Derelict spaces, an opportunity for urban commons

Derelict spaces, an opportunity for urban commons

(Collaboration with Stephanie Bost)

Derelict spaces, within Lille and around, are at stake as in many European cities.
These sites (“friches”, in French) represent opportunities for collective actions held by social groups; for actors taking roots within segregated people from poor areas and finding there matters for collective action in that new uses and activities, held in commons, are designed.
These issues are part of an action research program (called CREA’CIT for Creative Citizenship), involving researchers and social activists, and partly financed by Regional authorities.
For two main reasons a new context for social and political experiment is emerging.
The first reason is the failure of including people in usual urban development processes and institutional consultation processes developed by local authorities. Many researches have been carried out on that special subject we could resume here as ”the participatory democracy limits and failures”
Certainly, when derelict spaces are designated by local authorities as to be the subject of an urban development, citizens may contribute a little; or at least, a strictly controlled framework is given to them so that their voices should not disturb the initial plan.  Finally those top-down methods are giving citizens few opportunities to develop new uses even if they are held by local groups. So, these procedures remain formal and empty.
The second reason is the real difficulty for these local authorities to plan and finance as before these derelict spaces as whole and global urban development programs. Very often, these programs share spaces between private and public investors, regarded as sole partners.
So, as plots remain vacant, they could be the basis for new types of mobilization and action. The actors, holders of projects rooted in the surrounding neighborhoods, can be involved in the development of these urban “friches”, being present in the official procedures for consultation, but also, and particularly, by experimenting new deliberative practices held by new forms of collective action.
These issues are now well-known and we could find successful stories or on going wining processes in many cases of mobilizations leading on urban commons in Europe. Some of them will even be presented during the colloquium in Bologna.
In our urban and regional context we are at the very beginning of a federative process in order to facilitate some local mobilizations and, at the same time, to make them converging. What we try to sum up here is a strategic view on the social fabric of urban commons through these local mobilizations, and the political process needed to progress toward an Assembly of commons.

1. Friches as opportunities and issues

We focus our action research and strategic point of view on several “friches” within Lille and North of France: Baraka, Roubaix; Ajoncs Association, Lille and around; Fives Cail Babcock, Lille.

Table 1. Three samples of friche and local mobilizations


Baraka, common amenities, Garden,

This project aims to transform a derelict space in a multipurpose outdoor equipment handled by neighbors and local civil society.
There are two starting points for that project. The first one is a derelict space located in front of the Baraka restaurant and the second is the willingness of the 70 people that own the Baraka cooperative.
They decided the derelict land the other side of the street has to be transformed. Since investors have left the plot because of the economical crises, nothing but hypothetical projects, wild grasses and a few garbages were growing there.
The project is still at its very first steps. One of the main achievements is a contract with the municipality for an agreement which allow the Baraka members to use the land.
Some community brainstorms have been conducted in an inclusive way so that neighbors and people from associations acting in the neighborhood entered the design process thinking how to be part of the global project that will be here tomorrow.


Shared Urban

Lille and around
The AJONCs is an NGO, whom name is a play on words: the Association for Friends  of Opened but Closed Gardens. They have begun their experiment more than 20 years ago and was thus one of the very first experience in France for such shared lands. Based on the Community Garden US concept, this movement is clearly a key-action in the process development of community gardens in France. They quickly made a difference between the Community Gardens (or Allotments in UK) and the Private ones and with other types of Gardens, as the Family or the Inclusion Gardens.

AJONCs’ philosophy is not only based on people’s empowerment, but also on a great gardens’ accessibility. We can describe this movement as a militant one, linked to the landscapist Gilles Clément. 32 gardens are in activity in our region. Some of them have opened their doors in 1997.

The starting point is to offer a re-appropriation of abandoned public spaces to citizen. The ultimate goal is to give a second life to those derelict spaces, those industrial wastelands, that are seen as a value and not as a waste. More than a landscaping project, the stakeholders have the will to keep or re-create a social link in the neighbourhood. They are playing a key action between the inhabitants, their territories and the city. Technically speaking, the citizens’ group firstly has to find a land and then get in touch with the association. Follows a research with or without the support of local authorities. Moreover, if the local authorities are not open-minded, a temporary occupation can occur.

Fives Cail Babcock

As the firm’s website itself explains, “the historical origins of Fives date back to 1812 and coincide with major industrial and economic world events. Fives is responsible for some of the most impressive achievements of the industrial age, from the first steam locomotives to the Alexandre III Bridge in Paris, the metal framework of the Orsay train station in Paris and the elevators for the Eiffel Tower.
When Cail and Fives-Lille (two companies dating from the 19th century) merged in 1958, the group became the « Compagnie de Fives-Lille » and later changed its name to « Fives-Lille-Cail » and « Fives-Cail-Babcock ».

From industrialization to des-industrialization, the wonderful success story collapsed finally in 2001. Nevertheless, from those times, have remained 25 ha in the heart of Lille. Fives Cail Babcock was like a city inside the city. Warehouses, steel remainings are still there, watching all the tiny workers’ houses from those ancient times. Old but still present in the collective memory. Huge challenge on an urban point of view, this derelict space is also seen as a new opportunity for the City Hall and for all the local authorities. Near the train stations, well connected, in a vivid area, this derelict space is clearly conceived as a new neighborhood inside the city. Fives can then become an answer to major issues (as housing) that are facing the city.

Apart from the official proposal, carried out by the local authorities, were planned some other scenarii. The inhabitants’ points of views are crucial for defining the best solution for the future of this “friche”. Moreover, the local identity is really strong in the neighborhood: Fives was extremely proud of its industry. Every family was involved through, at least, a worker inside the industrial process. It can be seen on the same way: the new neighborhood will at least involve a family member in the citizen process, in the democratic process.

Several public meetings discussing the future urban planning (managed by SORELI firm) have gathered hundreds of persons. Citizens’ groups are also proposing their ideas. A great Third-Place, in link with the original Ray Oldenburg’s concept, is emerging. A 60 person group is defending this great proposal, behind a animator. More than a recreative place, the Third-Place would offer cafés, restaurant, application school or a FabLab.
Another group is arguing for a cooperative supermarket, directly inspired by the New-Yorker Park Slope Food Coop. concept.
Several local and bottom-up initiatives are emerging. Our observation is a work in process but we are already trying to underline the links between those citizens’ groups and to understand how the Commons will thus be defended as a Common.

Some features
These friches are located in very urban and industrial areas with strong historical background. This background is the result of local confrontation between several social and political forces: social movement inheritance, working class organizations, town councils hold by socialist local power, but also employers’ organizations and catholic context; more recently trends linked to the decomposition and atomization process leaded by social life treated as a commodity through business oriented organizations and public policies when they consider citizens as consumers.
These friches can be more or less large (24 ha for Fives Cail; 1 ha for Baraka, few hundreds of square meters for some AJONCS gardens). They can be more or less owned by local authorities, directly or through collective ownership.

Two main issues : uses as activities designed in commons; agoras for users, built as a way to handle shared public spaces as commons so called “subaltern public spaces ” by Nancy Fraser.
Friches can be receivers or facilitators for groups to build collective uses and alternative activities. They can also be incubators of these social uses when conditions are present to facilitate social and collective initiatives.
They can also offer opportunities to develop shared public spaces, including people that are far from the urban planning matter (because of segregation or weakness). This function of friches as agoras, holding ephemeral assemblies, during specific moments of the possible consultation process or to the initiative of social and political actors, is a key matter. Friches can be seen as urban and social laboratories that create new collective forces and individual capabilities. Indeed citizens may express economic and civil rights through new activities, jobs and organizations in alternative economy.

Questions to the social fabric of commons
How to design and enhance new shared uses?
Through what kind of specific dialogue method could we argue them so that those uses could be brought as contributions to the urban development process?
How to organize them for being really inclusive for the concerned people?
How to face the appropriation process of the vacant land and the question of land ownership in relationship with local authorities?
How to find appropriate and democratic governance processes through collective action and its specific organizations building new uses as commons?
How to find appropriate and democratic governance processes to join the global and institutional deliberation process of urban development in such political context?
Table 2. Friches as commons: Preliminary elements


Baraka Garden
Ajoncs urban Gardens
Fives Cail
Social Fabric of collective uses:
How high is it based on collective uses, socially built?
Baraka garden is based on the Baraka restaurant designed as a cooperative.
The urban functions that could be held in the garden are the output of an inclusive designing process that have been mobilizing the neighborhood.
Ajoncs are based on a Law 1901 association.
Right now, there are no juridical status for describing the movement. Collective projects are proposed with different legal status.
Inclusiveness Process
How inclusive is the collective process?
Door to door invitation has been made
Local leaders (people implied in the community board) were asked to spread information
Open doors on several local events.
Word mouth connexions after occupying a non occupied piece of land
The collective process in the activists’ groups is seen as a really inclusive one. But, the process is starting out.
Tools for sensitizing on the Commons?
Regular meetings open to anybody
Sociocultural activities
Cultural proposal for specific audiences
Links with several local NGOs involved in the local policy
Open doors on several local events, that are great occasions to mobilize the neighborhood.

For the Third-Place, door to door operations have been launched, citizen cafés or regular meetings in local places are organized.

Appropriation Process of the land
The common and its property
Right now, the landlord is still the public authority but an agreement is granting the baraka cooperative temporary occupation.

Interesting pattern. The gardeners are not the owners, but their appropriation process is based on a negotiation between the gardeners in each derelict space and the City Hall. The AJONCs NGO is thus a support for inventing a common property.
Moreover, beneficiaries are not only the ones who paid their membership but also the ones nes who are taking part to the events. As soon as a gardener is in, the garden is open and belongs to every visitor.

The land is the property of SORELI, on contract for the public service’s local authority.
Democratic Governance Process of the common
As we are writing those words, the governance process for Baraka Garden is not properly established as the project is still a work in progress. Approx 20 people from Baraka cooperative and from the neighborhood are meeting regularly for decision making.
Every garden has got its own rules. Operating systems are up to every garden in order to keep the adaptability needed for such an action. Nevertheless, the Common Board (for the 32 gardens) is based on a representative of each garden. Due to the large audience of gardeners, decentralized boards were established.

Institutional Consultation Process: Several public meetings have already gathered hundreds of persons.
In parallel, several groups, not yet organized in a whole cooperative are meeting regularly for decision making.

The Common within the urban development plan
Uses that will be developed within the garden have still to be confirmed. The project holders have still to convince the municipality that they are able to handle the plot properly, with a low budget (at least lower than the one the municipality would have put on it if managed by them) and as a public good.

The Common is seen as the final target in the project in Fives. The ideal is not only to reach a participative process, but also to help the citizen to act in their neighbourhood after the end of the project.

The whole discussion is based on large discussions with the project owner (SORELI – on contract for the public service’s local authority)

2. The Assembly of the Commons:  hypothesis and first approach

We are hereafter trying to sum up some main issues concerning a possible strategy for developing an urban commons spirit, based on derelict spaces.
We are facing two different situations in order to develop such collective actions.
According to the current French legal framework, when the friche is large and open for possible new uses through an urban development plan, local authorities have to organize an Institutional Consultation Process. That said, the rules are quite weak and the effectiveness of the consultation process is left at the discretion of the public authority. A feedback can be given on those consultation processes implemented in France: taking into account the Arnstein participation ladder, most of the citizen participation processes could be qualified as basic consultation, some of them as manipulation. Only a handful of them gives a degree of power to citizen.
There are many reasons of such a statement and hundreds of books and papers have been written on that subject by famous political scientist and sociologists like: Pierre Rosanvallon, Loïc Blondiaux, Yves Sintomer, Marie Hélène Bacqué. The subject is particularly vivid since the recent law “LOI n° 2014-173 du 21 février 2014 de programmation pour la ville et la cohésion urbaine” and the publication of the Marie-Hélène Bacqué & Mohamed Mechmache report “Pour une réforme radicale de la politique de la Ville – Citoyenneté et pouvoir d’agir dans les quartiers populaires” in 2013. The context is evolving and elected representatives have to consider it.
Then, even if the limits of those top-down consultation processes are well known, the opportunity to lead the consultation further than the formal and traditional way is more real than ever .
When friches are small and scattered plots, the issue is different. As no consultation process might be held on such small areas, local authorities have the temptation to handle them undercover. In these situations, the key point here is whether or not an organized community or several organized communities, able to take in charge the future of the site, is/are existing.
From these statements, one can guess two different patterns of collective action:

Patterns of collective action
A dynamic of collective action “within and around the Institutional (and formal) Consultation Process”
The frame of action  is given by the consultation process itself. Local actors have to conform themselves to this frame. For reaching this point, they have a weak power but a recognised one. Rhythm is also given by this process and under the control of the project owner.

A dynamic of collective action “Out of the Institutional (and formal) Consultation Process”
Contents and rhythm are given by local mobilizations within surrounding areas, bringing propositions of activities that could be the final project when the site is small or find a place in the global urban plan on large friches.

Assembly of the Commons at the crossroad of collective action: Four Scenarios

A. Mobilization/Occupation: “Occupy the Friche”…
Existing collectives from the surrounding areas created in order to develop some specific collective uses, hold in commons (more or less), take/negotiate a place within the specific urban development plan dedicated to a Friche through actions of community leaders assisted by professional community developers.

B. Initiation/Creation: A Friche “Incubator of collective actions”…
From the institutional consultation process, part of an Urban Development Plan concerning a Friche, a dynamic begins helped by community leaders and developers in order to organize people and to build up groups about some specific uses and activities.

The process against the Urban Commons can also be described as based on a dynamic, which will focus only on the elected representatives. Citizens are part of the reflection at the beginning, through a consultation process; but their implication will slowly disappear.

C. Institutionalization
Usually a Friche can be seen as a good example of a bottom-up policy, which will finally face an implementation realized by the local council. As a follow-up, it does not belong anymore to the citizens but the Friche has been only implementing by the local authority. Consequently, the bottom-up initiative disappeared.

We can finally describe the process against the Urban Commons as based on a process will focus only on a community scale, without interaction with the other inhabitants, as a collective point shared only at a really small scale. It could be then described not as a Common, but as an enclosure by a small community, trying to protect its own property against the other uses.

D. Enclosures, seen as “Common-alization”
A friche as a communalism process on a local scale. The follow-up can thus be a partial point of view and can lead to a dogmatic vision of the society. The Common principle in then reduced to a small community that is not able to share the city as a Common but as its common.

Scheme 1. Assembly of the Commons at the crossroad

Thus, we can represent the four scenarios by the scheme above. Scenario A (Occupy the Friche) and scenario B (The Friche, Incubator of collective actions) can be two paths to develop commons. It depends of context and opportunities to act collectively.
Scenario A supposes that local actors are already organized in local groups, holding specific requests and activities under construction, eventually in commons. These groups doe not need the consultation process to exist and to influence the urban development plan.
In Scenario B, inhabitants are meeting and starting to organize themselves through the consultation process. Progressively, they begin to act according several ways, inside and outside the consultation process. They get together before and after the formal sessions of this process. They develop argumentations within the consultation devices, but also outside the consultation devices through their own means.
These two scenarios can be reinforcing themselves and can be seen as two centripetal forces, converging towards commons and a possible Assembly of the commons.
Two other scenarios (C & D) represent two opposite forces, centrifugal ones.
Under the scenario C, even if the consultation process is initiated, finally local authorities lead the urban plan and decide on the allocations of space and urban amenities by delegation of powers to specific intermediaries and by selling the spaces to private or public investors.
The scenario D (called “Enclosures”) is a very paradoxical one. Some commons are developing, for instance under scenarios A or B, but the commons progressively created enclosures themselves on the very specific people directly concerned. Each group holding its common is isolated from others, possibly regarded as possible competitors. The federative process toward the Assembly of the commons, under these conditions, would be impossible.
Thinking and acting in the social, political and strategic fabric of commons toward the Assembly of commons local actors have to face these scenarios.


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