This spring, in preparation of the crafting of the Commons Transition Plan for the city of Ghent, we mapped out nearly 500 urban commons that are commoning the infrastructures that we need for a social-ecological transition. One of the things that the city does well is using temporary empty space for collective use, and one of the most innovative projects is that of the NEST, a vacant library with 8 levels. What is particularly original is that this project was initiated not through a classic competitive call that pits one against the other, but by a ‘call for common’, i.e. the project devolved to a coalition that was able to craft a common plan and even a contributive accounting scheme for the rent, in just one month. Here is a travel report from visitors from the Brussels commons.

An acupuncture point for urban commons: the Nest at Ghent, Belgium

Today we had the privilege of being welcomed by Evi Swinnen, one of the leading figures of NEST, an experiment that began this month in Ghent, a small Belgian city already outstanding in several ways. Evi is not a newcomer in dealing with the Commons and P2P practices, as she has been the TIMELAB coordinator in the same city since 2010.

More than a traditional ‘interview’, it was actually a nice walk in this ‘city within the city’, which several decades ago was a large showroom for displaying electric appliances. The municipality then decided to make it a public library, which was moved into a new building and opened in March 2017.

Then the genius came in, even if we do not know exactly who it was. As the old building was going to be dismantled for a new purpose, the idea emerged to use it for public purposes during the 8 months remaining before its refurbishment. In fact, a private competitor was interested in organizing an exhibition, but the municipality decided to seize this opportunity to create a space for an experiment in urban commons. It could not be otherwise in such a splendid and symbolic location, in one of the busiest neighborhood in town.

The municipality of Ghent is at the forefront of the international stage of urban commons, as shown by the recently released report by P2P Foundation founder Michel Bauwens after a three month stay designing a proposal for the transition of the city to the commons.

Access to the 8,000 square meter, 6 story building was not donated by the municipality at no cost. At first, the local authorities asked for 13,000 euros per month, which was simply unaffordable for the cooperative created to manage the 9 month project. The bargaining ended at 7,000 Euros, with May being free of charge, as a great many things had to be brought into the building to provide a minimum setting. The 30 partners that were selected through a call for proposals came both from non-profits as well as several enlightened, small, private companies: an interesting cohabitation indeed!

A ‘flexistructure’ was created at the beginning, comprised of a small group of people who volunteered to be responsible for democratically defining and enforcing the ‘rules of the game’. So, the three conditions for a commons were fulfilled: a resource, a self-organized community, and social practices.

While inviting us to a coffee in the nice coffee shop on the first floor, Evi introduced us to some of the activities generated in the building. A Vietnamese restaurant, where cookbooks can be consulted on the spot and cooking lessons are offered. A huge and comfortable ‘silence room’ designed by people diagnosed with autism, where the visitor can relax surrounded with plants and nice objects, with free entry between 10am and 6pm. Steven, an industrial engineer by education who enjoys woodworking in his spare time, is using his 150 square meter space at NEST to prototype his soon to be launched project providing access to material and tools for metal and woodworking: professionals admitted by day, amateurs at nighttime. ‘Current makerspaces are too small, and are not profitable’, he says. An introduced us to their (she has 2 teammates) wellbeing module, where professional therapists can rent the space, with a splendid view of the city, for as little as 10 euros per hour (!) The range of services covers coaching, mediation, and creative therapies. Access to a spacious and inspired yoga and meditation room is also offered, a good way to build up a base of clients.

On a lower floor, we come across a large production space where designers make their real products (e.g. textiles for furniture) in a co-working atmosphere. Continuing downstairs, we discover a vast space for dancers to train, create and rehearse. Further on, a group of people who want to play music are arranging a module where they will also rent musical instruments and organize musical rehearsals. A locked door keeps us from visiting a cultural/performance space that accommodates one hundred people. There is also a big exhibition space currently displaying original productions from the local art school, KASK. And on the ground floor, an even more spacious room made of donated pieces of old furniture where people can relax, have a drink at an interesting bar, or contact a municipal representatives of employment schemes.

Despite precarious economic conditions, a flow of passion is percolating everywhere. All of the entrepreneurs present say they feel comfortable with the unknown, trusting that this experiment will be useful for their further professional activities. The strong feeling of belonging to a community also plays a great role. When asked about security conditions and supervision at the site, Evi replies that everyone is also caring for his/her neighbour’s space. The rent distribution among the partners (8000 euros collected per month) follows a very interesting pattern: each partner states in the group how much he/she is ready to pay, and the group commonly decides to whom the concerned module will be rented, putting the passion and openness towards new ‘users’ and the engagement towards the NEST global project as the first criterion.

Time is flying. NEST has hardly started, and already there are only a few months left. Evi tells us, though, that the immediate plan is ambitious: to build games for sale inspired by the commons; an itinerary school where the toolbox discovered through experimentation will be shared and can nurture local tools elsewhere depending on the context. Evi speaks about sharing NEST experiment with other cities nearby (Roeselare, Leuven), and not far away (in Belgium or neighbouring Netherlands). To our question, ‘What about sharing this abroad?’, Evi spontaneously answers: ‘Whenever possible, even if the local population is hardly interested in what happens elsewhere’. The point is not bringing knowledge to other places and partners, but rather to bring some experience and expertise from the NEST ground.

The intention is also to further associate the TIMELAB model for artists (and researchers) in residence, currently covering ten people. Interesting prospects exist for working with artists.

Everything is not perfect. While the municipality has expressed a strong commitment to the commons during the recent 3 month stay, one can feel the fear that the authorities, now aware of the real interest of NEST, could hijack some outcomes to their benefit via the classical mechanism of enclosure. The relations with the university have been somehow strained, in particular with researchers, who have difficulty in accepting the practice of open knowledge and sharing. The university has the knowledge and skill to measure the impact, so it could contribute to the auto-evaluation process of the NEST experiment, which requires close monitoring of data and results as a process.

The NEST experiment in Ghent confirms the relevance of digital commons for the urban commons. It illustrates that the key sequence is from practice to theory, not the other way around. It shows how creative spaces can be found between actors with views which are often claimed to be contradictory (non-profit versus private sector, commons versus authorities). NEST shows how carefully identified and managed acupuncture points can yield systemic outcomes and support the emerging collaborative paradigm.

Photo by estefaniabarchietto