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Commoning the Urban

CU2  Against a backdrop of austerity measures and top-down planning interventions, “El Campo de Cebada” – The Barley Field, is an allusion to its former use in the 19th century – in the heart of Madrid’s La Latina neighbourhood illustrates the possibilities of upscaled participative citizenship. Formerly home to a sporting facility in 2009, the 5,500 square metre site was slated to transform into to a private market. However, a hostile atmosphere, coupled with a lack of political foresight, conspired to make the site economically unviable. And so it sat, desolate and fenced in, a veritable scar on the neighbourhood.

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A year later, angered by unfulfilled political promises, surrounding residents rallied to reclaim the space and plan – from the bottom up – a new neighbourhood institution. It was this impulse that gave birth to El Campo de Cebada, a public space that afforded residents a place to not only engage in social gatherings, open-air film screenings, and sporting matches, unleashing a new form of participative citizenship.

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The result is a public square, teeming with life, drenched in colourful public art, programmable for soccer matches one day, and political debates the next. Social capital and cohesion enhances the space through gardening and urban design workshops, creating reciprocity between residents and space. A safe place for pedestrians and cyclists, buffered from the vagaries of motorists. It represents public space in the purest of definitions – space designed by the public, for the public. But more than this, it represents the possibilities of bottom-up planning.

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Grassroots planning in urban interstices is not a new concept. From squats in abandoned buildings, to spaces occupied for political ends, citizens have long enacted instances of temporal reclamation of space. In this way, space is returned to the commons. More recently, this has, in some ways, been coopted by the market through top-down planning initiatives that include community gardens, one of the more palatable forms of participative citizenship. What makes El Campo de Cebada interesting, beyond the aesthetics, is the scale it has achieved. And this is only part of a larger network of nascent “commoning,” a term coined by historian Peter Linebaugh. Similar projects have been enacted in Paris, Brazil, and Bolivia, demonstrating the power of citizens to engage in newly conceived economies.

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Moreover, it acts as a beacon for social participation, and awakens us from our complacency – we are capable of shaping our urban spaces. It is this sense of non-authorship that buttresses El Campo de Cebada – an alternative to top-down planning – initiated and maintained by citizens with a common desire for public space that meets their place-based needs. It is the coalescence of democracy, participation, and urban planning. And, indeed, it is a roadmap from business as usual to the future of urban space.

Photos by El Campo de Cebada (CC)

A budding urban planner, Corey Bialek is entering into his second year of the Master of Science in Planning program at the University of Toronto. His primary interest is located at the intersection of urban design and social policy, tapping into his passion for design that is equal parts aesthetically pleasing and socially equitable.

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