“We want to spark a post-growth debate based on concrete examples of commons initiatives”

Cities have become one of the main settings for addressing rising resource use and growing inequality. Commons initiatives can play an important role here – and also be a way of countering the rising costs of rent, believes Jean-David Gerber, Professor at the University of Bern’s Institute of Geography. In a new research project with CDE, he investigates such forms of organization in both Switzerland and Ghana.

“As collective initiatives, commons movements can act as an antidote to the logic of profit maximization,” says Jean-David Gerber. Photo: zvg

Interview: Theodora Peter *

Cities around the world are developing into mega-cities. This is leading to rent increases and housing shortages. Even in rich countries like Switzerland, affordable housing is becoming a rarity. Why aren’t cities and municipalities managing to provide enough affordable places to live?

Redeveloping a plot of land must generally be economically viable. Urban development is driven by the potential of profit for landowners. Their investments lead to the modernization of existing building stock and consequently to a rise in prices. Of course, the public sector could intervene, but don’t forget that the city also benefits from rising prices, because high earners pay higher taxes. In addition, it is difficult for a city to implement public development projects that affect the interests of private owners. This is one of the fundamental challenges of spatial planning. The city can make plans, but nothing happens without the cooperation of landowners.

What can or must cities do better?

In Switzerland, there are many calls for greater involvement by the public sector. For example, to stimulate housing construction through faster approval procedures and limitation of the right of appeal. This is linked to the hope, based on the mechanism of supply and demand, that rents will fall once enough flats have been built. However, I think we would have to build a very large amount, in order to significantly counteract the trend of rising prices.


“The balance between private and public interests must continuously be renegotiated”


What is the alternative?

As a social scientist and human geographer, I am interested in the discussions surrounding the treatment of land as a scarce resource. Already 80 years ago, the Basel architect Hans Bernoulli called for land not to be left to the free market. He advocated communalization and the granting of long-term ground leases. Since then, local-level popular initiatives have been launched and adopted in all major Swiss cities, demanding not more, but less free-market involvement: In the city of Bern, for example, quotas for affordable housing were introduced. For land sales in Lausanne and Geneva, the public sector has the right of first refusal. In Basel, the public sector is not allowed to sell the land it owns. Another instrument that is often used is the granting of ground leases to non-profit collectives. These are exciting discussions around the balance between private and public interests. This balance has to be continuously renegotiated.


“Various popular initiatives have shown that there is a need to raise the so-called ‘land question’ again”


Questioning private ownership remains something of a taboo in Switzerland. Why is it so difficult to have a rational discussion on the topic of common property?

Historically, spatial planning has always met with reservations by landowner lobbies. The principle of spatial planning was introduced into the Constitution in 1969 – at the same time as the guarantee of property rights. However, a first version of the Spatial Planning Act was rejected by popular vote in 1976, after property interest groups filed a referendum against it. The primary objective of the Spatial Planning Act is the economical – in the sense of sustainable – use of land. The aim of the law is to coordinate the building activities of individual landowners. The landowners are the actual target group of spatial planning. At the same time, property is perceived as a guarantee of freedom – and as protection against absolutism.

Property is also at the core of our economic system. This explains why the question of property is so sensitive in urban development. It touches on key issues of the economic organization of our system. On the other hand, the popular initiatives mentioned above show that there is a need to raise the so-called “land question” again. Society is evolving. In cities, more and more people have to live in limited spaces. The rules that allow us to live together peacefully are being adapted to the new conditions through democratic processes and court rulings.


“Housing cooperatives can certainly be described as a third way between the market and the state”


Your academic work indicates that you see self-organized collectives such as housing cooperatives as a possible solution, a kind of “third way”, between state and free-market positions.

We showed in a 2017 scientific article that housing cooperatives are successful in Switzerland because they offer a solution that is acceptable to the entire political spectrum. Acceptable to the left, because cooperatives function outside of pure market logic by making decisions according to the principle of “one person, one vote”. And acceptable to the right, as this solution is based on self-organization, which avoids state intervention. That is one of the strengths of this model: everyone can accept this approach, which makes it suitable for the majority. In this respect, the housing cooperatives can certainly be described as a third way between the market and the state.

Private investors are not only driving up housing prices in cities; they are ultimately also driving the scarcity of other resources such as green spaces or water. Given the financial power of investors, what gives you hope that non-profit organizations can counter the prevailing “market” logic here?

With every new development in a city, prices rise, leading to increased exclusionary pressures. As scientists, we would like to gain a better empirical understanding of the impact of these phenomena on social sustainability. This April we therefore launched COMMONPATHS, a new SNSF research project. The project investigates the role and strategies of collective forms of organization, the so-called urban commons. We distinguish between phases of change and phases of greater stability in urban development; in both, the commons can play a central role. The phase of change refers to the planning period, i.e. when decisions are made about the redevelopment of plots, blocks, or neighbourhoods. Through their collective dimension, commons movements can act as an antidote to the logic of profit maximization.


“Solutions that prevent profit maximization are concrete contributions to a post-growth society”


What roles do commons initiatives play for a post-growth society?

In the COMMONPATHS project, we are particularly interested in the phases of change that redefine what can be achieved collectively. These are the phases in which social movements and new forms of collective action emerge. Phases of change are phases of creativity in which new ideas emerge. These must then be formalized, leading to new institutional arrangements. In this respect, solutions that prevent profit maximization are concrete contributions to a post-growth society. Such arrangements are islands in a growth-oriented society. In the research project, we are interested in how such arrangements have emerged and how they take root.  


“Our hypothesis is that customary law in Ghana allows the collective to play a more important role than in Switzerland”


You are investigating the situation in Switzerland – and in Ghana. Why? 

Switzerland is of interest as an extreme example, because private property is very strongly protected here. But at the same time, Switzerland also has a long tradition of managing resources as common property. For example, the Allmend corporations or the “Burgergemeinden”, a type of citizens’ corporation. In some cases, they are legally obliged to manage their property for the benefit of the general public. Furthermore, Article 699 of the Swiss Civil Code guarantees public access to all forests and pastures. It is also interesting to observe that all larger cities work closely with collective large-scale landowners – for example Bern with the Burgergemeinde, or Basel with the Merian Foundation. The cities of Zurich and Biel, on the other hand, own a lot of land themselves. In Geneva, a foundation owns the entire industrial area. The collective dimension is thus definitely present in Switzerland.

And why Ghana?

Private property rights that protect private interests are also strongly anchored in Ghana, while public policies safeguard public interests. In addition to this, however, Ghana also relies on what is known as customary law, which takes into account group interests. Our hypothesis is that this customary law enables the collective to play a more important role than in Switzerland. The overarching question is how community-oriented processes that work outside of market logic influence urban sustainability.

What new insights do you hope to gain from the project?

What is important is that we initiate a debate on post-growth with it, using concrete examples. This is one of the strengths of COMMONPATHS: to understand empirically where the post-growth debate can lead us and what forms of organization it can spawn.

* Theodora Peter is a freelance journalist in Bern (www.sprachkraft.ch)

IASC Conference 2023

The XIX Biennial IASC conference “The Commons We Want: Between Historical Legacies and Future Collective Actions” puts the commons at centre stage. The conference combines a future-oriented research and practice perspective with a look back, as many legal and structural legacies predetermine possible development pathways. This look back helps to position the commons debate in the context of the 2030 Agenda and contributes to making the transformation towards the SDGs a more commons-oriented, participatory endeavour.