(Renegotiating) Water as urban commons

Considering the health effects of the urban environment adds an extra layer into the debate over common spaces. Urban spaces are a platform for different forms of services and goods but neither are created or perceived as something collectively shared. These spaces are discontinuous and differentiated and they mostly correspond to corrupted “communing practices of dwelling” in which urban inhabitants separate themselves from the rest of the community (Stavrides 2014:85). Due to the neoliberalisation and commodification that began in the 1980s, public spaces evolved to serve particular demands and certain groups of society. The public domain is mostly oriented around being clean and safe to benefit solely consumerism such as tourism and to serve a well-funded section of the population. The opposing section of society is continuously marginalized as there is no monetary benefit in exchange. While forms of private transportation like cars occupy the majority of the streets and sidewalks, other surfaces are occupied by gastronomy and shops or for the purpose of advertisement. So to spend leisure time in these areas, like casually sitting down, demands some kind of consumption or exposure to consumerism. In contrast benches are rare outside of designated recreational areas like parks and some places are aggressively designed to deter people with light, sound or some form of physical discomfort, such as spikes or fences, especially targeting homeless or “unwanted” people. The same goes for water in urban spaces. Where rivers and lakes used to be public places to bath, wash or to be some sort of food resource, nowadays it has become a multifunctional field entirely serving economic interests. Real-estate at watersides is prestigious globally and accessible for wealthier communities and neighbourhoods. Currently the water surface itself is mostly used for the transportation of goods, tourism or special sport-activities while across the past two centuries of industrialization and general urban waste management, pollution has been detrimental to the water itself. Due to the combination of these factors, the usage of the waters in Berlin nowadays is mostly tourism side by side with boat services where access is granted through the confined parameters of said boats in exchange for money. Pollution and the commercial use of water ways prevented most other forms of purported public use from flourishing despite the fact that urban rivers and channels belong to the wider public as much as anyone else. 

Francesca Ferguson, editor of „Make_shift city“ 

“The refuelling of the civic imagination with regard to urban spaces and their potentials often begins with proposing the seemingly impossible, but presents this as a concrete spatial utopia that can be realised and can manifest itself in the city.” 


Flussbad taps into this idea and questions the notion that the Spree is merely a waterway and instead clearly defines the river as publicly accessible space. As a central water body of a city with a population of almost four million people, Berlin’s inhabitants could benefit from the Spree and its tributaries if they would be widely recognized as areas for recreation. Ships could still pass through early in the morning meaning the river’s capacity for transporting goods would not be restricted (Edler 2014:72). With this understanding in place, the river gains a thus far unimplemented purpose and value. Instead of defining it by its everyday commercial and privatized way of use, it is starting to be reimagined not merely as commercial infrastructure but as something with the potential to positively affect the whole community therefore earning the consensus as a common value (Edler 2014:73). It reinforces the significance of common land and the custom of collectively using spaces like the waterside and the water itself for general leisure such as swimming or other water-related activities. These stand in direct opposition to the current practice. Urban commoning, like the idea of Flussbad, opens up new room for possibilities, as it stands in direct opposition to practices of exclusivity. Commoning means to dilute artificial boundaries of any given milieu within its embedded community, if it is to elevate relations beyond the instruments of exploitation and hierarchical control. Commoning gives the opportunity to foster potentially more commoners, to participate in a collective “revolt of creative doing” - as a pure form of collective unrestrained creation against exploitation and inequality (Stavrides 2014: 85). By looking back to 100 years ago river-pools, such as those envisioned by the Flussbad project, were very common with at one point 30 different spots within Berlin. So if Berlin’s watersides and surfaces can be seen as a potential commons as they indeed have been in the past, it begs the question; how to approach the reclaiming of these urban spaces with a public oriented design. Urban spaces can become a collective means of opposition and sharing whilst creating new forms of living and sharing (ibid.) The value and the possibility of a common, like public waters, is directly related to how easily people can gain access to it and overcome forms of commercial constraints like tourism or failing wastewater management in this case. 

What if streets were not only 

transient spaces for people to drive from point A to point B by car?


What if urban rivers were not
only transit lanes for transporting goods and for consumerist 


Carol M. Rose (1986) suggests that properties which are specifically devoted to such non-commercial forms of recreation could achieve their highest value when they are accessible to the public at large (ibid.: 723). By referring to the historical legal background in the US she describes that commons build on the customary use of a broader public. Customary rights “vest property rights in groups that are indefinite and informal. [...] Custom might be the medium through which such an informal group acts generally” (Rose 1986: 742). So it appears essential to create access to the designated areas within a low threshold and a large capacity to be used simultaneously by a broad number of people. At the same time it must be adapted to its environment and should entirely benefit public needs over individual gains. In the context of recreational uses of water, Rose mentions that the custom of occupying certain spaces for recreation added value to these places which otherwise would not have been of any particular interest, like swimming spots or fishing areas (ibid.: 760). While this usage is prone to be commercialized in some way, the public’s recreational use in opposition seems to facilitate “publicification” of properties and goes along with a perception of an analogous socializing institution. Quoting Frederick Law Olmsted, Rose describes that “recreation can be a socializing and educative influence, particularly helpful for democratic values. Thus rich and poor would mingle in parks, and learn to treat each other as neighbours” (Rose 1986: 779), breaking the general urban anonymity - fighting against the socio-political division of the people that we currently experience in politics worldwide. “Parks would enhance public mental health, with ultimate benefits to sociability; all could revive from the antisocial characteristics of urban life under the refining influence of the park‘s soothing landscape” she continues (ibid.). While these aspects are subtle in their effect, they play an important role for maintaining the valued purpose. Thus the concept for an open access to the channels and river should go hand in hand with this notion. For example, it should be designed in a way that everyone in attendance feels comfortable and safe at any given time. It should coalesce with existing infrastructure, making it easy for people to use it sustainably and should be designed to be easy to maintain. Rose follows up by concluding that public recreation acts as a “social glue” when there is the possibility to engage with one another in public. She adds to the socio-political benefits the coping properties by recreation itself by relaxing and connecting with others in a non-commerce, -stress and -work environment. Therefore spaces with recreational character have to be open to all at minimal cost and effort respectively by a shared cost and shared efforts due to the broad positive societal democratic effects. To achieve this, private forms of usage must be broken down and instead turned into spaces of social interaction - “civilizing and socializing all members of the public” creating collective value to a common (Rose 1986: 780). Through lack of socializing activities taking place on “inherently public property”, the public merely becomes an indistinct mass, whose interests are diluted in their broad differences (Rose 1986: 781). The goal is to bring people together and start a positive feedback loop for social and environmental growth in the urban sphere, in summary creating a long-lost common for all inhabitants of Berlin. 

In conclusion to ignite the public’s imagination about the potentials of urban spaces, it is necessary to break free from existing confines and question the status quo by proposing a radical contrary to the deadlocked customs. Instead new customs and therefore something seemingly impossible has to be implemented to open minds to the possibility of an urban utopia (Ferguson 2014:15). This should be seen as an approach to affiliate with the broader idea which was proposed by David Harvey (2008), who is a vocal advocate for “the right to the city”.