COMMONPATHS: Transition pathways for urban sustainability

Urban community garden. Photo: DisobeyArt, shutterstock

Accelerating resource consumption and growing inequalities in urban areas pose acute problems of sustainability. Cities worldwide are characterized by unequal access to resources that are safe, clean, healthy, and affordable – and unequal burdens of resource depletion. With growing worldwide urbanization, cities have become a crucial setting for actions towards sustainability. Overall, a drastic reduction of resource consumption is needed to ensure a just future for humans within environmental limits.

Social movements for green cities, affordable housing, and sustainable food are finding ways to tackle these challenges. One trend shows particular promise: Movements to “commonify” urban resources by developing urban commons institutions. Examples include collectively managed neighbourhood gardens or non-profit housing cooperatives. Self-organized by city dwellers, these new institutions promote shared ownership of city resources, foster community, and ultimately work towards decommodifying human–nature interactions. There is only one problem: It remains unclear why some urban commons institutions thrive while others fail. And this limits their potential to bring about the postgrowth future we need.

Identifying ingredients of success

The research project COMMONPATHS focuses on urban resources managed as commons – in Ghana and Switzerland – and examines how the collectives that manage them help to address overconsumption and inequality. It aims to improve understanding of the emergence, organization, effects, and conditions of success of three commonification movements, i.e. community-based movements aimed at assuming collective ownership and control of key urban resources. The movements studied here focus on:

  • greening cities,
  • creating affordable housing, and
  • supporting agri-food initiatives.

In line with new institutionalist theories, COMMONPATHS considers sustainability challenges as institutional issues. The rules of the game that emerge in self-declared collectives can potentially provide long-term solutions for sustainable resource management beyond markets or state control.

Kalkbreite housing cooperative, Zurich. Photo: Bub37 - Template:Pension Kalkbreite, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Research goals

The project’s main research questions are:

  1. How do processes of creating new urban commons – or “commonification” – influence sustainability in cities by providing new solutions beyond market and state (in)abilities?
  2. Which transition pathways lead to their (un)successful development?
  3. And what is their transformative potential towards a more just and sustainable society, and what are their limitations?

First, COMMONPATHS is identifying the design principles that ensure the sustainable commonification of resources in urban settings. Second, it is developing a typology of transition pathways and archetypes towards urban commonification. Third, it is working to provide an empirically-grounded contribution to debates on the post-growth organization of societies. These results will generate key information, facts, and figures on practical strategies – packaged as guidelines, policy briefs, and more – for use by planners and organizers of other city-commons initiatives to improve sustainability and urban life quality.

Interdisciplinary collaboration spanning Switzerland and Ghana

Led by the Institute of Geography, University of Bern, the project combines expertise in commons, sustainability transitions, economics, urban planning, psychology, sociology, and more in the global North and South – including case studies in Switzerland and Ghana.

One CDE-led Work Package examines and compares the individual characteristics and changes in behaviour of participants in urban commons initiatives. Further, CDE led- or co-facilitated Work Packages aim to generalize the knowledge from case studies, in particular by highlighting patterns that may predict the success or failure of urban commons initiatives. Lastly, key activities are an aimed at facilitating transdisciplinary co-learning processes with local initiatives (transdisciplinary learning platform).