August 2018

The neighbourhood as a commons

The Day of the Good Life as a catalyst for an urban transformation towards sustainability

What would our cities look like if they were designed and governed bottom-up, by the citizens themselves, as commons? If such an idea does not reflect the reality of an entire city 365 days a year, then we could start with one day a year in one neighbourhood. This is the core of the approach to transformation behind the Day of the Good Life, Tag des guten Lebens in German.

Cologne is the first ‘real-world lab’ where this approach has been successfully tested and developed. In 2011 the concept of introducing a ‘Sunday of Sustainability’ in this city was honoured with a local award (Dialog Kölner Klimawandel) for innovative project ideas aimed at climate protection in the city. This is not just another event for citizens to enjoy for the day before going back to their normal lives; it should serve as a “catalyst for a transformation of the city towards sustainability and post-fossil society” (Brocchi 2012: 27). To bring the idea to life, a diverse local network was founded. Nearly 130 organizations, cultural institutions, schools, initiatives and companies (among others) and many committed citizens have signed up to the Agora Köln (Agora Cologne). The platform’s name describes its purpose: in the ancient Greek polis, the agora was the public meeting place where direct democracy emerged. Citizens met there to collectively determine how to develop their own city. Likewise, the Agora Köln pursues the goal of urban development from the bottom up, through unconventional alliances for sustainability between actors from different sectors (environmental, economic, social and cultural) and between neighbourhoods, civil organisations and local institutions.

A self-made dining and living room in the neighbourhood on Day of the Good Life 2013 in Cologne. Photo by Marén Wirths.

A self-made dining and living room in the neighbourhood on Day of the Good Life 2013 in Cologne. Photo by Marén Wirths.

But where is the agora in the modern city? Unfortunately, public space is increasingly occupied by traffic and commercial activity, where people take on the role of motorists and consumers; accordingly, political and economic institutions follow suit, designing spaces that are well suited to motorists and consumers. Urban open spaces in which one can be a citizen (a political subject instead of an object) become increasingly scarce. The Agora Köln is also campaigning for a “right to the city” (Lefebvre 1968; Harvey 2013), more precisely, for everyone’s right to a viable and liveable city. On the Day of the Good Life, the network together with the neighbourhoods transforms the space for traffic and consumption into an open agora. This transformation is made possible by a corresponding (and so far unanimous) decision made by the neighbourhood’s representative assembly. The Day of the Good Life shows the transformative potential of public-citizen-partnership instead of public-private-partnerships. As many streets and squares as possible are then closed off to motorized traffic and in some cases completely free of parked cars. The space becomes a large open-air public stage, where community members can socialise and implement their own concepts of the ‘good life’. The condition is that all action must be non-commercial: nothing can be sold or bought, only donated or shared. The euro gets replaced by a new currency, so to speak, that of trust, for one day in that neighbourhood. The sphere of the “gift economy” (Mauss 2016) expands from the familiar circle to include the neighbourhood. In the family, trust and a sense of community need two main ingredients:

  1. Space as a commons Where would family as such take place if there weren’t a dining or living room? The good life needs such common rooms in every street as part of the infrastructure of sustainable cities. Commons don’t exist; they are made (Helfrich 2011). Private spaces can also be transformed into a commons. Physical spaces as commons can be the “totem” (Durkheim 1902) that symbolize and promote an identification with an inclusive community, beyond differences among classes, milieus or generations. This emotional identification is stronger when the common space is self-made, designed and furnished in a participative way, with simple materials. Through the ‘our’ (our neighbourhood, our street, our living room) everybody senses and exercises the right to participate, to be involved. The commons and the common cause presuppose each other.
  2. Common rituals In a family, people meet at the same time in the same space with an informal or formal motive: dinner, Christmas, to discuss a problem, find a common solution and redefine the rules of living together. What would homemade rituals for the neighbourhood look like? The Day of the Good Life offers a frame for the collective creativity at the local level, for combining best practices (for example, international Restaurant Day, PARK(ing) Day, theatre in living rooms, repair cafés…). The name of this ritual, the good life, is in line, for example, with the buen vivir debate in Latin America (Acosta 2013) on alternative “welfare models” to replace the dominant model centred on economic growth and consumerism (cf. Sachs 2010). On the Day of the Good Life, the global learning perspective is reversed: during the transition from colonisation to globalisation, the Western ‘advanced modern culture’ told ‘underdeveloped traditional cultures’ how they should live. But on the Day of the Good Life, each neighbourhood can ask a new question: What can we learn from other (sub)cultures, for example, about a life that is more in tune with nature, in equilibrium? We don’t need to take long flights to explore diversity: The Day of the Good Life wants to make the diversity that is already present nearby and in ourselves more visible and promote a dialogue with it.

Every Day of the Good Life is a step towards the sustainable transformation of the city. The introduction of the Day itself was only the first step; every following year, the steps towards transformation should build on that. Since 2013, the Tag des guten Lebens takes place once a year in a different neighbourhood of Cologne: 2013 and 2014 in Ehrenfeld, 2015 in Sülz, 2017 in Deutz and this year’s 2018 in Agnesviertel/Eigelstein. Each of these areas (1–2 km², 20,000–30,000 inhabitants, 25–35 streets) went car-free and were remodelled by civil society and local residents for one Sunday.

For each of the neighbourhoods, all of the residents were invited several months beforehand by the Agora Köln to a community conference, where the offer to govern the district for one day from the bottom up was presented. In this meeting, the residents were subdivided into street communities to coordinate themselves. The principle is that smaller groups and spaces better correspond to the human scale than bigger ones. Every street community met autonomously in the following months and discussed various questions: What are some ideas for better living on our street? How would we live together? Which kind of mobility do we want in our neighbourhood? How do we want to promote solidarity and stop gentrification? On the Day of the Good Life, every street community has the chance to take the results of their own discussions on the good life in the open space of the street and turn them into a reality. Here the transformation isn’t reduced to a dialogical process or a process of enlightenment, dominated by people with an academic background (who can better deal with verbal communication and rational knowledge). In this process, as much responsibility as possible is transferred to local residents. The Day of the Good Life is a social sculpture, in that the city is shaped by a collective creativity in a self-determined way. Every citizen becomes an artist (Beuys 1978). The first commons intervention takes place the day before when everybody parks their car further away, dramatically changing what the neighbourhood looks like. People experience self-efficacy, where with just one small action, they can make a radical impact on their neighbourhood. What would the city look like without cars? The nonverbal communication of making things together is much more inclusive than the verbal one, and experiencing sustainability works on a much deeper level than hearing about it. Every citizen makes or experiences sustainability at their own front door. It is interesting to see that the most typical action neighbourhoods take on the Day of the Good Life is to transform the street into a common dining and living room. Anonymity is partially reduced; people who for many years lived side by side without knowing each other meet here for the first time. A woman, resident of Ehrenfeld, said to me once: “Since the Day of the Good Life, I need an extra 15 minutes every morning when going to the bakery, because I get stopped by people I never knew before.” (Brocchi 2017, p. 119)

The Day of the Good Life serves first as a catalyst for social interaction in the neighbourhood. On the one hand, the residents meet regularly in advance to design and organize the program for the day in their own neighbourhood or on their own street. On the other hand, the day itself creates open space in the form of car-free squares and streets, where social interaction takes place and is promoted through joint action (e.g. breakfast outdoors with neighbours). For its part, social interaction generates trust, and this plays a key role in transformation processes towards sustainability for several reasons:

  1. For the system theorist Niklas Luhmann (1989, p.8) trust is “an effective way of reducing complexity (both objectively and subjectively)”. Trust activates shared resources and thereby reduces the paralyzing feeling of powerlessness. Studies confirm that people’s well-being is most pronounced where, in addition to a healthy environment, there is also a climate of trust that allows for the coexistence of social cohesion and individual self-determination.
  2. Trust is an important prerequisite for people’s willingness to share—not just cars, books and tools but also community responsibility. In a context of trust, lifestyles become less material: what is shared does not have to be bought or, thus, produced. Relationships replace materiality. Social capital makes transformation possible where economic capital is scarce. This strategy widens the creative scope for highly indebted cities such as Cologne.
  3. In an atmosphere of trust, people prefer to be part of a community than to show off their social status. If it’s true that social status is exhibited through our habitus and the way we consume (Bourdieu 1984), then a trustful atmosphere changes, for example, our mobility behaviour: People move from A to B by bicycle instead of a big SUV (sport utility vehicle). Cities like Copenhagen or Amsterdam aren’t only characterized by more sustainable forms of mobility but also by more trustful relationships among citizens as well as between civil society and institutions.
  4. For the political scientist and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics Elinor Ostrom (1990), commons are sustainably managed where the users cooperate with each other. “People tend to overuse common resources, if they do not know each other. In contrast, groups that communicate regularly with each other are able to achieve almost optimal results in resource management. The dilemma can be avoided by building trust. It is the most difficult but most reliable way to ensure that one’s own limitation is rewarded by the other” (Helfrich, Kuhlen, Sachs et al., 2009, p. 30). With the Day of the Good Life, the city is transformed into a commons, and each neighbourhood and each street are considered as commons and treated by their users accordingly responsibly.

If the financial crisis and the crisis of democracy are trust crises, then democracy and the market should be re-founded in a more sustainable way there, where trust can emerge again, where people can interact in everyday life in person, namely at the local level. Where producers and consumers know each other personally, abuse is unusual; advertisement isn’t needed to artificially replace the missing trust.

The promotion of neighbourhood and democracy is the constant in the transformation behind the Day of the Good Life as a process. This process is made progressive by annually rotating what neighbourhood the Day of the Good Life takes place in and what that year’s main issue focuses on. This main issue is defined by the Agora Köln together with the neighbourhoods and corresponds to whatever those citizens are worried about, turning into a new common step towards the transformation of the city. In line with the launch of the first Day of the Good Life, the main issue in 2013 in Cologne was sustainable mobility, against the extremely car-friendly politics of recent decades. The 130 organisations behind the Agora Köln defined a common alternative mobility programme for the city (Agora Köln 2015), and the Day of the Good Life served as a high point in a city-wide campaign for a change in mobility. While the secondary streets were governed by the respective street communities, Ehrenfeld’s main traffic road was reserved for a central programme focussed on the main issue. Related organisations showed how sustainable mobility can work. Because the visitors from outside were concentred here, the secondary streets offered a more protected space for the neighbourhoods. Every Day of the Good Life is the biggest car-free day in Cologne since the 1970s, and to facilitate the absence of the car on the Day of the Good Life, public transport throughout Cologne should be free, as per the original plan (Brocchi 2012, pp. 4, 29). The Cologne City Council voted in March 2016, by a large majority, for a day without tickets from the city’s transport companies.

To address diversity in civil society and promote a multi-dimensional urban development, the issue that shapes the transformation steps changes each year, rotating between ecology, economics, society and culture. The main issue for the Agora Köln 2014 and 2015 was free spaces and common spaces in the city, and in 2018, sustainable nutrition. The rotating of issues is very important for attracting different milieus and interest groups. Diversity begets diversity.

Through the Day of the Good Life, every single step of transformation becomes the focus of public and media attention, which in turn boosts its implementation. The yearly rotating of neighbourhoods and main issues allow the Agora Köln (as a local movement for a progressive transformation of the city) to grow constantly, by networking with a new neighbourhood, milieus and stakeholders. When enough neighbourhoods are mobilized, the Day of the Good Life could take place throughout the whole city, so that there are no more ‘producers of the good life’ (the residents of the car-free neighbourhood) and ‘consumers of the good life’ (the visitors from outside), but only prosumers of the good life throughout the whole city.

The Day of the Good Life continues to be a flagship project. In 2017, it won the first German Neighbourhood Award from the Foundation, out of 1,300 candidates. Alberto Acosta, one of the main participants in the Latin American debate on buen vivir, supports the idea of an international Day of the Good Life. Local initiatives from different German cities are now networked for drafting a common manifesto for a German Day of the Good Life and setting a common date. The city of Dresden is planning a Week of the Good Life for May 2020, and the Day of the Good Life could take place in three different districts of Berlin. In the German capital, the first main issue will be the current biggest problem for disadvantaged people and subcultural initiatives there: the soil and the housing policy. To whom does the city belong, its citizens or the real estate investors?

About the author

Davide Brocchi, born in 1969 in Rimini, Italy, moved to Germany in 1992 and lives in Cologne. The graduate social scientist works as a transformation activist, publicist, researcher, and lecturer. His work focuses on the cultural dimension of sustainability, the formation of unconventional alliances and urban transformation as a participatory process. Among other things, he initiated the Festival of Cultures for another World (2003, Düsseldorf), the nationwide networks Kulturattac (2003) and Cultura21 (2005), the Alliance Agora Cologne and the annual Day of the Good Life: Cologne Sunday of Sustainability (2012). In 2017 he published the book Urbane Transformation. Zum guten Leben in der eigenen Stadt (Urban Transformation: Towards a Good Life in Your Own City). In addition to social sciences, he studied politics, psychology and philosophy, among others with Professor Umberto Eco at the University of Bologna. He is a doctoral student at Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf. For further information:


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