Conflict is not evident in the great promenade in the centre of Barcelona. Shoppers sell, buskers busk, tourists look in awe… The only discordant note is given by a few locals elbow their way through the masses and the perpetual traffic jams in the two narrow lanes at each side of the paved centre.

Les Rambles – Source: Wikimedia Commons

Yet, beyond this idyllic image, there is a conflict going on about who gets to use the space, enjoy the scenery, or woo those who pass by. Neighbours complain incessantly about a hospitality sector that has swallowed most of the public space and charge ridiculously high prices, of shops that cater to the tourist alone, and of tourist apartments which drive up rents. Quoting Brecht, Les Rambles is also a place where “beggars beg, thieves steal, and whores whore”. Indeed, as with all public spaces, the boulevard is a space of opportunities for those trying to earn a living outside the system.

Thus, we find a series of stakeholders who intend to use the space to fulfil their own interest. Uses of  Les Rambles can be separated into those which target economic profit (which can, at their turn be divided into formal, such as hospitality and commerce, and informal, begging, busking, criminality…) and those which do not (strolling, flaneuring, circulating, political activities…). The conflict arises when a group of stakeholders achieves a position of power so as to prevent others to use the commons to their interests. As well, and following the foundational texts on the commons (The Tragedy of the Commons by Garrett Hardin or Governing the Commons by Elinor Ostrom), an overuse of a common pool resource leads to its destruction.

Conflict over a loaf of bread in Barcelona, Associated Press Berliner Büro, 1939 (Rijksmuseum Netherlands)

Both these aspects can be seen in the reflections by neighbours, who feel they cannot enjoy the atmosphere because of its overuse by tourism or commerce-related stakeholders. In this sense, Les Rambles is a commons as it contains a series of resources, (such as open space, human activity, and built environment) which can be used for many different purposes, from earning a living to socialising or organising a political movement. Hence, several regulations (zoning laws, regulations of acceptable activities in the public spaces…) are put in place so as to reduce such conflicts. What makes a regulation just is a matter of normative ideals. In this piece, I argue that a just distribution should maximise the opportunities of commoners to fulfil their needs without resorting to the market (for instance, by patronising a bar or renting commercial space). Here are four possible criteria to do that.

Managing a commons for social justice

Firstly, at a substantive level, I understand that access to a commons cannot be prevented to any stakeholder except when a certain use, by its intensity or its own nature, prevents others from using it (for instance, covering the entire walking space with terraces thus making non-commercial leisure impossible). This is because commons have a potential of generating material resources for citizens but also for activities of socialisation or political activism, which otherwise would be restricted to those who can own them or pay entry barriers to use them.

Linked to this, the second criteria would be the Rawlsian principle of difference, that is, that the least well-off are not harmed by changes in goods redistribution (in our case, in access to the commons). This presents a problem when the activities of this group are often the first to be prohibited in regulation processes, sometimes with reason (that is, when they entail criminal behaviours such as theft, illegal gambling…), sometimes less so (begging, rough sleeping…). Thus, if there is a public reason –more on that later– for denying uses to the least well-off, measures should be taken at other levels in order to render these uses unnecessary.

A space for political mobilisation – Source: Wikimedia Commons

Thirdly, those who take larger economic profits from the commons, via using them directly or via externalities, such as the “brand power” of the street, ought to have a larger responsibility in curating and conserving the resource. Finally, at a procedural level, in order to achieve the two previous criteria an inclusive and reasoned democratic process is needed. This means that, first, all relevant stakeholders should be included in the process (especially those less likely to do so, i.e. the least well-off), and that arguments should be posed so that other users can understand them and see them as valid, thus promoting a solution that can be considered acceptable by all involved.

This is, of course, but a brief sketch of the problem at hand and of the possible solution. As well, users and stakeholders are permanently changing and thus it is not possible to draw a between those who use the commons and those who do not (for instance, the role of tourists, those who profit on the positive externalities generated by the commons, and the right of all citizens of Barcelona to decide on the public form and planning procedures of their city). This will prevent full compliance with the fourth principle. However, as we have seen, a commons, even if it is not, per se, a cure for all inequalities in our cities, given proper regulation, can be a tool for equality and a generator of economic and social opportunities.