban Life, ed. Karen Franck and Quentin Stevens (New York: Routledge, 2007), 271–88.
14 Patrick Bresnihan and Michael Byrne, “Escape into the City: Everyday Practices of Commoning and the Production of Urban Space in Dublin,” Antipode, 47 (2014): 36–54.
15 J-H. Kao, “Reckless Space,” Art Critique of Taiwan, 57 (2014): 4–9. (In Chinese)
16 Didi K. Han and Hajime Imamasa, ”Overcoming Privatized Housing in South Korea: Looking through the Lens of ‘Commons’ and ‘the Common,’” in Urban Commons, 91–100.