Summer of Commoning: A Tour of French Communities and Projects

Maïa Dereva

Translated by Maïa Dereva, edited by Ann Marie Utratel

During the summer of 2017, I travelled throughout France. Now I am sharing the stories of the commons I met along the way, never knowing what I would find in advance. These articles were originally published in French here: Commons Tour 2017.

“La Fonderie”: 30 years of successful participatory housing

When I left the metro station in Vanves, south of Paris, I discovered a pretty, modern and flowery city. Just a few steps from the station, I found the porch I had been told to look for, and crossed beneath it to find the participative habitat where I would spend a week. It was a large building, nestled between the wall of the cemetery and the surrounding houses, wrapped around a tree-lined garden. Suzanne, a young retired woman, welcomed me and gave me a tour of the property.

La Fonderie is a project begun in 1984. This building was first a factory, bought by a developer forced to buy it as part of a lot, but who didn’t know what to do with it. He was delighted when the families (first 3, soon 10) offered to buy it so they could do some work and make their participatory housing project a reality.

From the beginning, the habitat was intended to save energy and be environmentally friendly, but the craftsmen capable of building a wooden frame building (more than just soundproofing) were not legion at that time. The group agreed to a compromise: the building would be made of concrete with a wooden frame, and a very nice wooden façade would be added. It was no easy task, as the building was completely twisted and the carpenter in charge of its cladding almost threw in the towel several times! All of the residents had to persuade and encourage  him to finish.

After two years of work, the building finally emerged: 9 apartments from 70m² to 120m² in various shapes; a common room; two shared guest rooms; a workshop and a shared cellar; as well as a garden equipped with a compost. The only thing young couples completely overlooked at the time was the issue of aging. There are stairs everywhere. Nothing was planned to make life easier for people with reduced mobility, so it’s a question of adding an elevator in the column provided by the architect, but it wouldn’t solve the problem for apartments that are almost all duplex or triplex.

The truth is that when the project was started, the inhabitants were not planning to be doing this 30 years later! This is a particularly exemplary experience because, after all this time, the same families (with one exception) remained in the area. Of course, the fifteen or so children who grew up there have now moved away, but the original couples are there and continue to operate the common parts of the place – for example, welcoming people like me, or opening the meeting room.

What is the secret of such longevity? First, a fairly strong convergence of values eg., ecology, anti-liberalism (or, anti-neoliberalism) and practices. Most of the inhabitants of La Fonderie are also involved in local associations like the local newspaper, environmental film festival, cyclists’ association, etc. They took part in the creation of the first AMAP (community-supported agriculture) in Vanves, opening their collective compost to the inhabitants of the district. In short, they are people who are comfortable with community life and citizen involvement.

The second secret is that community life is governed by clear rules, based on unanimity. At first, there was a monthly meeting (sometimes more) to discuss all subjects. In time, the unwritten rules of common life  were integrated by everyone. Today, a single annual meeting is enough to solve a number of unusual questions. Things also happen informally: in the corridors, the garden, or during the many shared meals. There’s also a whiteboard outside for “on-duty” messages.

Conflicts? Of course there were some. But they all got settled, the most effective method being… time. Today, most of the inhabitants of the place are retired, and are not always present in the building. The question of community sustainability arises. What will happen to the place? Will it be sold gradually to the highest bidder in a context where the PLU jumped 30%? Suzanne is confident that “We won’t all leave at the same time,” she explains. “It’s  also possible that we can gradually integrate new inhabitants seduced by our way of life, acclimatize them and pass on our traditions.”

Photo : © 2017 Mainstenant | all rights reserved.

Mainstenant and the pirate island

The extraordinary thing about nomadism is that it lets me discover people and places whose existence I could never have suspected! On the recommendation of a commoner friend, I found myself one day with my little suitcase-on-wheels at the Paris Saint Lazare station; I took a suburban train and 25 minutes later disembarked in another dimension…

After a good fifteen minutes of walking, I reached a barely noticed dock and before long, a small boat approached and I boarded for a trip to the opposite side of the river. I had arrived on the island of Platais! Here, Laurence came to greet me, and guided me through a maze of small green pathways.

Laurence, a researcher at the university, is part of Mainstenant, a group of about fifty people who set out to revive abandoned places, villages and buildings – not only for leisure or work, but also to settle permanently and live with their families. And among the places they discovered, there is this extraordinary island.

It is, in large part, inhabited, sometimes year-round but most often in the summer. There are lots of cottages, large and small, made of fibre cement or wood. This place looks like a giant campsite whose tents and caravans would fall down eventually. As you stroll along the narrow roads, it’s almost like “The Village” in the Prisoner series.

But the most surprising thing was yet to come. A whole part of the island is indeed uninhabited, abandoned after a period of glory now past. Accompanied by Adrien, Nicolas, and a whole bunch of explorers of all ages, I crouched in the grass beside an old disused swimming pool worthy of a cinema set.

Photo : © 2017 Mainstenant | all rights reserved.

My hosts were obviously at home in this ruin! They brought me around the property with a big smile, happy to show me the empty cabins, the old piano, the graffiti (more creative than many others), the tiled terrace giving onto a splendid panorama, the vestiges of an unlikely miniature golf re-colonized by nature…

Then we pushed a little further on, between the trees and the nettles, and settled down on a hidden beach. While the children laughed at each other in the muddy waters of the Seine, the adults took care to calmly pick up potentially harmful objects: rusty rims, pieces of glass, plastic and scrap metal…all the rubbish from civilization landed on the shores of this magical island.

When the sun set, we went to the association’s chalet to prepare the evening meal together around the wood fire. And while the humidity was already starting to invade the lawn, we happily settled around a large tablecloth, just below the pirate flag that proudly floats on the garden fence.

For a city girl like me, this getaway was a real life lesson. It reassures me that people can explore and invest in abandoned places in order to open up spaces of possibilities. I really felt that what they do, they do for us as human beings who are completely disconnected from their needs and from nature, left so vulnerable to the challenges that lie ahead.

The Assembly of the Commons of Grenoble: building the city together

It was with great pleasure that I met Anne-Sophie and Antoine during my journey, while taking a break in the beautiful city of Grenoble. We happily shared the practices of the Lille and Grenoble assemblies of the commons over a coffee at a sidewalk cafe.

Anne-Sophie and Antoine were both elected to positions in city hall. They shared stories with me of citizens engaged in a dynamic of counterpower and, after being elected in 2014, of their difficulty in taking on an institutional posture. Changing culture is not always easy! But this is what also makes the Grenoble Assembly of the Commons so special, born of the meeting of two dynamics.

The first of these two comes from Nuit Debout, within which a “Commission of the Commons” was created in 2016. The idea was to discuss the management of commons as a common responsibility: not only the responsibility of public authorities, but also of the area’s inhabitants.

The second dynamic, on the part of city hall, was the philosophically interesting idea of investing in a space between the private and the public, to make room for citizens in the public debate. The key here is that this idea has not been abandoned at all, in fact it unites activists and elected representatives in the same assembly today.

Last March, during the Biennale of Cities in Transition, partners and associations were invited to the assembly. About fifty people from various backgrounds participated in this first assembly, including Sylvia Fredricksson and Michel Briand, both well-known French commoners who came to share their experiences.

What the elected representatives underline is that even if they have the will to make a difference in the direction of greater citizen involvement in public life, it is not so simple. Legislation is not adapted at all, particularly with regard to risk management (the insurance framework does not exist). On top of that, officials are not so aware, and not trained to work directly with citizens.  Faced with this, the elected representatives asked the services to work on these points and advance the texts and practices.

Nevertheless, among the completed projects at the town hall level, there have been agreements created for occupying public spaces such as shared gardens, for example. The assembly also discussed the idea of writing a charter on housing, a bit like in Bologna (Italy), where a charter of urban commons was drafted and signed by some forty Italian cities.

The city also participates in a “migrants’ platform” to accompany reception initiatives.There are also participatory budgets: every year, 800K€ in investment is opened to citizens’ projects. 106 projects proposed by the Grenoble region were selected in 2017. On the cultural side, we can cite the desire to take art out of museums with the Street Art Festival, whose traces can be found all over the city walls.

To date, the Assembly of the Commons has set up four separate working groups which meet asynchronously at regular intervals:

  • Natural Commons
  • Knowledge Commons
  • Urban Commons
  • Commons of Health and Well-being

The spirit of commons in Grenoble has a long history. After the Second World War, unlike many other places, the city had, for quite a while, retained its own operators to manage electricity and water, which made it a very special case.

After being privatized in the 1980s, water came back into the public domain after a citizens’ lengthy legal battle with certain elected environmental officials and some employees of the water authority. This was the first battle won in France  for water municipalization, along with the first French users’ committee to make the citizens’ involvement in water management last. The whole world visits Grenoble for its water management model. And on the electricity and gas side, the operator is a mixed-economy company but the public (the city of Grenoble) is still the majority shareholder.

This civic expertise and spirit of solidarity continue today, and are embodied in the city’s desire to be part of a concrete, lasting relationship between two communities that “do with others”, all the others…

The Assembly of the Commons of Marseille: a prefiguration full of promise

This new postcard will be sunny! If there is one characteristic peculiar to Marseille, it is its light. This is what I discovered by spending a few days there on the invitation of Pierre-Alain, a commoner with whom I had already communicated on the theme of the assemblies of the commons. That’s how I had the chance to participate in the very first commoner meeting of that region.

To get off to a good start, we began with a nice little restaurant on the Vieux Port, of course 🙂

It was an opportunity to get acquainted with about ten participants, and discover the diversity of their profiles and respective projects, from the association leader to the lawyer, through the researcher, the doctoral student and the company managers – the table looked like my idea of an assembly of the commons: a joyful mix of heterogeneous careers.

We then joined the MarsMedialab, a magnificent third space of 350m² in the heart of the city, to start the work session proper. The objective was very simple: to bring together the good will of the regions around the question of the commons. The problem was clear: what do we do with this goodwill? What kind of actions can this group implement? What structure should it have?

In addition to the people, the roundtable allowed us to (re)discover a number of emblematic national and local commons and initiatives such as:

  • SavoirsCom1, a collective committed to the development of policies and initiatives related to knowledge commons;
  • Ars Industrialis, a cultural association created by Bernard Stiegler, whose only regional branch is located in Marseille;
  • L’Office, a structure that accompanies the cultural, social, educational and economic transitions from a “digital society” to a “communal society”;
  • H2H, a software platform that supports the projects of the Hôtel du Nord residents’ cooperative;
  • 1DLab, start-up of the ESS (Social and Solidarity Economy);
  • Mnemotix, a cooperative smart-up working on data semantization;
  • ManuFabrik, a cooperative which is part of the field of popular education;
  • Pas Sans Nous (Not Without Us), an association that has given itself the role of being a union of working class neighbourhoods.

The exchanges were rich and very engaging. Those present were committed to making concrete progress in the local commons. But for a first meeting it was important, before discussing specific projects, to share a common vision of the group’s organization and the methodologies to be adopted to work together.

With this in mind, I shared the practices of the Assembly of the Commons of Lille, in particular the governance model that we have adopted in our collective which has been working very well for the past two years, stigmergy. With the support of Pierre-Alain, who is already convinced, I was careful to stress the importance of documenting practices to facilitate the inclusion of newcomers and promote transparency in processes.

During the afternoon, the specificity of Marseille’s dynamic appeared to me in two ways:

  • First, it seemed quite clear that there were two fairly distinct movements. On the one hand, the needs related to what could resemble an Assembly of the Commons: mapping the commons, creating a network, and on the other hand, very pressing and concrete questions concerning the establishment of an economy of the commons, which would be more like a Chamber of Commons structure.
  • Second, since the region is vast, it seemed obvious that at least two major geographical poles were emerging: a group centred on Marseille and its surroundings, and another anchored on the side of Sophia Antipolis.

What also emerged from these exchanges was that each of them was already well engaged in their own projects, so time was inevitably limited to invest in a new collective, which would make the assembly a form of “hub”, a chamber echoing each other’s initiatives. But the willingness to get to know each other and to create a true community by working together on concrete initiatives was palpable.

To sum up, after the meeting with the Grenoble commoners, this Marseilles exchange convinced me that the assemblies of the commons are very unique places of co-creation, in which we must not try to apply a centralized theoretical model, but welcome the contributory impulses in a dynamic anchored locally and respectful of the geographical and historical specificities of each location.

“Les Ateliers” in Castres: from dream to reality

If there’s one common that I want to present to you, it’s this one! I was fortunate enough to be able to attend its conception, so it’s moving to see, a few years later, that the baby has grown up well and is working like a charm.

What is it all about? The “Les Ateliers” cluster, located in Castres in Tarn, is a place dedicated to the development of sustainable economy. It is almost 4000m², located just a stone’s throw from the city centre, fitted out to accommodate a whole lot of projects in connection with the Social and Solidarity Economy (ESS): a shop of local producers, a restaurant that buys from them, a recycling plant, a coworking area, offices and spaces for rent, etc.

Barely a year after its opening, it looks like this place has been part of the landscape for ages. However, it took time, energy, creativity and the concerted actions of an entire collective to make it happen.

The story begins in the late 1990s. Pierre has been an entrepreneur and head of the family textile business for 20 years, inherited from his father and grandfather. Over the years, he contributed to the company’s growth from 40 to 250 employees. Then suddenly, the European borders opened up, especially to the Chinese market. It didn’t take long for customers, seduced by half-price deals, to desert them and for the banks to let go of the company. By the end of 2008, its fate was sealed: first liquidation and then dismissals. “Humanly, it happened with a lot of respect, no one was responsible for the situation, but it was very hard for everyone” Pierre says.

Once unemployed, the entrepreneur, long interested in the operation of cooperatives and looking for a way to reinvent, started a Master’s degree in Social and Solidarity Economics at the University of Toulouse. As part of his training, he was asked to present a project. It was then that he imagined this pillar…

It turns out that the building dedicated to the logistics of his former business had miraculously escaped liquidation thanks to a tenant who had come to set up shop one month before the auction! Of course, you had to have some imagination at that time to think that the place could accommodate something other than shelves of abandoned lockers. I visited the place when it was still an industrial wasteland, I can tell you that it was very impressive and sad to walk the long empty hallways lit by pale neon lights, and the sheds haunted by mannequins.

In Pierre’s mind, things were very clear: this project would be collective, or it would not be. As of August 2011, the dynamics took shape in the form of an association, with the participation of Regate and Regabat (two cooperatives for activity and employment of the territory), the IES (a regional cooperative for solidarity financing), and the CRESS (regional chamber of the social and solidarity economy).

The first project presentation meeting in October 2011 gathered some 50 interested parties. Since the family tradition had not disappeared with the company, Jean, Pierre’s son, started the feasibility study with a small 6-month contract financed by the European Union. Things moved along relatively quickly, given the scale of the project:

  • 2012/13: Etic, the real estate company, which creates, finances and manages office and retail spaces dedicated to social change actors, becomes a partner and finances the project;
  • 2013/14: Selected by LaboESS as the model project for the “Territorial Pillar of Economic Cooperation” (PTCE), alongside 23 other projects; and the building permit is submitted;
  • 2015: the “Caisse des Dépôts et Consignations” (a French public sector financial institution) also joins the project; the association “Roule ma poule“, the premise of the future local producers’ store, is launched; and work begins!
  • 2016: the building is completely renovated, the residents settle in, and the various projects open one by one: the restaurant, the shop of producers, the textile shop, and so on.

The association then transformed into a SCIC (Cooperative society of collective interest), with 2 co-managers, about 50 partners (individuals and structures), 11 employees and one person performing civic service. SCIC governance operates on the principle of “1 person = 1 vote”. “There is also room for communities, but there are no volunteers at the moment” says Pierre.

If I wanted to present this project to you, of course it is because I was personally involved in its start-up, and the energy deployed by Pierre, Jean and the collective impressed me very much. But it is also because today, Les Ateliers seems to me to be an exemplary achievement of “commons”, or rather, several interlocking commons.

In terms of buildings, the property owner Etic now owns the place, ensuring the project’s longevity. In the cooperative, the functioning of governance allows everyone to become involved and feel that they are part of the initiatives. Even within the structure, freelancers installed in the co-working space have recently decided to meet under the brand name “Les Ateliers de la Com” to answer calls for bids together.

Of course, there are experiments at all levels, so everything is not without risk and decisions change with experience. Although profitable activities partially fund activities that do not finance themselves, the economic model is still seeking to be refined. Many services are and have been provided free of charge. At this level, the cooperative seeks to develop partnerships with institutions in order to be supported by demonstrating the impact and interest of the project for the territory.

As for the general spirit, Pierre said it best: “After 20 years of classical entrepreneurship, I discovered another approach. In the SSE community, these are not the same human relationships. For example, ethical funders are listening to us and looking for solutions with us. I have always tried to have this state of mind in my company, and my desire to show that you can do things differently has come true. The big difference, as an entrepreneur, is that I felt supported by the partners and surrounded by the collective. Employees are partners, and everyone is motivated to move the project forward.

And now, with great serenity, Pierre has just retired…even if he doesn’t rule out lending a helping hand from time to time 🙂

Originally published in Commons Transition Stories

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