I A M
THE CITY CREATES
SOCIAL URBAN COMMONS
2 PEOPLE OF THE CITY
3 LIFE AND DEATH IN DENSITY
7 A CITY INSPITE OF THE CITY
8 I AM THE SPACE WHERE I AM
Bartlett School of Architecture
University College London
Supervised by Hannah Corlett
“JE SUIS L’ESPACE
OU JE SUIS”1
1 Poet Noel Arnault quoted in Poetics of Space. Bachelard. 1969. P. 137
The history of mankind is a history of competition for space. Likewise,
the history of urban life, since the formation of the ancient Greek polis
(greek for “city/city state”) has been a question of the distribution of
power over the urban space and therefore ever since a highly political
political matter. The idea of the poIis indicated a system of participation
of the urban resident in the processes of decision making, making spatial
public participation by providing enough public space for the residents
to physically enact its democratic performance. Politics by Aristotle
was translated as “things concerning the polis”, the city. The polis, was
“common (koine) to the free citizens”1 so politics and the urban realm
since stand for the liaison of the spatial with society at large2. Today,
In a time in which the majority of people already lives in cities3, where
population density and spatial competition will continue to rise, we
must think about the distribution of resources, of powers, of space and
its openness to participatory practices of co-creating the urban realm in
new ways. Discussing Commons can contribute to this challenge, as they
conceptualise a spatiality that is seperate from market and state4, owned
and governed by or at least accessible for all people. As a concept
applied to the urban context, Urban Commons are referred to as all
publicly owned infrastructure such as parks, libraries or public transport
but also immaterial commons such as language. While the concept of
Urban Commons is certainly helpful to take the question about openness
and spatial inclusivity to the urban realm, this text aims to develop a
theory of Social Urban Commons. This theory challenges the existing
commons literature in that way as it transgresses the idea of a city to be
primarily a built infrastructure but instead looks at what constitutes a city
in the social dimension and how commonning this social dimension can
This theory asks what else can urban commons be if we challenge the
common idea of what makes a city in the rst place? If we dare to ask: is it
really just the density of the built environment that makes it a city?
1 Habermas 91. P3
2 Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos 2018. P 19
3 UN World Urbanization Prospects 2018. P. 5
4 Ostrom. 2010.
Or, more uncommonly, can we think of our bodies and thoughts, of
our coming together, simply our exposedness to each other to create
a city - and instead see its buildings merely as the inevitable material
manifestation of the social forces we are exposed to?
What makes the city is our being-in-common5, echoing how Jean-Luc
Nancy inspiringly thinks of us as a “community of being”6, where our
being together despite all differences as a community is a commons
itself.7 I posit, while architectures are built, a city is performed into being
through us. The city consists of the relationality between its dwellers,
and conceptualizing the city in this way, includes the unknowns,
ambivalences, contradictions and -above all- the informality of the non-
planned-for that appears in any heterogeneous community. The city as
a network of social relations “is friction, is tension”8 and commonning it
will certainly consist of “informal, messy processes”9. The city is enacted
through the inhabitants co-creating, co-dreaming, co-claiming of the
spatial resource in often contradictory ways and, therefore, through the
co-existence of various informal practices of commoning the city ́s social
assets. Such a denition of a city inevitably asks to develop a theory on its
social commons, the Social Urban Commons.
So how do we approach this challenging ambivalence and friction of
the urban life in our human-to-city relationship? While today’s modern
megacities have embarked on dealing with frictions with police and policy,
I believe we should be reminded of Heidegger’s approach reected
in his original term of Bedingnis10, often translated as “bethinging”.
It conceptualizes the relation of human-to-thing - I say human-to-city
- as ideally a subject to the attitude of Gelassenheit, of “letting-be”, of
waiting and letting-happen, of “not forcing, not acting”11. The attitude
5 Nancy. 1991.
6 Idib. P. 1
7 Nancy denes “being” to be the strongest of all commons, creating a “community of beings”,
thus, despite their differences, simply through being… Nancy. 1991. P. 1
8 Unteidig, Cobreros, Calderon-Lüning and Joost. 2017. P. 3108
9 Gibson-Graham. 2016.
10 See. Heidegger 1966
11 Idib. p. 56 (my own translation of “Aber das Bedingen ist kein Machen und Bewirken”)
of letting-be in our human-to-city relationship, the gesture of toleration
of coexistence of juxtapositioning as the strategy to dealing with urban
friction will be a backdrop to this text along the observation of processes
of informally claiming and producing space in the city.
My thoughts and photos of this essay were assembled in July of 2019 in
Hong Kong during the rst height of rst popular protests of two million
urban residents against the feared loss of fundamental democratic
freedoms and will, therefore, they echo a certain political and cultural
urban context that is specic to this city. But Hong Kong of 2019 is
symbolic for how many of the most pressing social questions of our time
are debated in questions around the city. The UN Urban Agenda thus
proclaims: “we have reached a critical point in understanding that cities
can be the source of solutions to, rather than the cause of, the challenges
that our world is facing today.”12 Cities encapsulate the elds of tensions
of world politics as some of the most pressing social challenges breed
in the density of the urban realm. Hong Kong gives evidence to this in
a particular way: in the light of the diplomatic tension between Britain
and China over the recent protests, whose cultures have historically
both shaped the city, Hong Kong is a symbol of stark differences in
contemporary ideologies around governing a city. The city has become a
battleground of different Weltanschauungen13 (“world-views”, phil. term).
To update this grand philosophical term to the urban age, it is fair to
speak of “Stadtanschaungen” (views of the city) as with regards to the
unprecedented future urbanization across the planet, the kinds of lives
we live or can imagine to live in our cities will inevitably dene the future
of the Anthropocene. Theories about commons in the city, thus, are
more than discussing a system to manage a commonly shared allotment
of urban gardening. They impinge upon some of the grand political
questions of our time.
12 UN Urban Agenda 2017. P IV
13 a calque from german philosophical terminology often translated as “world views”.
The choice of rooting this theory in observations made in Hong Kong
was triggered by an early comparative view on two historically important
examples of contemporary megacities: London, being the rst megacity
of the industrial, modern and democratic era and Shenzhen, as the latest
example of a strongly government-imagined megacity envisioned by
top-down urban planning. The two very different epitomes of modern
megacities appeared worthy of studying the degree to which informal
appropriations in the city allowed for it to be commoned in order to inform
my theory on Social Urban Commons. With eldwork in these two quite
remarkable megacities, I assumed that researching their urban conditions
would lead me to big enough traces of informal appropriations to develop
a theory based there. On the one hand, London and its urban form with its
characteristically distorted urban grid speaks of its historic “reticence to
top-down, centralized planning”14 which thus at least preserved a degree
of informality in the city’s patchy urban layout, constantly reshaping itself
from within since hundreds of years. Where in Shenzhen the extreme
transformation from a handful of rural villages to one high-rise megacity
in one generation promised to reveal the loss of informality, where a kind
of particularly “Chinese urbanization”15 had created the rise and then
erasure of the “urban villages”16, in which the informality, community and
social vibrance of lively, buzzling, dense organisms gave way to a the
orderly architectural programming of grand boulevards and highrises.
Starting in London upon the phenomenon of an occasional trampled
Desire Line over green spaces in which pedestrians showed a disregard
of the meandering paths of landscape design, putting the co-design of
the park back into the hands of collective desires. Small but powerful
acts of “civil disobedience”17 in defyance of urban planning. But in a
well-managed city of curated “spaces of spectacle”18 from London’s
imperial architectures, its extremely restricted uses of public spaces, to
the many icons of commodied pleasures in seemingly public spaces:
here, it is often only in the informality in the “non-design” of industrial
14 Burdett. 2013. Pp 355
15 Idib. p. 10
16 Cenzatti, 2014
17 Ballard, S., Joyce, Z. and Muller, L. 2012. Pp 6.
18 Carmona et al, 2019. p6
sites, neglected urban fringes and interstitial sites of infrastructures,
where the city unveils its inevitable ambivalence and frictions. Informality
is driven out of town or marketed as a design gesture of an urban elite,
who appreciate rather the aesthetics of informality then informality as
social practice. Shenzhen, on the opposite, exemplied contemporary
urbanization with its meticulously planned urban grid with built political
narratives, curating an experience of architectural spectacle that in its
own way gives evidence to an authoritarian gesture of urban design
and a dismissive attitude towards everything informal, everything non-
planned. The Shenzhen City Museum, thus, proclaims the city to be “the
rst city with no villages in China”, not referring to the size or kind of the
built environment but the social structure that is attributed to village life
and its informal culture of improvising. This conceptualisation of the city
gives expression to the “omnipresent narrative of progress, civilization,
and urbanization”. It tells us “Shenzhen is a civilized city, and civilization
is urban” - and urban is “orderly”19. Amid the informality of Shenzens
urban villages in which public and private space is inseparable, housing
and small businesses are combined in the narrow alleys, where water
and electricity is shared between neighbors on the opposite sides
of the narrow lanes, the disorderly appropriation of space was seen
to be “backward” and was to be removed as “the city’s cancers”20. At
a point at which my photographing the last such neighborhoods in
which this informal ingenuity and social cohesion was identiable was
obstructed by authorities, neither London nor Shenzhen offered the right
environment to exemplify my theory. But how can we imagine large scale
processes of commoning, of rethinking ownership and governance at a
larger scale for future cities, if today’s megacities tend to exemplify the
opposite? If the desire line is the only informal participation that is let-
be out of resignation by park keepers. Or if elsewhere, a state-driven
erasure of traces of informality, showed the political attitude towards the
the non-planned. These observations of London and Shenzhen indicated
the core perspective of this thesis. That any question of informal
appropriation of space would inevitably be one of freedoms and liberties
within a multiplicity of desires in the urban regime. And, thus, any such
observation enters to be a highly political question: Who is the sovereign,
who is allowed to use the spatial resource in which way? Question of
participation, diversity, of freedom of assembly are inevitable. From the
Greek polis to contemporary megacities: theorizing urban commons is a
19 Bach 2010. P 425
20 Siu 2007. 355
Images on oppisite page: “The rst city in China without villages”.
Top: street-life in Shenzhen’s last urban villages, where inside and
outside, public and private live are fully inseparable in the vibrant
community life. Bottom: Said to be the largest civic square in the
world, Shenzhen’s mostly deserted citizens square, sourrounded by
skyscapers. Middle: the erasure of the village with bannery suspended
from buildings reading “DEMOLISH!” and:
At no point in recent history, have we witnessed a city to articulate its
frictions, its historic ambivalences by way of such large scale informal
appropriations as in Hong Kong of 2019 with millions of people on the
streets for months. In a city that in many ways can act as a laboratory
of speculative futures around urban density: in Hong Kong, amid the
highest population density and lowest housing affordability in the
world21, all urban frictions and all questions about density, about public
and private space, formal and informal processes, them and us, here,
they obtain a more momentous meaning than elsewhere. Moved and
triggered by this unique moment in history, I turned to focus on Hong
Kong to conceptualize the contribution of letting be to the network of
social relations22, of social frictions and their complexities and render
my theory on how informality in appropriating the city’s space, the
informality of the non-planned for, the non-designed, the let-be, sustains
Social Urban Commons.
21 Demographia 2019
22 See Amanda Huron ́s denition of the city.
TO THE OLD.
SONGS OF WEALTH!”
But where does the city begin? It begins at the boundary between the
oikos and the idia23, between the sphere of public exposure and the
sphere that is private to every individual. The city begins, where the
urban residents enter into the engagement with everything public,
where we weave ourselves into the network of social relations. But when I
refer to the public, I mean more than just entering a physical public space
or engaging in any sort of conversational Habermasian public sphere24.
I mean to think about the term public through questioning our very
human-to-city relationship. The very relationship we hold to the land we
inhabit, beyond systems ownership or governance, even beyond Marxist
exchange or use-value and patterns of systemic authority and too often
exclusion25, as even the greek polis excluded parts of society from its
democratic performance in urban space. Can public in this context come
to obtain a more open, more inspiring, more participatory meaning,
reecting the total inclusiveness of Nancy’s “community of being26”? The
community of urban being?
Urban spaces must always consist of indistinct, multiple meanings with
shifting social, political, aesthetic identities.27 Publics are simply multiple.
At the same time, most concepts of what belongs to the public or is a
commons in the city, refer to broadly something being available for all
and -unfortunately- are often merely physical resources such as public
toilets, libraries, parks or historically land for grazing.
In Hong Kong, the denition of and attitude towards public space in the
urban realm reects its history between Chinese heritage and British
colonial rule. Both have contributed in their own ways to what scholars
have identied as a lack of perceived importance towards truly public
23 In the fully developed Greek city-state the sphere of the polis, which was common (koine) to
the free citizens, was strictly separated from the sphere of the oikos; in the sphere of the oikos,
each individual is in his own realm (idia). Habermas 1989. P3
24 See Jürgen Habermas 1989.
25 See MacLeod & Ward. 2002.
26 Nancy. 1991. pp.1
27 Shaw and Hudson. 2009.
spaces by its residents28. In some denser neighborhoods, this results
in less than 0,5 m2 of public space per capita29. While the traditional
custom of ancient Chinese culture, in which gathering in public
space was widely forbidden “for the country’s well-being”30 may have
contributed to this, the inuence of Hong Kong being perceived as a
borrowed land on borrowed time31 by the British, inevitable had shifted
the colonial government’s priorities primarily on economic performance
and lesser on the long-term well-being of its urban residents.32 In the past
generation as a Special Administrative Region under the government of
China, Hong Kong has become “the twenty-rst-century paradigmatic
capital of consumerism. Of all cities, Hong Kongs has the most malls,
reaching tens of stories which have “become cities in and of themselves,
accommodating tens of thousands of people who live, work, and play
within a single structure”33. The countless privately owned passages,
adjacent to commercial buildings, malls and plazas have become an
important contribution to the connectivity and pedestrian mobility in
the dense city. With one mall per square mile34, places of consumerism
have become more than just additional spaces for a kind of public,
but rather become the replacement of traditional public space itself.
Overpowered by this consumerist paradigm as the vernacular of Hong
Kong’s contemporary public space, any idealist notion of public space as
a commons, owned by the public and accessible for all, has lost its clarity
as a symbol of civil society35.
How can the built form of such a city offer a space that is truly for all?
In such a context, the commons prerequisite of being truly for all, is
28 Lo Ka Man. 2013.
29 Lo Ka Man. 2013. P 4, quoting chinese original source.
30 Miao P.2001 p.185.
31 A term widely used by Hong Kongers to refer to the colonial rule. It was made popular
in the late 60s after a book titled “A borrowed place on borrowed time”. See Fowler 2015.
32 Lo Ka Man. 2013.
33 Al. 2016.
34 Idib. P. 7
35 Cuthbertand & McKinnell. 1997. P. 302.
debatable, hinting at the natural limitations of traditional theories around
commons in the city. In the city’s built form, being the most distinctly
planned-for, designed and formalized spatiality, its formal programming
can quite rightly be seen as “never benecial to everyone”36 or to all
identities and uses - as Horst Rittel ́s quote echoes his own legitimate
diagnosis of the dilemma of planning and design as a whole. Even
the most well-designed or democratically planned-for urban space is
somehow of a distinctly exclusive nature to some, whether physically,
legally or socially. To identify a commons in the city we must therefore
elevate the concept to a sphere unbound by the limitations of design
and planning, elevate it from physical infrastructures. Simply because
we cannot design or build a commons, but only enact it, perform it,
allow it, let-it-be… With this challenge to the traditional theories of the
urban commons to be far more than a shared technical facility of public
convenience or a piece of urban green open for picnics, we might arrive
to understand what inspired the (otherwise uninspiring) idea of the
“Tragedy of the Commons”37 by Hardin. His theory did not pay tribute
to the inclusive nature of the idea of commons, framing them as being
cared for by none because being available to all. Where everyone would
feel entitled to individual gains from the commons, disrespecting the
community of commoners, and thus, calling for laws and exclusion to
maintain the commons and limit the individual freedom. The narrowness
of this theory is in its rigid understanding of what functions are attributed
to the commons, as it implies that a commons would be dedicated to
one purpose only as a programmed space: common land for grazing
the cattle, a public toilet for bodily relief or a public park for civilised
leisure activity. If we keep such narrow understanding of a commons,
it will hardly work as an inclusive space of identication for all people
alike. A park, thus, is an urban commons not by being a public park
owned by public authority, but only by the diversity of appropriations
of it. While it may have been designed for recreational leisure activity for
the neighborhood, formalised by design and behavioural norms, it is the
informal occupation of the park for unplanned, multiple, spontaneous,
36 Rittel, 1987. P7 (the author’s own emphasis)
37 Hardin. 1968.
other uses that commons the space of the park. The occupation by
demonstrators, communities engaging in a religious practise, groups
of skateboarders grinding on its rails or simply by people coming
to the park to nd, offer, negotiate or exercise labour in public space
- these processes of informal appropriation create the commons, they
common the space. The latter example of nding and offering labour is
striking as it shows how abstract fundamental rights, such as collective
bargaining, depend on public space: no one would design public space
for that activity and yet the International Labour Organisation has rightly
connected many labour related rights to be enacted in public spaces38.
So, fundamental rights that depend on space depend also on letting-
be, not by designing-towards. The park becomes a commons through
the diversity of its uses and appropriations. Commons, therefore means
If this adds multiplicity claimed by informal appropriations of space to
the denition of a commons, then I believe the urban space itself has
the power to be conceptualized as a commonly shared, inclusive, non-
exhaustive, immaterial, social resource itself of which we are all equal
custodians. If a park can be commoned, a city can. And as such, can we be
tributary to this commoned heterogenous city, we, as the heterogeneous
community of urban beings? “Tangata Whenua”, the Maori’s term to
refer to their community39, translates as “people of the land”40 reversing
the western human-to-land relationship that would read “land of the
people”. A commoned city, to which its residents are subjected, dees
the hierarchy inherent in its “geography of relations of control and
geometries of power”41. If we conceptualise the city as a commoned
space, then this dees the authority of ownership over the city, uniting its
residents as “people of the city”.
38 See David Tajgman and Karen Curtis, Freedom of Association: A User’s Guide-Standards,
Principles, and Procedures of the International Labour Organization. Geneva: International
Labour Ofce. 2000.
39 Parkinson 2012
40 Maori Dictionary Entry for “Tangata Whenua”
41 Massey. 2001. P5.
Why is it important to indulge in such hair-splitting and esoteric logomachy
on commons? Because we are facing the age of the Urbanocene42, the
age in which almost all of the human population will live in cities. In one
generation, 6.3 billion people will live in cities, that is seven out of ten
humans.43 “Populations, economic activities, social and cultural interactions,
as well as environmental and humanitarian impacts, are increasingly
concentrated in cities, and this poses massive sustainability challenges
in terms of housing, infrastructure, basic services, food security, health,
education, decent jobs, safety and natural resources, among others”,
pledge the Heads of State of the United Nations in the joint New Urban
Agenda44. With many social implications already visible today: housing
prices in cities continue to soar (in China, the average cost for housing in
urban areas has increased by virtually 120% in a decade while wages have
almost stagnated45) causing a growing set of social challenges of spatial
injustice46. Distances have increased due to spatially segregated housing
to other locales of daily life in the city, raising the attractiveness of non-
physical venues for public life, simply by dislocating the urban residents
from potential places of identication. A culture of competition enforces
a singularization of the individual in society, weakening the foundations of
community identity and democracy, the sense of belonging to a “we”, as
urban residents simply lose the physical sites to emplace the narratives and
practices that constitute community47.
While living in cities is commonly considered to be conducive to human
development48, the density of the built environment, the discouragement
of informal participation within today’s megacities breeds the epidemic of
loneliness and disembodiment driven by neoliberal paradigms of economic
growth and a traditionally capitalist but “pervasive idea of efciency”49. The
built environment formalizes this culture of competition, resulting in what
42 The term is pretty new, starting to be reected in academia and most recently
coined bythe physicist Geoffrey West in his book “Scale - the universal laws of Growth,
Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and
Companies”. Penguin. 2017.
43 UN World Urbanisation Prospects 2018
44 UN New Urban Agenda. 2017. p3.
45 Yingchao L & Zhili M & Ke Z & Weiyan & Jing. 2018
46 See Soja. 2009.
47 Parkinson. 2012.
48 Harris. 2016
49 Rittel, 1987. P158
Hardt and Negri paradigmatically describe as a “desocialization of the
common”50 of the urban.
Physical density acts as a re accelerant to many of the biggest social
challenges in the urban realm. In Hong Kong, the most dense urban
environment in the world, this reaches a poignant manifestation: its
seven million residents use only as little as 26% of total land available
due to historic, economic and political reasons. The built-up area is
contained, condensed, resulting for as little as 3.8% of land utilisation for
housing51 while housing is most needed. While in some areas as many as
400 ́000 residents share a square kilometre52, it would be as little as 6 ́300
if housing were spread evenly over the territory of Hong Kong 53 . While
its over seven million residents are crammed together on a very small
area, the city grew vertically, almost doubling the number of highrises
of New York with close to 2000 skyscrapers54. As a result of such high
economic competition around space in the built environment in which
commercial activity competes with private activities, accommodation
sizes of housing were forced to reduce dramatically. Depending on the
source, Hong Kong’s average at is as small as 43 square meters, that is
the size of two parking spaces. Recent new private housing towers offer
apartments from 15 square meters.55
50 Hardt and Negri. 2009. 258
51 Hong Kong Planning Department 2018
52 Yeh. 2011.
53 Cheng. 2010
54 Al. 2016. P 7
55 Kammerer. 2016
Images on following page: “Life and death in density” - “Tengata
Whenua”: “Land of the people” or “where the people’s ancestors have
lived and where their placenta are buried.” Left: Ping Shek Estate,
Hong Kong’s most dense public housing estate to which residents
accept an average waiting time of 5.5 years. Right: a vertical public
cemetery tower, the Diamond Hill Columbarium. Filled with urns in
government allocated niches on dense racks that are to be given up
after not longer than 6 years after death.
As part of this centrifugal force to a cohesive urban society most spatial
qualities establishing social cohesion and community identity traditionally
related to our homes, to the shared corridors and the porches and steps
in front of our homes, have been bequeathed to programmed public
spaces or shopping malls. Especially in large housing developments
for low and middle-income residents, as the most vulnerable victims to
economic pressures in the urban realm, sanitized design of housing blocks
discourages any uncontrolled, informal transcendence of the residents
private space into the public realm. Private lives are stored away behind
apartment doors, public life is channeled into locales of consumption or
programmed behaviour. All public spaces, or “plazas”56, are being used
to buffer all social consequences of the industrial production of private
spaces. What housing developments missed out on, public space was
asked to make up for. And, whilst public space today is far from being
neglected by urban planning, often with good intentions, even public
space -to which progressive urban theorists have recently and rightfully
conceptualized to be an abstract right owned by urban residents57- has
most dramatically been a victim to the culture of transforming even public
entitlements into consumer goods58. New “public spaces” open “for all” are
being created most often only in exchange for more individual nancial
prot of very few - from London’s PSPOs59 to Hong Kong’s POSPDs60. So
again, when I hereafter conceptualize social urban commons, I call to think
beyond just public ownership of space.
Symptomatic of a global trend is Hong Kong’s built icon of the city’s
hegemony of corporate power, the HSBC bank tower in the Central District.
It received a “bonus”61 (nota bene the language) commercial oor area of
an extra 14’801 m262 of the most protable commodity for making less than
20% of this bonus area available to the public as a privately owned, highly
tamed and strongly policed pedestrian passage on ground level. While in
2014 Hong Kong headed the global ranking of the crony-capitalism index
by The Economist, with billionaire wealth making up for as much as 80% of
local GPD63, largely of real estate tycoons, today the average queuing time
56 to use the contemporary term which, to me, never ceases to resound the language of real
estate marketing brochures and shopping malls
57 Such as Gregory Smithsimon 2015
58 Butler. 2015. P. 159
59 Abbv. for Privately Owned Public Space
60 Abbv for Public Open Space in Private Development
61 Yu. 2018. P. 744
62 Idib. P 744
63 Yu 2018 p 741
for an affordable at in a public housing estate is roughly 6 years64 - and
often much longer for young applicants. This is a side of urban reality in
dense cities around the world and a stark display of the political socio-
spatial dialectic, where the urban regime of politics and business shapes
urban space and is then in turn shaped by spatial order65. Again, this
highlights the highly political dimension of urban density as it introduces
the question of sovereignty into the conceptualization of urban
commons. It reminds to askwho takes control of the city’s resources and
who protects appropriations of space of some from those of others. This
environment of socio-spatial competition and friction undoubtedly gives
evidence of Ambrose King’s sociological analysis that rapid urbanization
causes a politicizing of the apolitical strata66. In Hong Kong’s recent
history, this is evident in the urban conicts that gave expression to the
contesting Stadtanschauungen within the city: The Hijacking Public Space
movement in 2008 around Times Square Mall, the large anti-capitalist
Occupy Central movement in 2011, the large-scale pro-democracy
driven Umbrella Movement of 2014 occupying the central highway for
months, and this year’s mass protests which is widening to be a protest
against the political culture as a whole and its impacts on the residents’
daily lives in the city.
Nobody will argue that making political claims visible, a role commonly
and traditionally attributed to public space, would not depend on physical
sites in the city for communities to do so. But beyond that, fundamental
to this essay ́s denition of the Social Urban Commons are the (informal)
processes by which these physical sites are being appropriated and the
circumstances under which these appropriations are being performed.
And, most importantly, which force claims sovereignty in this process?
In the following, the question of sovereignty over or within the urban
space will be approached across three types of informal appropriations
of the city ́s space that each give evidence to processes of commoning.
First, political protest and its ways to informally resist the programming
of public space, spatially articulating political resistance. Secondly,
large scale social gatherings of marginalised communities in public
who informally claim visibility in the urban experience by temporarily
dominating public space. And thirdly, extensive informal settlements
which have informally appropriated interstitial urban spaces and
reclaimed participation in the process of co-creating housing in the city.
All of these large scale phenomena of Hong Kong share characteristics
of processes of commonning in the city.
64 Ng. 2018.
65 Yu 2018 p 734
66 King. 1975. P. 438
Image: “Fuck you”. Traces of discontent.
Political protests in cities exemplify the question of sovereignty in a
theoretical but striking way: if freedom of assembly, the fundamental
freedom held by all citizens in a democracy requires a physical site to
be enacted in, do its assemblies depends on being protected by the
state and its norm-enforcing allies of capital power or does it depend
on being protected from them by the people?67. The question of
popular sovereignty versus the sovereignty of the state over the city’s
spatial articulation of claims, thus, hints at the vital contribution of
forms of resistance to the system’s norms, laws or architecturally coded
formalities. The protest, as a form of popular sovereignty, empowers
a process of “reexive self-making” of communities which is “separate
from the very representative regime it legitimates”68. This separateness,
this autonomy from the regime embodies the vital contribution of
resistance to construct visible juxtapositions of different identities of the
city’s multiplicity, by actively affronting its dominant forces. A resistance,
by physically claiming spatial coexistence against the efforts of “taming”
of space, as Massey beautifully refers to in “For Space” which aims to
code the space to be apolitical, controllable and with my denition of the
city to be fundamentally “aspatial”69.
Despite the spatio-political complexity of democratic performances of
public space (being extensively analyzed in literature) the single aspect
that I herein come to observe is the degree of resistance against any spatial
predeterminations enforced by policy, police or by the programming of
space through any top-down authority of politics, planning or design.
Resistance, all processes of informally and autonomously appropriating
the urban space, is not necessarily against most often and importantly in
spite of the laws, norms or policies in place. It is by this process of informal
appropriation that the community of protesters informally reclaims a
degree of sovereignty both spatially and politically: e.g. the sovereignty
of millions of Hong Kongers in July of 2019, occupying major streets and
buildings, diverting routes of trafc and infrastructure, erecting camps
67 See. Parkinson 2012.
68 Butler. 2015 P. 171
69Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos 2018. P. 18. For “aspatial” see also: Doreen Massey,
Power-Geometries and the Politics of Space: Hettner Lecture 1998. Heidelberg: University
of Heidelberg. 1999.
and maintaining temporary informal economies of supply, reusing,
reclaiming, reinterpreting the very physical resources available at hand in
the city to alter its built form by erecting barriers and tearing down walls.
A sovereignty also over the iconography, the symbols and narratives of the
built environment, informally claimed by altering, reversing or rewriting
the meanings of the urban fabric. By way of example in Hong Kong by
projecting video footage of police violence on the police headquarters
defensive walls, inverting its predetermined architectural narrative. Or not
less by informally appropriating ownership over the advertising slogan
on the facade of the HSBC bank tower simply by staging the protest in
front of it: “Together we thrive!”, is suddenly weaponized, appropriated, I
say commoned, by inverting or claiming spatial authority over this piece
of urban fabric.
The territoriality of Hong Kong’s protest movement is represented in
the ways that the crowd articulates its claims as well as in the literally
territorial battle over control over the streets during the protests. “Hold
your grounds” is a widely repeated claim which documents resistance
to be both something ideational, as in holding on to the beliefs held
by the community of protesters, as well as territorial in defending and
holding the grounds that represent these beliefs geographically. For the
latter, the forceful occupation of streets and buildings of legislative and
executive power, the informal appropriation of urban fabric becomes
the spatial manifestation of a political conict in which pushing borders,
claiming and losing physical dominance over a space reects the battle
of sovereignty at large.
Images on opposite page: “Hold your ground”. Top: A note on one
of the many “walls of wishes” that cover many government buildings
repeates the claim “Hold your ground”. Bottom: the territoriality of
protest seen in a tactical map by protesters that record the status of
occupations of the streets in Central. Blue represents police controlled
territories , red the demonstrators.
Sovereignty, control and participation in political terms is claimed
spatially. In the density of this city, space literally is politics and acts of
resistance are a way of commoning the space in the political dimension,
maintaining an open access for everyone into its political debate. It gives
evidence to Hershkovitz`s view on the appropriation of symbolic political
spaces such as Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. There, not less than in Hong
Kong, “the power of oppositional movements rests on their ability to
appropriate ‘the space of the other”70. Where “the tension between
the domination of public space and its appropriation as a (temporary)
platform from which to communicate alternative or oppositional political
messages is part of the social process that continually produces and
transforms social space. No matter how temporary the appropriation, or
how permanently its traces are eradicated, the very fact of its existence,
the memories and associations it evokes permanently changes the face
of the place in which it occurred”71.
While in western democracies, political protest is often heavily formalised
in the urban realm by formal processes of applications, permission,
and even spatial preparation and protection by the state, resistance is
dispossessed from the impact of informality. This formalising of resistance
fundamentally impedes the status of being commoned that is claimed
especially through informal processes of appropriation. Examples
of such informal acts of resistance in western cities are rare. London’s
recent Extinction Rebellion protest which informally appropriated the
central London Waterloo Bridge and other landmarks, disrupting road
transportation for days by turning the bridge into a pedestrian park made
up from quickly gathered plants and trees has been a rare occasion. Here
too, the city was commoned because the political narrative of the built
form was appropriated and informally rewritten: a bridge was commoned
temporarily to be a park, claiming a participation in the political narrativity
70 Hershkovitz. 1993.
71 Idib P. 395
of the urban realm, which -technically- is owned by all, being a piece of
public infrastructure .
While commons are traditionally dened in literature as “collectively
shared property”72, I argue, beyond traditional denitions of the
commons to be opening the access to a physical resource (such as public
infrastructures to the bridge London or the streets of Hong Kong) or
immaterial resources linked to a physical one (such as knowledge is linked
to a school or a book). I argue, that the informal process of resistance, the
sovereignty reclaimed by a collective through engaging in an act of such,
is likewise a type of “collectively shared property”73. Resistance is proven
to be a spatial potential, abstractly available to all. While I certainly do not
argue for an abolishment of laws or a general disregard of considerate
social norms, I assert that within the system of contradictory forces of
a city, it is often only the abstract process of resistance by a minority,
which guarantees and claims the spatial coexistence of diverse positions,
interpretations, and identities within the urban realm. Without resistance
against a predominant interpretation, any space, any built environment
loses its relative nature, can no longer practice its integral function of
“directing our consciousness back to the world and towards our own
sense of self”74. While I have iterated, that no space can be programmed
to, planned for, or designed to serve all the needs of all individual or
collective identities, resistance against the predominance of one singular
interpretation or identity is the only commonly shared resource of power
which enables juxtapositions to coexist. Beyond this example of political
protest. While scholars, such as Blomley75, see resistance, for example
resistance against the enclosure of a commons, only to be the proof
of the existence of a commons, I argue, that resistance itself is fullling
72 Huron, 2015. P. 963
73 Williams. 2016. P. 1
75 Blomley. 2008.
the core quality to dene it as a commons itself. Simply by informally
enacting and reclaiming and not by planning or designing that “open
access” which is a “central social value arising from open democratic
societies”76, the potential of civil resistance becomes a commons itself.
Resistance, therefore, is the rst of three highly interrelated, assets of the
urban residents which constitute my Social Urban Commons theory.
So why do I call the Urban Commons “social”, hinting at the immaterial,
relational category in which I have conceptualized the urban commons?
Because while looking at spatially distinct and physical resources as
commons, the thinking of Handin’s “tragedy” of abandonment77 or of the
far too technical concept of “subtractive resources” by Elinor Ostrom78,79
seem likely, but is yet limited when applied to my theory of the city.
Simply because they -again- do not fully overcome to conceptualize
the commons outside patterns of exclusion. Paying tribute to the
terms “public” or “common” to be “for all”, resistance, as the abstract
but powerful asset kept by potentially everyone, my interpretation of a
commons attempts to overcome such limitations, making it an inclusive,
non-exhaustive, non-subtractive relational process of urban performance
on all scales. Resistance empowers practices of commoning the network
of social relations that is the city.
76 Bruns. 2015. P. 156.
77 Hardin 1968
78 Ostrom. 1990.
79 or also those of Huron 2015 or Hubbart 2001
Images left and right: “Taking it to the streets” . Bridge at Harcourt
Road in front of the Central Government Complex being occupied
and emptied as result of inoformal appropriation of the city by
ooding it or by errecting temporary walls to block it off.
Images: “transformation, immortality and ascension to heaven.“
Left: informally constructed shrine for a public Toaist funeral ceremony
made from resouces of the city availiable at hand: a plastic chair and
cardboard boxes. Right: 30´000 people spontanously gathering to
attend the ceremony in complete silence while blocking the major
central highway on the site here a protester took his own life to create
awareness for his demands.
Images on double page: “Sous les pavés, la plage!!“ Left: materials
of the urban life, from contruction materials to railings, are dissembled
and used as a resource in constructing temporary barriers in the
territorial battle between two sides. Like in the claim from the 1968
protest movement, the alteration of the urban environment becomes
a metaphor for empowerment and is both physical barrier and
Images on double page: “together we thrive.“ Left: a protester ia
projecting video footage of police violence on the defensive walls
around the police HQ, appropriating and re-wrinting the narrative of
the built form. Right: Protesters informally claiming ownership of an
advertising slogan of the HSBC bank by staging the protest in front of
it, appropriating the spatial context of the slogan.
Resistance is often the important precondition of what I will hereafter
identify as the second asset of urban residents in commoning the city:
the visibility gained through the informal appropriation of spaces.
Building on the extensive literature on visibility and public space80, I aim
to conceptualize visibility on a meta-level, thinking not only of the visibility
of the who, but of the sheer what. The laying brutally bare of all informal
and messy processes of producing a city: the visibility and juxtaposing of
failures and successes, of birth and of death, of injustice and consolation,
of leisure and labor, consent and resistance. It is through their visibility
that things enter into being a public matter, a “res publica”81 and, thus,
allow them to be relational. Hannah Arendt empowers this process of
appearing even to “constituting reality”82, which in reverse, implies that
without visibility, the urban residents lose their sense of urban reality.
How real, therefore, is a city in which unwanted realities that threaten the
narrative of success and civility are being made invisible? From London`s
infamous defensive architectures83, that erase unwanted communities
of homeless and skaters from the urban experience, to Shenzhen’s
clearance of its own urban history by making it invisible. Commoning the
city is claiming visibility through informally appropriating its space.
When every Sunday in Hong Kong 400.000 lipino domestic workers
(that is one in twenty Hong Kong residents) peacefully occupy the
nancial district’s streets, skywalks, underpasses, trafc islands, stairways
or entries of the banking towers, shopping malls and highways by
erecting thousands of temporary cardboard shelters, mimicking the
privacy, homeliness and autonomy they dramatically lack 6 out of 7 days
being housed in the corridors of their employers, this appropriation of
space is laying brutally bare the system of exploitative labour, lack of
privacy and type of housing condition. It gives visibility to more than
just these individuals. It makes visible the social dimension of a complex
system of strained urban conditions through a large-scale informal
80 A helpful overview gives John Parkinson 2012
81 Habermas. 1991. p.4
82 Arendt 1958, p 50
83 Andreou. 2015.
appropriation of city space. Every Sunday, on their one day off work, from
dawn till late at night, the urban landscape of bank towers, highways
and shopping malls is temporarily reinterpreted by a ood of Fililipino
Domestic Workers which juxtapose the architecture of cosmopolitanism
with temporary informal “transnational”84 architectures in an a temporary
urban assemblage. By occupying the ground of much of Hong Kong’s
Central district, they claim and create spaces that are connected to
both Hong Kong and Filippine national imaginaries85. The erected
structures from approximately two to thirty square meters usually consist
of cardboard covering the oor and a circumferencing arrangement
of cardboard walls that are held up by wire or cords suspended from
ceilings or railings, often with roofs. Stretching kilometers where most
part of open space is occupied, on sidewalks, stairs and under bridges,
thousands of cardboard shelters compose a city within the city. From
an urban perspective, this congregation is more than simply a social
gathering of a community. It is an ephemeral city, built and dedicated
entirely to temporarily create qualities of life that are traditionally enacted
in homes: privacy, sharing a home-cooked meal, watching movies and
inviting friends, for a community that has no homes in which to do so. In the
earliest hours of every Sunday, hundreds of pushcarts gather cardboard
from local shops and restaurants in Central to supply every small group
with sufcient construction material. Across these thousands of structures
every week there is a continuation of methods and materials, resulting
in what is not short of being a very particular vernacular architecture.
Inside these compartments, a phantasma of private housing is enacted:
shoes are left “outside”, different corners are dedicated to different uses,
from eating to sleeping and the people in the adjacent compartments
become neighbors for a day. Together they compose a temporary
urban enclave with its own kind of housing density, its own architectural
articulation with its own (cardboard) dividers between public and private
spheres.86 The days are spent sleeping, singing karaoke and exchanging
goods and gossip across this network of a temporary city, which at night
84 Law 2002, P 1629
85 Law 2002
is disassembled again and disappears without a trace, making way for
the bankers and business people to dominate the space only a few
hours later. The community disappears again to work under strained
housing conditions with 1 in 10 domestic workers being forced to sleep
in a kitchen, toilet, or corner of the living room87. While the temporarily
occupied territories morph public open spaces and privately-owned
corporate spaces, the sheer scale of this informal appropriation of space
has resulted in a surprising degree of acceptance88 from government and
businesses which neither encourages, nor effectively bans this activity. It
instead it has come to pragmatically add Tagalog, the national language
of the Philippines, to the public signs in this area89, thus, rendering it as a
community legitimately associated with this space.
This large scale public congregation is not politically originated, even
though its appearance and the consumption of space and its inevitable
obstruction to the ow of people through town automatically articulates
a political dimension of this tradition. It is simply the visibility of it that
gives this community a “political presence”90, producing new kinds of
public spheres and kinds of political agency. But while this is certainly
a partaking in the discursivity of the urban space, some scholars, such
as John Parkinson, critique this phenomenon to deepen a social “them”
and “us” divide in public perception, worsening the friction that this
appropriation of space causes91. I argue, however, that this visibility,
this appearing creates a physical experience of the drastic social
consequences caused by not more than a pattern of employment, of
certain conditions of housing and of the city’s economics of space created
by the specic spatial, social and political arrangement of Hong Kong.
It is the same streets that are being occupied by protesters on a Saturday,
87 Hincks. 2017.
88 Strictly speaking only after decades and a number of different legal approaches of relocating
the phenomenon to other locals which were simply not effective.
89 Tillu. 2011.
90 Law. 2010. P. 1638
91 Idib. 158
domestic workers on Sunday and bankers on Monday, often overlapping,
which add periodical layers of visibly of very different identities, claims
and realities to the urban experience. These are important layers and
nuances of urban realities, letting almost half a million otherwise invisible
urban residents enter the reality of others. The process of appearing in
urban space, is a process of commonning it.
The right of visibility of all realities of a city that was claimed through a
very informal appropriation of public space, is owned by all who inhabit a
livable city. The coming together of bodies in distinct statial forms, simply
their appearing, articulates complex claims of thei community, without
a word being publicly chanted, even in silence, even without acting in
concert at all, simply through appearing92. “Commoning is a messy and
fragmented process in which transformation takes place”93, as Gibson-
Graham (et al.) argue in Commoning as a postcapitalist politics, reecting
how in this case, the urban realm is transformed through the visibility of
the other. There is no multiplicity in a city if it is not visible. This visibility
itself is the commons, as it commons the right to appear in the city.
92 Butler. 2015.
93 Gibson-Graham. 2016. P.20
Images on double page: “A city within the city.“ Left and right: the
early hours of sunday, when the rst people erect their compartments
from collected cardboard here in an underpass. The dark and hot
environment of a pedestrian tunnel gives evidence that the spatial
qualities of view, material or climate of the temporary space are less
imporant then its social qualities.
Images on double page: “Good Day - Vanilla Latte“ Left and right:
informal appropriation of public space by Filipina Domestic Workers
on their day off. A strong juxtapositioning of urban infrastructure of
streets and subway with moments and spaces of intimacy and privacy.
Images on double page: “Keep Clear!“ Left: Occupation of the space
around the icon of the city´s hegemony of corporate power, the HSBC
banking tower. Right a birthday party is being held in the niche of the
central bus terminus as busses rush by.
Images on double page: “Emporio“ Left and right: informal
appropriation of the street, claiming a temporary territory, an informal
Emporio with its own territory, systems of supply and communication.
The third of the three conditions to dene Social Urban Commons is not
less interrelated to the process of resistance and the right of visibility. But
extends it towards the dilemma that in a densely populated city there are
limited contesting methods of production of space, especially of housing.
One method is the prot-driven neoliberal machinery of constructing
commercially-optimized housing, cutting corners wherever possible94
and all its consequences on the built architectural form. The second is
the time and scale-driven machinery of public housing construction,
being subject to political sensitivities, lengthy and often opaque award
procedures as well as the constant pressure of the massive back-log
in supply which again shifts priorities in favor of scale and time, rather
than quality and communal benets. Amid these rigid and highly formal
forces in industrially producing what housing in the city physically and
architecturally can be, I therefore, look to highlight the lack of the third
condition of Social Urban Commons: Participation.
Participation in the process of dening what else the production of space
can be, next to the predominant methods and forces. While participation
is most often conceptualized as a category of democratic performance
of space, as a kind of formalized decision making process, I herein carve
out the power of participation in the co-creation of a wider spectrum
of possible habitations in the city, of how they function, how they are
managed and maintained. Every informally built housing, resisting
the law and market, making visible its social precondition, adds one
denition to the spectrum what else production of housing in the city can
be. It adds diversity to the spectrum of all possible types of habitation, it
allows participation in debating what the city can ultimately also be.
In Hong Kong, housing prices in 15 years have spiked 445%95, topping
the 2019 Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability
Survey as being the least affordable city in the world96. In such a regime
of competition around space in the city, informal appropriations of all
94 Stephen Cairns. 2019
95 Shirley Zhao. 2018.
96 Demographia. 2019.
interstitial spaces of rooftops, under highways, in the back alleys or any
other commercially non-cultivable urban niches, become the only means
of urban residents to participate in co-creating more diverse forms of
urban housing outside the dominant and formal methods. What does
that mean, if I want to avoid to think of an occasional homeless shelter
and want to avoid fetishising poor circumstances? Well, the sheer
extent of Hong Kong’s storied rooftop slums tells a story about these
questions: the thousands of informally, illegally built, dense dwellings on
extensive and connected rooftops form rural structures of cohabitation
for residents, autonomous from traditional real estate markets, built
from sheet metal, brick and plastic, sharing and informally claiming
access to electricity and other infrastructures, they give evidence to
that participation. Like slums all around the world, they create a parallel
space of co-existing urban alternatives, mostly for people who have no
alternative. However, unlike slums around the world, they have not grown
at the poorly connected, neglected margins of the city, but they have
informally appropriated the most central, theoretically most valuable
space in the city, the rooftops of very central neighborhoods. Up there,
after 16 ights of stairs, we nd extensive mazes of small alleys between
arrangements of huts, narrow wooden stairways to second or even third
additional oors. Between the dwellings, the inside and outside morphs,
occasionally opening to small open spaces used for growing vegetables
and raising chickens. Overarched, anked, dominated by skyscrapers
of steel, glass, and concrete, these urban anachronisms are metaphors
of the dialectic of change and permanence, of planning and resisting
plans, of formality and informality embodied through a juxtaposition of
common and uncommon types of housing. Access is open, not by policy
but quite simply by unlocked doors. No lobby, no CCTV. Electricity is
shared, ownership is secondary. These are rural villages on top of the
city - no, they are villages in spite of the city:
Image on right: “Inspite of the city” Informal housing on an informally
occupied rooftop, overarched by a glass and steel skyscraper in Kwun
Tong. Next page: Network of rooftop slums in Mongkok.
Images: “A village in spite of the city”. Left: the architectural layering
of a 70s housing estate, informal roof dwellings on top, overarched by
a modern housing towers. Right: resident of rooftop slums engaging
in roof top agriculture.
Images on double page: “Architectural alternatives”. Left: inside of
home in rooftop settlement where “public” alley and “private” stairs
merge. Right: multi-story rooftop settlements. Both in Mongkok.
Images: “Urban Farming”. Left: informally appropriated roof with
wild garden in front of a modern ofce tower. Right: agriculture
between the urban infrastructure. Both in Kwun Tong.
6Images on double page: “What else”. Left the complete dillusion
of public and private. Man in his informally assembled apartment in
public space, where private and public furniture are blended. Right:
informal architecture of reclaimed building materials, informally
assembled as a settlement. Both are tolerated by authorities inspite
of signs stating otherwise. Both at Kwun Tong Pier.
While I shall be certain not to fetishize deprived circumstances, these tens
of thousands of alternative lives among modern urbanites do represent
at least an example for large scale participation in the question of what
else can the city can be. Having grown quickly during large waves of
immigration since the 1970s, they prove the coexistence of alternative
modes of producing housing under intense urban pressure and
informally juxtapose a more autonomous, improvised, heterogeneous,
less sanitized, less tamed and controlled spaces to be represented on the
spectrum of different interpretations of the city. They are an antithesis to
the dominant modes of production by using materials at hand, reusing it
to constantly alter the built form over time. They are built and maintained
by the residents, anything becomes building material, anyone is an
architect, the residents become the urban planners. It’s a village that is
let-be by the city.
Informal dwellings exist in various forms, much beyond the storied rooftop
slums. Their history is a chronicle of Hong Kong’s history of immigration
since the industrialisation boom of the 1950s when every decade drew
its own waves of immigrants into the city, from poorer mainland Chinese
to the domestic workers of southeast asia during the rise of the city as
a nancial hub from the 1980s onwards. In Hong Kong of 2010 it was
approximated that at least 100 ́00097 people lived in informal types of
housing. While the number of traditional informal roof-top structures is
decreasing, a comprehensive recording in 2001 claimed there were still
16,359 of such roof housing structures counted98. Hong Kong policies
made the erection of such structures after 1983 generally illegal with
the government ofcially “tolerating”99 those built before 1982. But as
building materials are mostly recycled and reused, alterations, upgrades,
and extensions remain largely unsurveyed, gaining them an unresolved
legal status up until today. And, even a degree of factual power in
opposing the city’s economic metrics: a wealthy expat revealed to me
in an interview, that his bank rejected a loan he requested for adding a
roof terrace to a top-oor apartment, because “the banks do not dare
98 Idib. P. 30.
99 Hong Kong Lands Department 2016
to get involved in investments into upmarket housing with historically
unresolved legal status of informal roof structures”100. Here, it was the
informality in appropriating the roof, the act of resistance against the
system of production of space in the least affordable city on earth which
-in this case- gained inuence in preventing an act of gentrication.
Today, a new wave of younger residents appropriate more roofs in more
contemporary ways, driven by the lack of green space rather than the
brutal poverty of the 1970s, erecting illegal roof farms and huts in the
same manner of resistance and appropriation. Though with modern
construction methods, driven by a new set of urban decits, they maintain
a continuity of coexistence of almost rural spatialities in spite of the city,
wild gardens in spite of the dominance of concrete and glass, informality
in spite of urban planning and design.
This possibility of participation, again perceived as an abstract right held
by everyone in the city, this act of co-creation, exemplies the third of the
urban powers which constitute Social Urban Commons. By participating
in claiming the multiplicity of possible housings, the city, its roofs and
interstitial spaces are commoned.
Echoing the growing literature on the contribution of informal dwellings
to the question of how to deal with rapid urbanization, such alternative
housing practices give agency and physical space to communities
who would otherwise be displaced to the margins of the city. These
alternative practices of housing remind us to be “learning to see past
the spatial irregularity, the surface grime and the patchy aesthetic to
understand the economic resilience, the social cohesion, the autonomy,
the technological ingenuity, the remarkable skills of everyday living that
can ourish in informal housings”101, as even the World Economic Forum
has come to publish. Informal appropriation of space that gave housing
to tens of thousands of urban residents, reclaimed a “social breathing
space”102 in the dense network of social relations and its frictions. This
participation, thus, is a practice of commoning.
100 Interview conducted yb the author on 22. July 2019 with a resident
101 Stephen Cairns. 2019.
102 Shaw and Hudson. 2009.
Resistance, visibility, and participation - together they constitute Social
Urban Commons, performed into being through informal, messy103,
uncontrolled processes of appropriating the urban space, through co-
creating its meanings, possible interpretations, and manifestations. How
can they be planned for? They can’t. They can only be enacted through
what was described in the opening remarks as Gelassenheit, through
With the given examples it becomes clear how inside the system of social
forces that shape any city, the letting-be evidently equally contributes to
commoning the city as the process of informal appropriation itself. In a
pull and push of contesting sides, any multiplicity is the result of a spatially
articulated debate, where claiming and letting-be-claimed sustain
an informal balance in a system otherwise dominated by control. This
acknowledgement gives evidence that “Taking it to the streets” becomes
more than a metaphor for public discontent and demonstrations. The
streets, the built environment of the city, the architecture and public
space become actors in the demcratic performativity of society at large.
The informal appropriation of it, thus, empowers claims to be taken
seriously and non the less to be scrutinized. The city, beyond a merely
political account of democracy, becomes participatory by informally
claiming physical sites of representation for its diverse communities.
While nishing this essay, the government of Hong Kong had given in
to the primary demand to repeal a divisive law that sparked the protest
movement by which protesters feared it would limit their civil liberties
and rights in the city. It can well be argued here that it was the pressure
“of” and “on the street”, its undeniable visibility and territoriality to both
physical and virtual publics, its very spatial articulation in the dense
urban environment that left the government with little political choice
but to make concessions. While clearly the situation has been uid and
a simple repeal of the divisive law cannot be seen as a clear victory for
any side, however, it does allow the abstract conclusion that an open,
participatory, socially cohesive city, which allows for different identities
to emplace themselves in and to co-exist in proximity requires an
understanding of participation to be also informal, not planned and,
103 Gibson-Graham. 2016. P. 20.
essentially, claimed. Claimed participation becomes the force against
any overpowering dominance. Any urban planner, any architect and
politician and any developer must come to acknowledge this claimed
limitation to their ability to control the urban space and to understand
letting-be as a valuable contribution to urban life. While I certainly do
not want to take responsibility from political processes of democratically
governing the city and certainly discourage any act of violence in informal
appropriations, this theory must be understood as a bow to alternative
methods of claiming resistance, visibility and participation in the city.
Such a city denes the city as a commons.
While Hong Kong offered unique representations of these practices, they
are far from making it an ideal city. But the scale of these phenomena
which grew under its special circumstances of density, culture and
geopolitical backdrop, allows a theorizing how resistance, visibility,
and participation exemplify the power of commonning. This conclusion
should inform any vision of the cities of the future. Now, at the brink of
the Urbanoscene, I conclude this text be letting it be a reminder that
the future of our cities is up to us. Resistance, visibility, and participation
have to become our own tools fot commoning the socio-spatial resource
and to create a future of urban life that leaves breathing space for more
realities then the hegemony of one. We are the resistance, the visibility,
the participation in our urban spaces. Or more poetically, quoting The
Poetics of we space:
OU JE SUIS”104
(I am the space where I am).
104 Poet Noel Arnault quoted in Bachelard. 1969. P. 137
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All Photography is taken by authors.
Shot on lm with Canon AE-1 on Fujicolor Superia Xtra 400
Illustration and Images:
Hands Illustration is the authors own.
Based on titel illustration of music cassette from 1980s
“FREEDOM FLOWER Song for people’s movement Tape no. 94”
P. 19 bottom: Adam Ni,12 Jun 2019, posted publicly on https://
Thank you Hannah and Edward for the encouragement and
understanding. Thank you Bun and Sally for making me love your city.