In Paris and elsewhere, the metal grids at the foot of the tall plane trees disappear to make way for flowers, fruits, vegetables and wild herbs. These initiatives, controlled and supervised by the public authorities, seem to constitute a form of reappropriation of urban space by its closest inhabitants. But they also raise questions relating to the management of the commons and the idea of collective governance of space, its appropriation, its management by actors with often fragmented and sometimes contradictory strategies.
1 At the beginning of August 2017, a new platform “Veganisons Paris” was launched by the municipality of the capital. The site brings together information about the various initiatives of the Paris City Hall aimed at encouraging residents to invest in public spaces to plant plants. Everyone can take the necessary steps there for their greening project and report their achievements on a map.
2 Among the various aspects of the Paris policy, the permit to vegetate is undoubtedly the one that has attracted the most attention, with several thousand authorizations granted to residents since its creation in 2015. Many other French cities — such as Lille, Marseille, Strasbourg, Grenoble or Bordeaux – have implemented similar measures (although the rules may vary from one city to another).
3 We come across green spaces more and more often in Paris as part of this system and it seems legitimate to ask ourselves to what extent it may or may not promote the emergence of urban Commons. One might think that the permit to vegetate naturally goes in the direction of the Commons, insofar as it allows the inhabitants to reclaim the public space. But it would seem that things are more complex. Both from the point of view of the legal structure and its practical results, the permit to vegetate does not always lead to the constitution of Commons in the city. It can even lead to their exact opposite, namely a form of Tragedy of the Commons, although fortunately this is not an inevitability. This question of vegetalization perfectly illustrates how certain things can at first glance seem Common without being so and even end up threatening them.
4 The permit to vegetate allows a resident or residents of a city to request permission to use a portion of public space — tree stands, flower beds, sidewalks or even walls … – in order to grow plants there. Legally, it is analyzed as a temporary occupation authorization (AOT) of the public domain, which has, roughly speaking, the same nature as those requested by coffee makers to install a terrace encroaching on a sidewalk or protesters who want to march in the street. Public persons are indeed considered in France as owners of real estate that constitute road spaces, but public property has a special nature compared to private property. The community cannot use its right of ownership as it wishes, because it must guarantee that the property remains “assigned to the use of the public”. This explains the time limitation of occupancy authorizations aimed at “privatizing” public spaces, as is the case with shops.
5 For the permit to vegetate, we are following a similar logic: one or more individuals request to be able to use a plot of public domain by planting plants there. People applying for the permit can request material support from the municipality (a free vegetalization kit, including tools and seeds, is available in Paris,). This can go as far as carrying out special landscaping works, such as preparing a planting pit, filling with soil, laying a tray or a protective border. But the beneficiaries of the permit must in return commit to respecting a certain number of conditions set in Paris by a Vegetalization Charter. The person to whom the permit is issued “undertakes to install the device [himself] himself (for example: a planter or a tree foot border), to use local and honey plants promoting the biodiversity of Paris, not to resort to pesticides and to ensure the aesthetics and maintenance of plants and supports (watering, cleaning, etc.)”. Failure to comply with these conditions exposes to the cancellation of the authorization, which remains valid for a variable period depending on the city (one to three years, with tacit renewal). We are therefore quite close in the end to a form of “micro-delegation” of public service to the person who obtains the vegetation permit. The citizen obtains responsibility for the management of a space previously maintained by the city’s green spaces services, but he must accept the constraints inherent in this type of activities.
6 However, do these permits lead to the creation of Commons in the urban space, in the proper sense of the term? It’s not certain. We are indeed moving from a situation where the spaces were managed by the public authority to another, where private people are going to recover the right to use them. In a certain way, the permit to vegetate is a “permit to privatize”, although its scope remains limited. Indeed, the recipient obtains an exclusivity to control the space subject to the permit (in particular to decide what will be planted there and the developments to be carried out), but the plot must remain assigned to the use of all, because it continues to be part of the public domain. This is what makes it impossible, for example, to use the permit to vegetate to set up a small personal vegetable garden around a foot of a tree in the street. The fruits or vegetables that grow there can be picked by everyone and the person holding a permit to vegetate cannot claim to be the “owner”. From this point of view, these spaces become Commons, or to be exact res nullius (things without a master), allowing the updating in the city of the ancestral practices of gleaning and grappling that once existed in the countryside, at the time when the Commons played an essential role for the subsistence of the populations.
7 Despite this point of contact, the permit to vegetate gives the impression of oscillating between the public and the private, without being able to put a finger on what makes the specificity of the Common. We now come across many spaces on the streets of the capital that have been vegetated as part of a permit. They often carry small signs indicating that Mr. or Mrs. So-and-so has obtained authorization to use these spaces, over which the citizen finally has no more control than when it was the municipality that managed them. We are moving from public control to private control, but not to collective governance exercised by a community, which is the proper of what makes the Common. The contrast is strong with shared gardens, for example, where concerted management methods must necessarily be put in place by the groups who share their use and which are therefore much more easily linked to the spirit of the Commons.
8 But the permit to vegetate is likely to emerge from this “individualist” logic to take on a collective dimension, because its attribution can go as well to natural persons as to legal entities, constituted for example in associations. In some neighborhoods, instead of being limited to a juxtaposition of individual plots without overall coherence, the vegetalization is carried out in a concerted manner within the framework of projects carried out by associations aimed at involving the inhabitants in the choices for their neighborhood. It should also be noted that in Strasbourg, vegetalization permits could not originally be requested by individuals: it was only associations that could request them and we can wonder if it would not be better if it were systematically so to affirm the collective dimension of the approach, without which no Common can exist.
9 As such, it is interesting to note that in September 2016, the Paris Council adopted, on the proposal of the elected representatives of the Environmental Group, which was precisely seeking to reinject the collective within the approach, a wish about the device “Vegetalization permit” :
“The Council of Paris expresses the wish: [… ] That a “gardening” mission equipped with adapted means completes in each arrondissement the establishment of a vegetation committee to accompany the projects of the inhabitants and facilitate their steps, that the city of Paris launches a call for projects to find associations that accompany the project leaders, energize and publicize the device, help to make the link with the other citizen gardeners of the neighborhood. »
11 The idea of relying on vegetation committees and associations linking individual project leaders was interesting. But isn’t this the very bottom of the device that we should review in order to get out of the public/private dichotomy and move towards a “common” vegetalization? The example of the Italian cities [1 ] would undoubtedly be useful to convene here. Like what is happening, for example, in Naples or Bologna, why not indeed inscribe greening within the framework of a “Charter of Urban Commons [2 ]”, which would explicitly consecrate the spaces to be greened as Commons by associating associations and communities to the very definition of the global program? If the system of temporary occupation of the public domain has some interesting aspects, it may be necessary to go further and cut ties with this philosophy of uses “granted” by the public power to move towards the establishment of real Urban Commons.
12 When you go to the Instagram account “Veganisons Paris” set up by the city hall, you can see many photos of dapper plant installations made by the inhabitants of the city and it is true that we sometimes come across magnificent ones in the streets. But this is not, alas, the general feeling that I could have had by passing by green spaces. On his Twitter account, Didier Rikner [@ltdla] [3 ] often pins spaces left abandoned, degraded by passers-by or designed from the outset by their managers on aesthetic bases … to say the least questionable!
13 Walking past a trashed plantation plot is an excellent way to understand what is known as the “Tragedy of the Commons”. Theorized by the economist Garret Hardin in a famous eponymous article published in the journal Science in 1968, the notion of “Tragedy of the Commons” designates a situation where a resource left open access is overexploited by its users to the point of eventually disappearing. If Hardin took the example of a sheep pasture in his article, the phenomenon he describes can very well apply to these trashed green spaces. Passers-by use them as dumps by throwing their garbage there, behaving like so many “stowaways”. This concept introduced by the American socio-economist Mancur Olson refers to individuals who benefit from a shared resource without contributing to it in return. This is a typical manifestation of what is called in economics a “negative externality”: a situation where the behavior of an actor produces harmful effects, the cost of which he weighs on the community rather than assuming them himself.
14 Garret Hardin believed that the Tragedy of the Commons fatally hit all the resources shared and that the only way to avoid the destruction of precious goods for humanity was either to privatize them or to have them managed by the public power. But Elinor Ostrom’s work on common goods later refuted these conclusions by showing that a third way was possible when communities managed to organize themselves to establish and enforce management rules capable of ensuring the preservation of shared resources, sometimes in a more efficient way than the market or the state. We can clearly see that this is precisely what is missing from green spaces that end up trashed or dilapidated. In most cases, there are no (or more…) real “communities” on the streets of Paris that can decide on their creation, enforce management rules and ensure regular maintenance. The dilapidated plots are as many mirrors showing us to what extent the urban spaces of our cities have become real “collective deserts”, where crowds of individuals crowd every day, but where no one really “lives” anymore, in the strong sense of the term. As, moreover, most of the permits to vegetate are attributed to isolated individuals, many are those who quickly throw in the towel because they fail to compensate by their simple forces for the damage that these spaces suffer every day. Thus, very often, the permit to vegetate actually organizes a tragedy of the Commons, for lack of being part of the collective substrate that would allow these practices to make sense.
15 It should be noted that this phenomenon also affects other types of urban Commons, such as Small Street Libraries (Little Free Libraries). Originally launched in 2009 in cities across North America, these “book boxes” installed in front of houses aim to promote the sharing and circulation of books at the neighborhood level. A foundation has even been created in the United States to support the development of this practice intended to strengthen neighborhood ties. But last year, an article published in the Digital Reader (“The Tragedy of The Commons Has Now Come To Little Free Libraries”) pointed out that faced with the multiplication of cases of vandalism and looting of these boxes, especially for the purpose of reselling books, the movement was experiencing a decline in several cities. Far from contradicting the theory of Commons, this phenomenon confirms it, because the contents of book boxes typically constitute an “open access resource” in the sense that Garret Hardin understood it. The Little Free Libraries generally bear an inscription “Take a Book, Return a Book” to encourage users to limit withdrawals and to practice a certain form of reciprocity. But as Elinor Ostrom showed in her work on the Commons, in the absence of a community formed around this resource and able to organize itself to enforce rules, the resource cannot be maintained over time and a “tragedy of the Commons” ends up occurring.
16 A device such as the Little Free Libraries can work on the scale of a neighborhood, when the inhabitants form a sufficiently organized group to share a set of common principles, but the boxes implanted in circulation spaces are made accessible to a set of users too vast and too shapeless to constitute a “community”. It would be more correct to say that the Little Free Libraries do not constitute Commons in the proper sense of the term. They do not meet the three fundamental criteria of a shared resource, an organized community of users and defined access and management rules. It is simply a system organizing the provision of an open access resource, with what vulnerability it may involve.
17 This does not mean that any attempt to create Commons in the streets is doomed to failure, but the process of regaining urban space requires the reconstruction of a collective fabric that is weakened in most of our cities. Whether with small street libraries or green spaces, we are confronted with a form of chicken-and-egg paradox: there are certainly no Commons without communities, but isn’t the construction of Commons also a way to revive communities where they had disappeared? This is the question posed by an article by Socialter [4 ] devoted to the vegetalization of cities, by linking it to what is called in psychology “the theory of the broken glass”, thus defined :
“According to the latter, the degradation of a space and the failure to repair the damage lead to a vicious circle: a broken window and abandoned as it is makes similar vandalism behaviors acceptable. It is therefore not surprising to see other garbage cans piled up next to a bag of garbage deposited in the wrong place and outside of pick-up hours. Conversely, vegetating your corner of asphalt is a good strategy to ensure that your neighbor maintains the common living space as well. »
19 From this point of view, the green spaces of Paris constantly oscillate between Tragedy and Comedy. Those who end up trashed and abandoned by the permit holders act as so many “broken windows”, risking aggravating the tearing of the urban fabric instead of helping it to reconstitute. Those, on the contrary, who hold on can radically change the atmosphere of a street corner and strengthen the feeling of belonging to a shared space in which everyone can be the actor. It is on the condition of being able to germinate the dynamics of the Common that the vegetated spaces will be able to embody something other than our collective inability to take care of what is close to us. But for this, it would still be necessary for the “legal design” of this device to be centered from the outset on its collective dimension, which is not the case with the permit to vegetate as it exists.
Daniela FESTA, “The urban commons. The invention of the common”, Plots, out-of-series 2016, http://traces. revues. org/6636 .
Didier Rykner is director of the publication of the website La Tribune de l’art and he is closely interested in the Parisian heritage.
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