Urban commoning, degrowth and parks in Asia

Blog post by Manisha Anantharaman and Marlyne Sahakian

14 Feb 2023, 3:13 p.m.
Manisha Anantharaman and Marlyne Sahakian

As the debate on the best strategies to avert climate crises rages between eco-modernists, eco-socialists and degrowthers in Europe, our research in Asian megacities suggests that looking at spaces and everyday practices of commoning could help expand, spatialize and concretize the conversation on how to achieve sustainable and equitable well-being, beyond the global North. Studying how people practice parks in Chennai and Metro Manila, we find that when parks are equipped with appropriate infrastructure and amenities by public authorities, protected from elite capture, and designed in pro-poor ways, they can support urban commoning, enabling many people to meet their essential needs in non-consumerist ways.


The impetus for this research was personal. Several years ago at a conference, we rued how the landscape of the cities we had grown up or lived in had become dominated by energy-intensive  and exclusive shopping malls. As scholars of consumption and sustainability, the mall represented the commodification and privatization of Asian cities, which are increasingly designed to serve the needs of speculative capital and high-income groups at the expense of the more numerous poor and working classes. Inclusive forms of leisure are under threat, as people ‘go malling’ in air-conditioned spaces, while urban parks suffer from neglect. Wanting to do research that is critically-hopeful, we wondered, could expanding green public spaces counter the ‘mallification’ of cities? Parks in the coastal mega cities of Metro Manila and Chennai can be seen as relics of a colonial era, and spaces infused with capitalist, growth-oriented and consumerist logics. At the same time, however, we find that they can become spaces that prefigure alternative ways of organizing social life in the city based upon values of conviviality, care, and sharing.


These alternative ways of organizing social life are in line with a “degrowth society,” which promotes ways of meeting needs and achieving well-being beyond capitalist values. Jason Hickel and others have argued that central to a degrowth agenda is a fairer distribution of existing resources and the expansion of public and shared modes of provisioning, alongside the curtailment of private property and corporate profit accumulation. But, as the Editorial to this special issue identifies, degrowth scholarship is yet to fully grapple with the realities of inequitable urbanization in Asian cities which is exacerbating class, caste and gender divisions. Conversely, critical urban scholarship from the South has not substantially engaged the degrowth intellectual tradition in its search for radical alternatives. What might proposals and pathways to degrowth look like if we considered the actually-existing conditions of southern cities in theorizing its alternatives? Such a situated approach would entail starting with everyday practices and examining diffuse forms of power relationally.


In this spirit we conducted qualitative interviews with over 60 park users, asking people what they did in parks, and how these activities contributed to meeting their essential needs. We found that parks are reclaimed as ‘commons’ through everyday practices of mutual accommodation. This type of quotidian, vernacular commoning takes place when people meet and mingle, loiter, play, sleep, or do nothing at all in public spaces; or when parks support informal livelihoods that are criminalized by spatial planning strategies. Yet, the potential of parks to support commoning is undermined by anti-poor urban policy, coercive control, and elite capture of public spaces by wealthy and propertied social groups.

Our study brings forward the relevance of ‘need satisfaction’ as one way of evaluating urban development beyond growth logics. Needs, such as feeling free and safe in a given setting, are satisfied in different ways, depending on how practices play out. A consideration of social location and positionality is essential: gender, age and class shape how people practice parks. Second, we reveal the significance of systems of provision (how parks are planned for and maintained) that determine whose needs are satisfied and to what degree. Finally, our study reiterates the importance of studying everyday life dynamics in spatializing degrowth. While degrowth scholarship has charted transformative visions for future change and evaluated intentional community initiatives such as co-housing or urban gardening as potential degrowth pathways, less attention has been paid to planning practices and everyday dynamics of inclusion and exclusion in global south cities. Our search for quotidian and vernacular instances of commoning in Chennai and Metro Manila advances this conversation.


Read the accompanying article on Urban Studies OnlineFirst here.


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