Lectures 9 and 10: Commoning

NOTE: These notes can be read in conjunction with the pdfs of Lecture 9 powerpoint slides and Lecture 10 powerpoint slides. The week numbers in the powerpoint slides are different to the lecture numbers used here because of public holidays.


These two lectures were based on Chapter 5, Take Back Property: Commoning. The aims were to:

  • introduce students to the concept of commons (Lecture 9)
  • clarify the distinction between commons and property (Lecture 9)
  • further confirm the concept of commons by looking at examples of “uncommoning” (Lecture 10)
  • identify the ways that people are taking back property by communing (Lecture 10).



FIRST, we started with the concept of the commons, using the definition from Take Back the Economy (TBTE) (page 130) and then we worked through the Commons Identi-kit (page 135) with the example of the Zanjera Commons. In an earlier draft of TBTE we had included the Zanjera Commons, but because of the word limit we dropped it from the final version. I used it with these students as some are interested in agriculture plus it links to the example of the Nam Chung Commons from Hong Kong, which we cover in the next step). Although we did not directly work through the Taking Back Property, Chapter 5 Tool, this activity was based on this tool. (See slides 1 to 9).

SECOND, students worked in small groups, with each group using the Commons Identi-kit to analyse one of the following examples:

  • The Nam Chung Commons in Hong Kong, an initiative to take back the agri/cultural commons in an old farming area (which I had visited a few weeks before). I gave them information on the Nam Chung Project and directed them to the Nam Chung Project website developed by students from Lingnan University a few years ago (Slides 10 to 17).
  • The planned 2017 elections in Hong Kong and the Basic Law, which of course was the basis for the Umbrella Revolution and the Occupy action that closed down parts of the city for 79 days in the latter part of 2014. I asked the students to assess whether or not the planned 2017 elections were a commons (given that we identify political systems as a potential social commons in TBTE (page 130) (Slide 18)).
  • The third option was open for students to decide (Slide 19). This group looked at YouTube (this was especially important for Jackie as her case study was about One Letter Horse, a YouTube initiative that aims to raise the political and economic awareness of young people in Hong Kong). For example, one of their recent YouTube clips focuses on the closure of small family-owned shops and the expansion of chain stores. You can also view Jackie’s powerpoint presentation about One Letter Horse, which includes an interview with one of the members).

Helen (our wonderful tutor) and I used the Commons Identi-kit to explore the commons features of usual university classes compared with the mobile classrooms run at the Occupy sites during the Umbrella Revolution.

We had terrific discussion about each of the examples and various issues arose in the discussion, including different systems of voting (e.g. that in Australia it is compulsory to vote and that there’s the risk of fines if you do not vote); intellectual property rights and copyright (which we discuss in TBTE, pages 142-144); and the system of academic publishing.

From my perspective, the analysis of education through the Commons Identi-kit prompted an incredibly useful discussion about mobile phones in class—in a small class it is very noticeable (and annoying!) when students are looking at their mobile devices. We discussed this in terms of community members assuming responsibility for and enacting care for what happens in the classroom commons. As a result, students agreed to 'surrender' their phones (except when they needed them for in-class research). One student (who told us that she checks Facebook etc. on average every 10 minutes) thanked us for this enforced abstinence. So for the rest of the semester, students dropped their phones into a waste paper basket when they entered the room and collected them when they left.

THIRD, we looked at the distinction between property and commons, drawing on the point in this chapter that property ownership is a legal issue and that commons can be created on any type of property, including private property. This of course led to discussion of the so-called tragedy of the commons, and the importance of the fact that Gerard Hardin recanted his thesis to state that it is the tragedy of the unmanaged commons (which then according to the Commons Identi-kit means that if they are unmanaged they are no longer commons) (pages 130 to 131 of TBTE) (Slides 21 to 24).

FOURTH, this got us to the topic for next week, commoning and uncommoning.



This was a short class this week, as we wanted to leave time for the students to work on their case studies and to get input from Helen (our wonderful tutor) and me.

FIRST, we quickly went over what we had covered last week (Slides 1 to 11), and got to the idea of 'uncommoning' which I explained as involving either privatisation (something that many of them are familiar with and concerned about as they are studying Urban Studies) or not managing commons (linking it to our discussion in the previous week about the tragedy of the (unmanaged) 'commons' (Slides 12 to 17).

SECOND, students worked in small groups to try to identify how these practices of uncommoning (either via privatisation or failure to manage) were being addressed via some of the collective actions that we discuss in Chapter 5 of TBTE (pages 148 to 158).

I was particularly pleased that some groups identified not just examples from TBTE but also examples in Hong Kong. For example, the group that looked at the Communal Heritage Project in Europe (page 148 to 149) likened it to the Blue House Project in Wan Chai (an initiative linked to St James Settlement’s Time Coupon project which we discussed in Lecture 8, whereby older housing in the area is being protected against development pressures). Another group mentioned the initiatives to protect Wetland areas in Hong Kong, such as the Ramsar listed Mai Po Wetlands which are managed by WWF.