Housing in the Eco-Polis: From Commons to Club Space and Back Again?

Multi-layered collage: Shelves of theoretical literature on the commons; crowd sitting on the ground; black girl holding up protest sign (I can’t breathe); angry clown getting up to fight; edges of a rooftop. Artwork: Colnate Group, 2024 (cc by nc)
Artwork: Colnate Group, 2024 (cc by nc)

Faced with the privatization of essential urban resources such as housing, and asking why reclaiming the infrastructure of life from capital has become even more urgent in the wake of the climate crisis – this leads us to rethink the commons. Our theoretical knowledge of the commons comes from two different fields: political economy research on commons institutions, and socio-cultural research on emancipatory commons movements. In order to recognize the commons and distinguish them from non-commons, findings from both fields need to be linked. In both fields of research, ecological studies are implemented to support the concept of commoning as a condition for climate-just urbanism, Dagmar Pelger argues in her contribution to the “Kin City” text series, focusing on Berlin.


The starting point of all commons is their common production. Any process of communitization – or commoning – can only take place if those who use the goods, resources or spaces are also those who determine the rules for this use, as we have learned from the political economist Elinor Ostrom. But only if the spatial resources and the – conscious or unconscious – negotiation of rules are potentially accessible to all, does a space open up as a spatial commons through emancipatory appropriation. Only then does it fulfill the description of the commons as a place of solidary relationships, to quote the philosopher Silvia Federici.

The process of opening up a spatial commons as a sphere beyond public and private is determined above all by the way in which any yield or profit from the respective use of space is dealt with. As long as the material, immaterial, social or cultural surplus of a particular spatial commons – for example, a place of assembly – is shared among potentially all users and not accumulated, extracted or absorbed by a few, a universal spatial commons – for example, the city as such – is preserved, maintained, and reproduced as a common good on a daily basis. Commoning thus becomes legible as a reproductive and non-extractive mode of spatial production. This opens up a perspective on spatial production in the commons as an ecologically just and sustainable process in which resources are shared rather than exploited.

By applying Elinor and Vincent Ostrom’s economic description of four different types of goods – common, public, private, and club – to space, it is possible to distinguish not only different ways of dealing with spatial resources and their profit, as well as different degrees of accessibility, but above all different modes of ownership: The more one’s economic activity is directed toward subsistence (food, clothing, shelter) rather than the market (profit, growth, etc.), and the higher the degree of communal inclusiveness and democratic governance that prevails in a place or process, the higher the degree of commoning. The opposite is true for club goods or club spaces that are exclusively accessible to, privately owned by, and commercially managed by members.

This makes spatial commons as well as public spaces legible as a non-profit oriented and therefore ecologically reproductive form of ownership, in contrast to spatial clubs and private spaces as a profit accumulating and therefore ecologically exploitative form of ownership.

All four types of space overlap, mix, and interpenetrate in urban space. Nevertheless, their description provides a helpful analytical tool for making the production of urban space economically and ecologically legible as a reproductive or extractive practice, as will become clear in the following consideration of Berlin’s modes of housing provision.

Berlin’s houses and the people who live in them

Different economic and political systems are inscribed in Berlin’s urban fabric, and thus the city’s housing models provide a number of peculiar examples of ownership changes in recent history that have affected Berlin on both a socio-spatial and ecological level.

Already during the so-called Gründerzeit (1867-1873), a first attempt at mass housing was initiated with the expansion plan of James Hobrecht. A public road network was planned around the existing city, offering private developers plots up to 250 meters deep. Filled with a high-density type of building, the so-called tenement, characterized by a series of narrow courtyards, this network structure guaranteed high profitability for investors. The downside of the boom: rapidly rising rents and evictions. Those who lost their homes often ended up in a workhouse. Informal settlements outside the city walls compensated for the lack of housing with self-built structures. The self-proclaimed Freistaat Barackia was only a brief experiment in land commons, lasting only two years until it was cleared by the Berlin police, but it still creates a social as well as spatial connection between the traditional common land of the village green and the urban street as a commons enclosed by the blocks of tenements.

In the Weimar Republic (1918-1933), as a kind of counter-movement to this Wilhelminian model, civic-public housing associations such as GEHAG, GSW, and Gewobag were largely initiated and shaped by workers’ unions and syndicate organizations and their traditions of self-administration. Interwoven with municipal or state structures, these hybrid associations were conceived as non-profit or charitable/non-profit. The iconic housing estates of modernism, such as the Hufeisensiedlung, Onkel Toms Hütte, Wohnstadt Carl Legien, and many others, were homes for workers, employees, and civil servants who participated in decision-making and ownership. Cooperative models were also initiated, such as the Lindenhof settlement, where the degree of self-determination and common ownership was even higher. The modernist housing estates remained in public ownership until the 1990s, and the cooperative housing estates until today.

However, the two very different political systems of the post-war period in East and West Berlin (1949 to 1990) shaped both the existing and the newly built estates. While the housing production of East Berlin, with about 155,000 apartments, is characterized by highly standardized prefabricated building types in park-like settings, West Berlin, with about 60,000 new apartments, shows a greater variation in construction methods and types. But the rather similar architectural results of the large housing estates on both sides, such as Marzahn in the East or Märkisches Viertel in the West, differ much more in their socio-spatial production due to different economic and ownership models.

Housing production in East Berlin was non-profit by nature, provided housing for all, and was administered either by the state or by workers’ housing cooperatives in a kind of state-controlled self-administration. In various constructions, housing in the East can be seen as a cooperative-public approach within a strongly state-controlled system. In West Berlin, on the other hand, the state-regulated subsidy system for so-called social housing primarily promoted and financed a market-based real estate industry through tax breaks for investors. Additional subsidies allowed for a “social lock-in” of rents, limited to a period of 20-30 years. After this period, the housing could be rented out at market rates and thus managed for profit.

Socio-ecological agency?

This approach of temporary non-profit housing provided by publicly funded investors was also the model for the Internationale Bauausstellung (IBA) in West Berlin from 1984 to 1987. Driven by the plans for an inner-city highway in Kreuzberg at the end of the 1970s, a massive protest by civil society against the clear-cut redevelopment and the associated IBA plans led to a split in the IBA project. In the more established western districts, the original concept of a “critical reconstruction” of the pre-war block grid with new buildings in public, association or private ownership was pushed forward as “IBA New Construction” (“IBA Neubau”).

In Kreuzberg, a district with a high proportion of proletarian residents, subcultural workers, activists, and many residents with a history of migration, the alternative concept of “IBA Altbau” was installed for a “gentle renewal” of existing blocks through participatory renovation and careful insertion of new buildings. For all the emancipatory power behind the concept, little effort was made to integrate Kreuzberg’s diverse communities into the German-dominated participation processes, according to Esra Akcan’s thorough research. Nevertheless, the establishment of small cooperatives such as Selbstbau eG or Luisenstadt eG, which secured practices of self-administration of collectivized houses taken over by maintenance squatters, was one of the remarkable results, along with the establishment of non-profit urban development associations such as Stattbau or S.T.E.R.N. Central results of the participation processes for soft renewal were guidelines to ensure resource-conserving renovations, decision-making power for residents, green open spaces, and social infrastructures for the entire district. This socio-ecological mindset of self-empowered urban citizens is reflected in the spatial appearance of the blocks, with a high proportion of diverse vegetation and alternative building materials. While the IBA Neu produced housing as a club good in private-public cooperation, the IBA Alt produced housing as a common good in civic-public cooperation.

Both urban structures were integrated into a city-state when Berlin became the capital of the united FRG in 1990. By the end of the 1990s, most of the publicly owned rental housing, many of the Weimar Republic’s modernist estates that had provided affordable housing for almost 150 years, and large parts of the IBA Alt buildings that had been renovated in a participatory process were converted into private companies or sold in the early 2000s to companies such as Deutsche Wohnen, a subsidiary of Deutsche Bank. The stock of publicly owned apartments shrank from 482,000 in 1990 to 223,000 in 2009, while the stock of cooperative apartments remained at 185,000.

Towards an urban eco-politics of spatial commoning

These intertwined and layered transformations in Berlin’s housing and real estate ownership – from communal to club and back again – continue to impact today’s socio-economic struggles over spatial resources in the face of the unfolding climate crisis, disproportionately affecting vulnerabilized groups such as racialized communities and the homeless, and framing the conditions for socio-political adaptation to its effects as well as measures for climate justice in Berlin.

In the aftermath of the post-2009 financial crises, the consequences of the wave of housing privatization have materialized in violent ways, causing many displacements, overcrowding, homelessness, evictions, and gentrification. Similarities to the Wilhelminian model overlap with similarities to the IBA-Neu model, accompanied by experiments with the IBA-Alt model, which already referred to the non-profit associations of the Weimar Republic. Since real estate has become the most profitable financial asset traded globally, the potential of housing estates to be transformed into a club good has greatly increased.

Since club space is a closed and exclusive type of (im)material good rooted in an extraction-based economy, it is by definition opposed to commoning as a careful, reproductive and ecologically integrative mode of resource management, as well as to a solidary and inclusive social practice. Claiming common ownership of housing is the only economic model in which a practice of ecologically sustainable housekeeping with a reproductive use of resources is integrated into a solidary and socially integrative self-management of communities. Let’s socialize.

Editor’s note: The article is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Kin City” series. More information: https://berlinergazette.de/kin-city-urban-ecologies-and-internationalism-call-for-papers/

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