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Location Ghent, Belgium
  • 'The streets are more alive': Ghent readers on a car-free city centre, Jan 20, 2020...[1]
  • Birmingham: How a Belgian port city (Ghent) inspired Birmingham's car-free ambitions, Jan 20, 2020...[2]

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Community resources[edit | edit source]

Buren van de abdij ("Neighbors of the abbey") — Neighborhood-managed church building

A decade ago, the city gave the keys to a formerly abandoned church to neighboring residents. Since then, the space has been turned it into a thriving center for exhibitions, meetings, and other community events, and it is entirely self-governed by the residents.

CLT Gent — Community land trust

Community land trusts (CLTs) are associations that develop and manage land in order to keep housing or other types of properties affordable and accessible to lower income populations. When the city of Ghent develops housing, it dedicates a percentage of it to CLT Gent to manage and oversee it.

NEST (Newly Established State of Temporality) — Former library building turned into a temporary urban commons lab

The city made plans to renovate an old library. Instead of leaving the building empty for the eight months leading up to its reconstruction, officials decided to turn it into an experimental urban commons project. Now, the space is a thriving community center with meeting and event spaces, a music studio, children's play area, and more. Each of the services and spaces are operated by different community organizations and enterprises. They also have a contributory rent arrangement, where organizations that are more participatory and sustainable in their practice pay less rent. That means 20 percent of the enterprises pay 60 percent of the rent, thereby subsidizing the commons activities of the other spaces.[3]

Commons[edit | edit source]

A renewable energy cooperative, a community land trust, and a former church building publicly-controlled and used by nearby residents — these are just a few examples of about 500 urban commons projects that are thriving in the Flemish city of Ghent in Belgium. A new research report (in Dutch) shows that within the last 10 years, the city has seen a ten-fold increase in local commons initiatives. The report defines commons as any "shared resource, which is co-owned or co-governed by a community of users and stakeholders, under the rules and norms of that community."

With a population of less than 250,000, Ghent is sizably smaller than the other, more well-known Sharing Cities such as Seoul and Barcelona. But this report shows how it is quickly becoming a hub of some of the most innovative urban commons projects that exist today.

The study was commissioned and financed by Ghent city officials who were keen to understand how they could support more commons-based initiatives in the future. It was conducted over a three-month period in the spring of 2017. The research for the report was led by the P2P Foundation's Michel Bauwens, in collaboration with Yurek Onzia and Vasilis Niaros, and in partnership with Evi Swinnen and Timelab.

Given how self-governance is central to the success of a commons, the primary methodology employed by the researchers was to meet and talk with the members of various projects. Additionally, they conducted a series of surveys, workshops, and interviews with Ghent residents to explore how these projects came about and what could be done to encourage more commons initiatives to emerge. One result of this process is an online wiki that maps hundreds of successful such projects in the region.

These are a few notable projects mentioned in the report that embody the type of commons work currently underway in Ghent:[4] see Community energy, Community resources

The strength of Ghent's commons can be traced to how the projects encourage participation by individuals and community organizations to steward the shared resource, according to lead researcher Bauwens. There are a few factors that stand out among Ghent's various commons projects. The first is that the projects' members invite residents to openly contribute their time, skills, money, or goods, while at the same time not requiring contributions by people to make use of the resource. Secondly, these urban commons projects rely on some aspect of their operation on "generative market forms" that can produce income to sustain them. And finally, they also require support from government agencies or nonprofits to help manage the resource.

Despite the plethora of commons projects that are there, however, the commons-based economy is still relatively small. The report concludes with a series of 23 proposals for actions the city could take to support and strengthen the urban commons in Ghent. Much of the recommendations are aimed at addressing the underlying problem that the researchers identify — that the movement is very fragmented.

The local commons initiatives do not actively collaborate or cooperate with one another. Bauwens noted that he saw members of commons projects within the same domain not know of one other's commons initiatives. That's why the report suggests the city set up alliances and other opportunities for cooperation between individual commoners, civil society organizations, the private sector, and agencies within the government itself.

An innovative proposal is what one of the researchers, Swinnen, refers to as a "call for commons." The idea emerged from the way the NEST Experiment came about. Where major work is required to build a shared space or resource — such as a new library or community space — heavy institutional support is needed to carry forth the project. The idea is that instead of having potential developers individually compete to win the bid for the project to build it — as is the case in most commercial-style development contracts — the project would be rewarded to the strongest coalition of community partners and organizations. And instead of giving it to one developer of one winning proposal, this method enables several organizations to have all their winning ideas realized in tandem. The coalition would have to prove its ability to collaborate, share resources, and maximize community benefit, all the while enabling the most public participation.

Commons as a School for Democracy[edit | edit source]

Bauwens says that with any commons project, urban or otherwise, there are two major potential benefits of having people share and govern over a common resource. The first is that it can reduce the environmental and material footprint of that community. With any physical commons, people can mutually share and provision its use. Instead of having many people buy or own their own car or tools for example, they can share it, leading to less of those goods having to be produced or transported in the first place.

The second potential of the commons is that they can help build a true democracy, or what Bauwens calls a "school for democracy." When people have to govern something together, they need to make decisions collectively and work together. The commons is where people can practice and exercise their civic muscles by talking and meeting with other members of their community face-to-face.

Hopefully, we will continue to see the people of Ghent build new urban commons projects as fervently as they have done in the last 10 years. With the additional support of their city government as proposed by this report, Ghent could become one of the leading urban commons capitals of the world.[5]

Open spaces[edit | edit source]

The City of Ghent facilitates the temporary use of local land and buildings. The most notable one is the Driemasterpark, a park that sits on a former industrial site in a poor neighborhood that is entirely managed by nearby residents. It was opened in late 2016, and in addition to having a playground, the park has spaces for chickens and dogs, and a vegetable garden.[6]

Community involvement[edit | edit source]

Ghent's policy participation unit[edit | edit source]

The city of Ghent has a fairly long and developed tradition of citizen engagement. Advisory councils and public hearings, which were first introduced in the 1970s, evolved into more comprehensive approaches to community-based planning and led to the creation of a new city department, according to the city of Ghent. By 2003, that department began an "Area Operation" that proactively interacts with neighborhoods in the 25 districts of the city.

This increased focus also produced a new name, the Policy Participation Unit, and includes 20 "neighborhood managers" who engage one or two of the districts and act as brokers between the city and residents to ensure consistent interaction, according to a report titled "Good Practices" published by the European Cultural Foundation in 2016.

The Policy Participation Unit also facilitates a Resident's Academy, grants for temporary-use projects in underutilized public spaces, neighborhood "Debatcafés" and focus groups, as well as a Neighborhood of the Month program that brings the mayor to each neighborhood for an entire month of interactive discussions.

View full policy here (in Dutch).[7]

Community energy[edit | edit source]

REScoop — Renewable energy cooperative

For a moderate sum, a resident can become a member of this green energy cooperative to co-own and co-manage the enterprise. Not only is this model more affordable for lower income residents, members can share the efficiency of solar panels. For example, many members' roofs may not be optimally located to get enough sunlight at all times of the year. But with collective ownership, people can access and share the available energy, whether or not their own home is collecting as much solar power as other locations.[8]

As a city that was in the first cohort to sign the EU Covenant of Mayors in 2009, Ghent has created an ambitious plan to reduce its carbon emissions by the year 2030. One critical part of its strategy is the creation of a central governmental body called Energiecentrale. The agency serves as a contact point for locals to get support for anything related to making energy efficient renovations to their homes, businesses, and facilities. The agency provides free energy audits of homes and facilitates a "sustainable neighborhoods" program, by providing advice and financial support to get community-led energy efficiency initiatives, such as energy co-ops, off the ground.

The crown jewel of the city's energy program is the community-owned Energent — a renewable energy cooperative with cheap shares that make membership accessible to most Ghent residents. The co-op started as an ambitious project, in coordination with the city, to furnish the majority of houses in the neighborhood of St. Amandsberg with solar panels. Individual solar power — in which people only get the power harnessed from their own panels — are expensive. Under a system like Energent, more people can afford to install solar panels. The problem of less productive, east-west roofs — called the intermittency problem or the unequal provision of energy due to weather — gets solved. This shows the the advantage of having a collective approach to energy provisioning.[9]

Cycling activism[edit | edit source]

Ghent has the largest designated cyclist area in Europe, with nearly nearly 400 kilometres (250 mi) of cycle paths and more than 700 one-way streets, where bikes are allowed to go against the traffic. It also boasts Belgium's first cycle street, where cars are considered 'guests' and must stay behind cyclists. W

Food activism[edit | edit source]

The city promotes a meat-free day on Thursdays called Donderdag Veggiedag with vegetarian food being promoted in public canteens for civil servants and elected councillors, in all city funded schools, and promotion of vegetarian eating options in town (through the distribution of "veggie street maps"). This campaign is linked to the recognition of the detrimental environmental effects of meat production, which the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization has established to represent nearly one-fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Ghent has the world's largest number of vegetarian restaurants per capita. W

Food commons[edit | edit source]

Ghent's food sector is where the commons is most developed. This is partly due to the public organizations in the city that are building political support for this work. Gent en Garde is a transition platform that endorses the demands of civil society for fair, organic, and local food. It created, among other things, the Urban Agriculture workshop, which is a working group of individuals and organizations whose mission is to create a more sustainable and healthy food ecosystem in Ghent.

Ghent's public schools collectively provide about five million meals a year to their students. However, much of it tends to be the cheapest food they can order from remote multinational food producers. Lunch met LEF is an initiative that aims to counteract this by bringing local, organic food to public schools. The group plans to transport the ingredients using cargo bikesharing, a zero-carbon transportation system.

A brainstorming session between a few Ghent urban commons leaders led to the idea of introducing pigs to vacant land, as an experiment in maximizing the use of unused public property in Ghent. Spilvarken started as a pilot project in 2014. A few weeks after three pigs were brought to the neighborhood, nearby residents voluntarily began taking care of them. Soon thereafter, the pigs because a center of community socializing, and a way for nearby residents to dispose of food waste as feed to the animals.[10]

Sharing[edit | edit source]

There is a multitude of innovative co-housing initiatives that have emerged in Ghent. But what is interesting is that people are not simply living together in a shared space, but rather, sharing various amenities. This includes sharing kitchens, guestrooms, and laundry rooms. This model works when a group of houses are designed collectively to share their facilities. However, local regulations have hindered the growth of this kind of co-housing development. Labland is a workshop and think-and-do-tank that is working to change policies on behalf of these experimental initiatives.[11]

Sustainable transport activism[edit | edit source]

Urban sustainability[edit | edit source]

Wooncoop is a housing cooperative that gives home renters the same housing security as home owners. The cooperative buys, refurbishes, and mutualizes buildings — not the land on which they stand like a Community Land Trust. Once someone buys a share of Wooncoop, they can rent a house or apartment in one of their properties owned by the co-op. They are guaranteed housing there for a lifetime while paying reasonable rent for a well-maintained residence.[12]

Living Street project

News and comment[edit | edit source]


The City Taking the Commons to Heart, Nov 25[13]

9 Awesome Urban Commons Projects in Ghent, Aug 17[14]

Ghent's Quick Rise as a Sustainable, Commons-Based Sharing City, Aug 9[15]


Car-free Belgium: why can't Brussels match Ghent's pedestrianised vision? Nov 28[16]


Belgian city of Ghent is about to become the first in the world to go vegetarian at least once a week,[17] May 12

About Ghent[edit | edit source]

Ghent is a city and a municipality in the Flemish Region of Belgium. It is the capital and largest city of the East Flanders province and after Antwerp the largest municipality of Belgium. It is a port and university city. W

External links


FA info icon.svg Angle down icon.svg Page data
Keywords cities, european cities
Authors Phil Green
License CC-BY-SA-3.0
Language English (en)
Related 0 subpages, 3 pages link here
Aliases Ghent
Impact 768 page views
Created August 17, 2017 by Phil Green
Modified March 12, 2024 by Phil Green
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