The Rise and Fall of Transatlantic Radical Planning—A Review of “Against the Commons: A Radical History of Urban Planning”

Sevilla-Buitrago, Álvaro. Against the Commons: A Radical History of Urban Planning. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2022.

Reviewed by Mohamed Gamal-Eldin and Marianne Dhenin

Historian Álvaro Sevilla-Buitrago delivers a provocative account of how planning has shaped our world in his debut single-author monograph, Against the Commons: A Radical History of Urban Planning, recently released from the University of Minnesota Press. His main argument is that urban planning has historically decollectivized society and disrupted working-class communal spaces. He compellingly argues this through a series of case studies spanning four centuries in England, the United States, Germany, and Italy. As the narrative travels through time and space, Sevilla-Buitrago connects the growth of urban populations and the destruction of the commons to the rise of capitalism and situates planning at the core of it all. 

The story begins with a chapter on eighteenth-century England, where Sevilla-Buitrago locates the origins of professionalized urban planning with the rise of enclosure laws, which brought the common fields of precapitalist rural England into capitalism’s fold. The English commons—loose and informal spaces of meeting, resource sharing, and play—comprised of arable land, common pastures, wastes, fisheries, and forests, were enclosed through various legal means, including parliamentary laws. Those who used these commons were disallowed the unrestricted use of these peripheral lands, often displaced, and gradually forced into the belly of industrial urbanism, leaving the rural in the past. Further, it was in these now-receding rural environments that regulations created new administrative professionals like the surveyor. 

Sevilla-Buitrago’s second chapter takes readers across the pond to late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century New York City and Chicago. Here, he situates the creation of large pastoral parks in relation to the US Civil War and the Progressive Era’s playground movement in his story of capitalism as spatialization, showing how these interventions served to subdue a heterogenous working class and the “tumultuous assemblage” of collaborative or commoning practices that facilitated their lives in the rapidly industrializing cities of the period.

The third chapter comes with less of a jump forward in time, landing in Weimar-era Berlin. Following the November Revolution and the conclusion of World War I, Sevilla-Buitrago traces the evolution of the planning profession through the rise of Fordism. He shows that despite tightening relations between state and corporate strategies, the laboring classes of Berlin’s urban milieus continued to battle for popular control over the built environment. Moving out of the streets and into the home, which increasingly became a site of contestation during this period in cities across the globe, he also shows how urban planning and policy defined new patterns of social reproduction.

The experimental Haselhorst Housing Estate under construction in Spandau, Berlin. “Reichsforschungssiedlung Haselhorst im Bau 1931,” Wikimedia Commons.

The final stop on Sevilla-Buitrago’s historical-narrative tour takes readers to the northern capital of Italy, where twenty-first-century struggles over the urban commons have played out, and future possibilities have begun to reveal themselves. Looking first at collective creative work and its histories from the 1960s into the 1980s and then municipalities’ and urban planners’ gradual co-opting of creativity in Milan, Sevilla-Buitrago demonstrates how neoliberal logics subsume organic artistic and creative work. 

During the early aughts, neighborhoods along the periphery of Milan—where earlier iterations of cooperative architecture, art and design studios, and collectives formed organically in abandoned or unwanted spaces—were transformed through these very same, now co-opted or subsumed, creative initiatives. Similar processes continue today in municipality-led gentrification projects. These local neighborhood projects, created out of necessity by trade unionists and communist organizers in the preceding decades, are now part of Milan’s redevelopment plan. In essence, urban resistance has been subsumed in the service of a new, state-supported, neoliberal capitalist order. 

The book’s historical narrative ends on this almost pessimistic note, describing our current moment as one of real subsumption. Communities are experiencing greater alienation, and urban spaces are being co-opted in ever more pernicious ways than before. However, just as he has re-examined the history of urban planning, Sevilla-Buitrago invites readers to join him in reimagining its future—urban planning for rather than against the commons.

A concluding chapter of the text steps into this potential future, outlining a vision for what Sevilla-Buitrago calls a “reappropriation of planning.” He describes an alternate planning, which is diffuse, deprofessionalized, and can be mobilized in pursuit of commons-based urbanization, capable of remaking our twenty-first-century neoliberal cities in the service of those who inhabit them. 

Sevilla-Buitrago writes that this “commons-oriented planning” requires planners, urban designers, and architects to imagine what social geographies and the built environment might look like today if historical communal spaces and commoning practices had been preserved. “We can start [the revolution] right now,” he writes, “by building and connecting collective autonomous spaces that subvert capitalist urbanism, empower communities to regain control over their milieus, and help the most vulnerable break free from oppression, misery, and alienation.”

The radical work that Sevilla-Buitrago calls for in his closing chapter is not without precedent. Examples of communities already redefining collective spaces and communal living can be plucked from recent headlines: In 2020, Philadelphia Housing Action forced the city to relinquish dozens of vacant homes to a community land trust after months of self-organized housing takeovers. A semiautonomous neighborhood formed in Bayview in southeastern San Francisco in 2022 as locals facing untenable living costs carved out a new communal space with a series of mobile homes, where according to one resident, “everybody was looking out for everybody else,” rather than being forced from the city altogether. Nearby, Berekely’s People’s Park, a small patch of land owned by the University of California, Berkeley, has been occupied by “a loose assortment of hippies, freaks, punks, socialists, communists, anarchists, progressives, artists, gardeners, environmentalists, historical preservationists, [and] pranksters,” for almost five decades—an island haven of subaltern social movements in a sea of high-end retail. 

An encampment at Puerta del Sol in Madrid during a popular demonstration for democracy. Luis Fernández García, “Indignados y organizados” (2011), Wikimedia Commons.

Other times, however, real-world events raise difficult questions about Sevilla-Buitrago’s vision for realizing an alternative urban planning. For instance, he calls for using “the coercive power of state structures” to overcome our current capitalist urban planning. The rejection of a new constitution in Chile last September, which would have remade urban space by, among other things, enshrining a right to housing and sanitation, seems to point to the limitations of state institutions to help us realize radical futures. 

The absence of Global South case studies is also an unfortunate oversight of Sevilla-Buitrago’s text, one that feels all too common in histories of the commons, particularly those in urban studies. As the urban planning expert Amanda Huron notes, “Geographical biases, of course, can mask (and create) theoretical biases.” When scholars forego Global South case studies, they ignore a vast literature and histories of subaltern struggles to maintain independence in the urban commons. Resistance and subaltern movements are very much linked across the Global South and not just centered in the West. 

While Sevilla-Buitrago tells readers from the outset that his is a radical retelling of urbanization in the capitalist metropolises of the West, and he accomplishes what he sets out to do in that regard, greater engagement with literature from the Global South would have provided meaningful connections across geographic space and marked his text as a more radical one still. His only nod to colonial histories comes in the chapter on English enclosure, where he mentions the connections between overseas imperialism and what he calls “domestic colonization” in the West. But histories of colonies as laboratories of planning knowledge, like Janet Abu-Lughod’s work on colonial Rabat and Jyoti Hosagrahar’s monograph on colonial Delhi, to name only two excellent examples, are missing from the text. Colonial policy helped shape new urban improvement schemes that were implemented in the metropole and vice versa; neither space exists in a vacuum. 

Still, while it is not quite globe-spanning, Sevilla-Buitrago’s Against the Commons is a time-traveling, discipline-busting re-evaluation of planning and its history, and it offers a compelling vision of its could-be radical remaking. Even in its limitations, the text invites further engagement and new interventions along the ambitious trajectory it has begun to chart.

Mohamed Gamal-Eldin is a historian who graduated from the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Rutgers University-Newark. His dissertation was entitled “Cities of Sand: Reshaping the Environment, Building Towns, and Finding Modernity in the Isthmus of Suez, 1856-1936.” His most recent article, “Searching for a Past: French Colonial Memory of Ismailia in the early 20th Century,” was published in 2022 by Monde Arabe.

Marianne Dhenin is a disabled journalist and historian. Currently, she is a PhD candidate in Near and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Basel, a researcher in the Leibniz Cooperation Project “The Historicity of Democracy in the Arab and Muslim Worlds,” and a member of the academic staff at the Leibniz Institute of European History. Her dissertation explores how disease and public health shaped the social and spatial order of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Egyptian cities.

Featured image (at top): Interior of Reichforschungssiedlung Haselhorst, ca. 1931. “Reichforschungssiedlung Haselhorst Wohnkueche um 1931,” Wikimedia Commons.

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