Mapping the Urban Commons

A new representation system for cities through the lens of the commons

[as published in Hybrid City II: Subtle rEvolutions proceedings (ed.D.Charitos, I.Theona, D.Dragona. C.Rizopoulos), University Research of Applied Communication, Athens, 2013]

Demitri Delinikolas, Daphne Dragona
Department of Communication and Media Studies
National and Kapodistrian University of Athens
Athens, Greece

Pablo de Soto
MediaLab School of Communication
Federal University of Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Abstract: The paper discusses the concept, development and outcomes of the cartography project “Mapping the Commons” which took place in Athens and in Istanbul in 2010 and 2012 respectively. It specifically presents the methodology and practices used, while also looking into the conflicts and difficulties met in the two different cities.
Keywords: commons, city, crisis, mapping, Athens, Istanbul


Mapping the Commons is a cartography project which was based on two workshops that took place in Athens in December 2010 and in Istanbul in November 2012 respectively aiming to trace the contemporary role of the commons in the urban environment. The project was conceptualized and supervised by as a commission of the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens and it was realized in collaboration with professors and researchers from the Department of Communication and Media Studies of the University of Athens, the National Technical University of Athens and Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences. In Istanbul the workshop was organized as part of the Amber festival in collaboration with Istanbul Technical University. [Fig.1]

The project focused on the notion of commons, a concept that has attained again much interest in the last decade due to the economic and political turmoil that neo-liberalism and late capitalism created. The management of what can be considered as common wealth or common resources needed to be reconsidered, as the old distinction between private and public did not seem to be able neither to satisfy the need for understanding property nor to answer the vital question of how to share vital resources. In addition, digital culture has given us a new insight into the economics of sharing with a multiplicity of growing communities that produce, manage and share knowledge and information freely and openly.

Which are the Commons? Do they exist or do we create them? How can we categorize them and understand them? How do we maintain them and protect them? In what ways are they different to the property managed by the state or by individuals? These are some of the questions that were raised and taken into consideration throughout the theoretical and practical work of the workshops. In this paper we aim to present the methodology that was followed, describe samples of the creative work that was produced and discuss the afterthoughts of the process. Summarizing the outcomes of both the workshops, interesting differences and similarities can be traced for two cities that are in a decisively different political and economic state. As Hardt and Negri write “The political project of instituting the common cuts diagonally across false alternatives-neither private nor public, neither capitalist nor socialist-and opens a new space for politics” [1].


The workshops followed a three-part structure:

A. Part One. Introduction To Theory
The first two/three days of each workshop were dedicated to presenting theoretical notions about the commons reflecting to a great extent the Italian school of thought and especially the analysis of Hardt and Negri in their latest book “Common Wealth”. Aiming to help the participants to familiarise themselves with the concept, different definitions were offered and discussed in order to make clear what the commons used to mean and what is their current significance in the post-fordist condition. The team particularly examined how the notion has changed from the natural and cultural commons that are inherited and safeguarded from generation to generation, to the new artifical ones that are produced and shared by the many. It was agreed that a cartography of contemporary commons would need to refer not only to the soil and air or the language and memory inhabitants share but also to knowledge, information, codes and social relationships that are in a constant mode of becoming and being transformed.

The choice to focus on urban mapping seemed crucial as the metropolis, according to Hardt and Negri, is “the source of the common and the receptacle into which it flows” [2]. It is the environment where most of the productive and social activities of the multitude take place, where encounters happen, and antagonism as well as rebellion are expressed. In Negri and Hardt’s words “the metropolis is to the multitude what the factory was to the industrial working class… In the era of biopolitical production the metropolis increasingly fulfils this role as the inorganic body of the multitude” [3]. In such a terrain, a mapping of commons, could have no other aim but to highlight the city’s living dynamic and its possibility for change.

To assist this, during the first days of the workshop participants were also introduced to different mapping projects and activists’ initiatives in order to create a framework for the work that was to be produced in the following parts.

This first part of the workshop built the foundations on which later discussions were raised, and creative conflicts resolved.

B. Part Two. Parametrisation and Mapping

The second part was the most intellectually challenging, provoking discussions and creative conflicts. Opinions and concerns were formulated and evaluated through a collective process in order to proceed to the case studies of the third part of the workshop.
Participants were invited to propose examples of commons which they could identify in their city. These examples could be natural or artificial commons, or any collective effort that they considered as a systematic effort to preserve or create a common in the urban environment. Working in groups, the participants were invited to present a number of different cases for commons and to locate them on the map.

Following the proposal of the Hackitectura, a basic categorization under four kinds of common resources was followed. These were the Natural Commons, the Cultural Commons, the Public Spaces as Commons and the Digital Commons.
Two different maps were created in order to keep all ideas on display: a research map which functioned as a resource and database of commons and a display map which hosted video case studies created by the participants, described further below. The research map was inclusive. Despite the oppositions appearing regarding some entries, short descriptions links and photos were uploaded for all commons proposed. The value of this project was to initiate thinking about the concept of commons and to present the variety of actions that can be found in a metropolis related to this notion.

In order to focus on certain examples and analyse them in depth, a system of parametrisation was proposed through which it was possible to define the commons using the same parameters. A full set of almost 30 parameters to define each common was initially proposed including aspects such as location, date of creation, wealth/rent/benefits generated, scale, community/network behind, approximate number of participants, socio-technical tools, maintenance costs, decision taking processes, level of conflict, relations with public / private realms. This long list was reduced in Athens –due to time restrictions- to four main parameters which were decided to be followed. Those were added to the introduction of each video as title cards: Common, Actor, Way and Conflict. Under ‘Common’ a particular common was for every case described. Under ‘Actor’ the people who actively undertook some action to preserve or create a common were mentioned. Under ‘Way’, what facilitated this action to take place was described. Finally under ‘Conflict’, the actors and conditions that were detrimental or opposing to the maintenance of each common were identified. Using this simple first parametrization, a common ground for comparing ideas on commonwealth was created and some of the team ideas could be easily evaluated. [Fig.2]

In Istanbul the parametrization aimed at introducing a matrix of more than 15 parameters to specify in much more detail each example, developing further the methodoolgy of work. However, although great efforts were made by the team, the constraints of time workshop unfortunately did not allow at the end a full development of the process.

This second part of the workshop was the core of the project as the research on the urban common wealth was conducted and fruitful discussions and creative arguments about the definition and features of the commons took place. It was also very interesting to see how in both cities certain issues of subtle political debate and the current sociopolitical climate affected some of the team’s decisions.

C. Part Three. Creating Short Documentaries

The second part of the workshop concluded in selecting a series of case studies to be developed in short video documentaries. For the third part, the participants were invited to work in teams, to share roles – such as shooting and editing- and to focus in the production of the videos.

In order to keep a stylistic uniformity a common template for titles was decided and a title card was included naming the four parameters defined beforehand. The form and style of the videos greatly varied. Some videos followed a documentary style of filmmaking based on the recording of protests and interviews of people, several followed a more abstract ‘infographic’ approach mixing graphical elements and titles, while others were mash ups from material found on the internet. [Fig.3] The stylistic variety helped in approaching each common in the most appropriate way and gave the creative freedom to each team to experiment with the aesthetics that they found more appealing to them. In Istanbul even though a greater stylistic coherence between the videos was attempted in terms of fonts and titles – compared to Athens-, common structure or aesthetics were again consciously avoided, allowing diverse views to be expressed. The number of videos produced in the two cities presents a big difference; they were 19 in Athens and 8 in Istanbul because in the latter case the majority of the videos were based on original recordings, and fewer mash ups were made.

During the creation of the videos the theory was actually put to test. The ideas discussed had to become clear in order to direct the videos and avoid gaps and misconceptions which are always much easier to spot in an audiovisual piece. The aim of the videos was twofold: on the internal level to use them as a philosophical tool to describe and discuss commons and on the public level as a way to show – even selectively and fragmentally – the variety of actions that happen in a city in relation to its commonwealth. The third part was finalised with the uploading of the videos on a wiki-mapping tool, connecting them to their identified location. This happened digitally but also in the case of Istanbul as a physical installation of a map.

After the completion of the two workshops several interesting remarks can be made as the two cities were found in a different political and economic state.

The Athens workshop took place at the end of 2010, a very crucial year for Greece. Six months after the first memorandum with IMF and the implementation of the first austerity measures, the Greek capital was called upon to play a new role. Athens was invited to become the “beta” city of crisis, to constitute the experimental ground for the emerging transitional economic period and to confront first in Europe the impasse of late capitalism. The city burst with the energy of revolt and resistance. Protests and classes with the police were extremely common and political discussions were taking place openly in the main Syntagma square where people had camped. Even though the country’s economy was slowly sinking, citizens were more active than ever. It was an energetic atmosphere that unfortunately was badly crashed months later. The workshop took place in this critical period in which we could observe a very active engagement of the people in public affairs and a plethora of efforts not only to maintain commons but also to create new ones.

In Athens there was a tendency to ask questions about the commons that seemed quite poetic. Could anger be considered as a common for instance? This was the subject of one of the videos. In a space and time in which protest and constant clashes with the police were so frequent, this video made a statement regarding the outcome of dissensus and its expression. Another video presented the contact between stray animals and humans in the city capturing the importance of the presence of stray animals and the change that occurred before the time of the Olympic games in Athens. A team even asked if graffiti could be considered as a common form of communication on the walls.

Digital commons were represented by a video on open source software and a metropolitan network of wireless internet. A video on the notion of language was in many ways a cornerstone for understanding cultural commons. Other videos presented the social movements around Athens, initiatives of sharing and exchange economy as well as the transformation of previously public or private areas into commons. In Athens the videos did not refrain from documenting actions which could be considered marginally illegal, such as graffiti, initiatives of ticket-crossing, as well as squatting and occupying areas.

In Istanbul however the case was much different. The Istanbul workshop coincided with a very dramatic yet unsung event, the closure and rebuilding of Taksim Square, the central square of Istanbul, into a private shopping centre [Fig.4]. The whole city looked like it was facing an economic boom with huge investments taking place all over the metropolis. However there were many downsides to this development process, and most of the videos that were produced in Istanbul focused on the dangers of development and the fact that the public had little to no opinion about them. Apart from the building development and its effects, one of the most important issues raised in Turkey was the issue of censorship. Through a university protest that was silenced in the media [Fig.5], the team started discussing the idea of the freedom of communication space. Alongside the issue subject of media blackout and censorship, we as participants had in many cases the feeling that we should self-censor ourselves and be cautious with the process of work. It was clear that many issues of extreme interest were not to be taken lightly. The relation between cultural commons and governance, which is a crucial issue in a multi ethnical state as Turkey was presented but not addressed during the workshop. This included the question of the Kurdish minority, who was engaging in a national campaign to demand the right to use their own language on court and education and the two hundred political prisoners who were on hunger strike around the country for several weeks.

It also needs to be mentioned that police was much more strict about shooting video in public spaces, which sometimes created an added feeling of anxiety. Hesitance and reservation affected some of the issues researched as well as their form and aesthetics. A more abstract cinematic language was in many cases chosen over a straight forward presentation of facts. This issue of subliminal self-censorship will remain as an issue to be revisited in other workshops.

In retrospective, it could be argued that while the Athens mapping depicted mostly forms of resistance, the Istanbul workshop reflected a greater sense of danger for losing commons. Furthermore, one can easily note that participants in Athens showed a greater interest towards the artificial and especially the digital commons presenting different examples on the map (i.e. Metropolitan Wireless Internet Networks, Open Source software, Language), whereas in Istanbul the group focused mostly on natural commons (such as the land, the water and the forests) and open public spaces that were jeopardized through their privatization and exploitation. Crucial cultural commons, which defined the sociopolitical life in Turkey, were commented but could not be properly addressed at the workshop. If the Athens workshop highlighted -in a general way- language as probably the main cultural common, in Istanbul the main issue was ground and natural commons as a conflict affecting dramatically the state governance.

For future workshops a more balanced selection of commons should be the goal, so that more comparisons can also be made.


The Istanbul workshop is not seen as a development of the process but rather as a continuation of one common mapping process that included a new city. It is our hope that after running the workshop in more cities a clearer overview of the commons and the political conditions that affect them will become easier to see. At the end, Mapping the Commons, is an ongoing methodology and process which aims to provide tools that enhance the understanding of the importance of the commons and reinforce the efforts for their continuous development.

As the issue of commons has been the theme of numerous seminars, encounters and essays discussing the potential of influencing institutions in times of crisis, the aim of this project in this constellation is to add a “how to” to the academic and political discussion on the commons; to offer a methodological tool which can define and map the urban commons. The visually explained methodology, the scholar literature involved and all of each workshop’s documentation (blog, parameters data sheet, videos and map) can be found at A site is also planned to be designed as a scalar platform where new cities can be added in the future encouraging common research. In 2012 and 2013 presentations regarding the project and its development were held with activists and students in Venice, Gothembourg, Barcelona and Elx.

We hope that workshops have offered to participants not only a practical methodology to think about the commons and but also a new way to think and work based on collaboration and sharing. It is an open ongoing process in an era that commonwealth should be a primary focus of our attention and a way to invigorate our political thinking about sharing resources and creating new ones.

As Silke Helfrche notes:
“Above all, however, we should turn our attention to the question of what we want to do with our common resources. That is what really matters, for common goods exist only if we produce them-and they will remain only if we take care of them.” [4]

To avoid using youtube links, the Athens videos can be found at the following addresses:

Athens Workshop credits: Concept and project development: José Pérez de Lama de Lama & Pablo de Soto (Hackitectura) in collaboration with Jaime Díez and Carla Boserman, With the support of Curated by: Daphne Dragona Participants: Efi Avrami, Elena Antonopoulou, Mariana Bisti, Maya Bontzou, Dimitris Delinikolas, Eleni Giannari, Aliki Gkika, Anastasia Gravani, Alexis Hatzigianis, Dimitris Hatzopoulos, Melina Flippou, Zaharias Ioannidis, Angela Kouveli, Veroniki Korakidou, Daphne Lada, Olga Lafazani, Natalie Michailidou, Yiannis Orfanos, Stratis Papastratis, Maria Dimitra Papoulia, Yorgos Pasisis, Carolin Philipp, Maria Pitsiladi, Manos Saratsis, Athina Staurides, Iouliani Theona, Eleana Tsoukia, Sonia Tzimopoulou, Antonis Tzortzis, Dimitris Psychogios Scientific Advisors: Nelli Kabouri (Political Sciences, Panteion University), Dimitris Papalexopoulos (Architect, Associate Professor NTUA), Dimitris Parsanoglou (Sociologist, Panteion University), Dimitris Charitos (Assistant Professor, Department of Communication and Mass Media, University of Athens). The work Mapping the Commons, Athens was realized in the framework of the series EMST Commissions 2010 at the Project Room of the museum, with the kind support of Bombay Sapphire gin. See index.html
Istanbul workshop credits: Instructors: Pablo de Soto (, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro) in collaboration with Demitris Delinikolas (empty film, University of Athens). Event organizers: Ekmel Ertan (Amber Platform art director) and Aslihan Senel (Istanbul Technical University). Video Project Participants: Gizem Ağırbaş, Burcu Nimet Dumlu, Ecem Ergin, Onur Karadeniz, Fikret Can Kuşadalı, Marco Magnani, Zümra Okursoy, İpek Oskay, Sibel Saraç, Jale Sarı, Yağız Söylev, Ceren Sözer, Neşe Ceren Tosun, Ece Üstün, Wolke Vandenberghe, Daniele Volante, Volazs. The Project is co-organised by amber Platform and ITU Faculty of Architecture, Department of Architecture between 1-8 November 2012.

[1] M.Hardt and A. Negri, “Comonwealth”, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2009, pp. ix
[2] Ibid, pp 154
[3] Ibid, pp. 249
[4] Silke Helfriche. “Common goods don’t simply exist they are created”, in The Wealth of the Commons, D. Bollier and S. Helfriche Eds., The Commons Strateges Group, 2012, pp. 66.

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