Right at the beginning of the quarantine, I was struck by the similarity between the forests burning all over the planet, and the lungs of human beings inflamed by the Covid19. The lungs of the planet are in danger and we cannot breathe. Then, George Floyd, Minneapolis and thousands of protesters in the squares of many cities, denouncing the suffocation of civil rights: “We can’t breathe”. The second thing it was impossible not to notice was the return of the public. While in the past few years the emergence of practices of commoning may have contributed to highlight the weaknesses of the public -which started to become clear in the 70s, with the crisis of the welfare states, amongst others- the events of the past months showed that in fact, the public is crucial.
The public meant as an infrastructure of redistribution. While the commons are mostly about recognition, as I had the chance to observe by looking at the Community Land Trust in Brussels, redistribution is still a crucial dynamic in order to make resources accessible to the greatest number. From monetary funds to healthcare: it is hard to imagine how entire societal structures could survive large-scale crises without the intervention of States, mediating between the global and the local.
The public meant as the open and universally accessible. While private and collective realms proved necessary to deal with the emergency, by providing safety to individuals and by allowing to build solidarity networks, to rely only on these realms and the related spaces may end up engendering exclusive dynamics. As it has been often pointed out, the very concept of “staying at home” is exclusive and actually highlights the urgency of a still unsolved housing question. Additionally, the privilege of home is not equal for everybody. A matter of square meters but also of balconies, interior courts, and gardens. A matter of conditions of cohabitation: for many home is a prison. And for the lucky ones that indeed have a place to stay and to enjoy, age, mental issues, physical disabilities may impede to reach the shared facilities in the neighbourhood. Under those conditions, big parks, long bicycle tracks and large-scale infrastructures of care offered the possibility to escape the isolation of an apartment or of an urban block. If on the one hand the universal, as an attribute of the public, was often condemned as a synonym of homogeneity and homologation, on the other hand, it also represents the open accessibility of resources and the realm of diversity, where the encounter of the other is possible.
The public meant as a dimension where critique, protest and dissent can be expressed, thus making sense of what is left of representative democracy. While it is true that representative democracy has failed, on the other hand, a proper alternative is not there yet and most of the administrative structures are established on the basis of a logic of representation. Only at small scales, participatory forms of governance are possibly experimented, most of the times as part of preconceived regulatory frameworks. Therefore, given the lack of real alternatives, voicing –in the words of Hirschman- remains the only way to express dissent, clearly stating what needs to be changed in order for representative democracy to maintain its legitimacy.
In a nutshell, the public seems to be crucial when meant as the (large-scale) dimension allowing any city or living environment and their inhabitants to breathe, in every sense of the word: from big parks and ecological corridors to the squares and the streets, from the healthcare system to the systems of financial support. From oxygenating our bodies and the planet to making possible the expression of rage and dissent.
But then, what kind of public? How to learn from past mistakes? How to avoid neglect, abandonment, speculation, privatisation, political opportunisms and disaffection? Intuitively, it is perhaps by looking at the commons that a few indications could emerge. Indeed, although we are more familiar with the commons as forms of governance concerning small-medium scale projects –such as community gardens, community land trusts, projects for cultural and artistic production, etc- coherently with the practices of caring and sharing that allow to maintain them, I suggest a commons-oriented approach could be used to rethink the public as a large-scale infrastructure of inclusion.

: :