The Athenians believed that the moral imperative was to leave the city a better place on departure than on arrival. The sense that there is a moral obligation towards what comes next, to those who inherit the present, famously informs Aristotle’s description of the constitution of ancient Athens, and is central to the genesis of a political vision of the metropolis as the good city. It prefigures a notion of intergenerational ethics, and foregrounds a sense of obligation towards both the new arrival and the citizen. But it sits uneasily with the way in which the urban age of the 21st century has treated the steady flow of people to the city – of those from rural areas to urban spaces, and as well as of those across national boundaries.

Migration provides a lens through which dilemmas of particular moments of human mobility speak to the human condition. Characteristically, people arrive in one place, more often than not as adults seeking a job, an education, or family ties. They arrive skilled and schooled to some degree already. To the extent that they work, they contribute to the metropolitan economy, even as their arrival may place strains on the commons of the city – the public resources that we share – the ecology, the neighbourhood welfare nets, the competition for scarce land, housing and shelter.

It is possible to see this process analytically as the transitional strains of economic development. The long-term return on the mobility of labour optimises factor resource distribution, powers economic growth, and drives social change – in 21st-century Shanghai and in 19th-century London. But as the city grows, it may undermine its own sustainability through ecological hazards of pollution and traffic, and failures to plan waste, water, and the exploitation of scarce public resources. This invokes a potential tragedy of the commons as the metropolis spirals into decline. Detroit has become the emblematic site of such malaise and post-industrial shrinking. But at times it is also possible to see less the tragedy of the commons than the banality of repertoires of social closure in the face of scarcity. Competition for scarce resources between those who have the least structures logics of intolerance – for example, the responses of an ageing Europe to a challenged welfare state paradoxically staffed by the very migrants who are popularly represented as threatening its survival; sponsored violence against Bihari movers to Mumbai; the heavy policing of African enclaves in the emerging market economy of 21st-century Istanbul.

New urbanisms generate new commons in liminal and restructuring urban spaces and at the rural-urban interface in Europe and the USA, as well as in the emergent economies of China, India and Brazil. As new arrivals make sense of a city that is not their own, the metropolis mutates: ecologies and publics are reconstituted, and the calculus of economic change is resynchronised. These changes inevitably challenge the legitimacy of rule and governance of existing common interests. But which parts of the future metropolis, which spaces and times, should be properly thought of as common pool resources (CPR)? When and how are private rights challenged by the collective needs in the future city? Migration brings such questions to the fore when mayors and municipal decision-makers have to balance the demands of the present and the needs of the future metropolis. This is particularly pronounced in cities where development and expansion are most rapid – in emergent megacities such as Delhi, Shenzhen and Sao Paolo – but also when old metropolises such as Moscow or London reinvent themselves. Optimal economic organisation of the affluent metropolis may sit in tension with a moral calculus of the good city, implying policy trade-offs between what is plausible and what is ideal, and requiring the reconciliation of demographic pressures of settlement with the rational organisation of space, property rights, and popular demands for redistribution: that is, of formal principles with informal realities.

The economics and political science literature on the commons has focused primarily on the rural context. But revisiting the subject becomes more pressing as the world turns urban. Thus in her landmark work Governing the Commons, Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom briefly discusses migration as a potential threat to collective understandings of and agreements on use of, and access to, resources (1990). But in her later writing Ostrom oriented her work towards an analysis of the attributes of community with stable resource pooling, including questions that should be asked of the community by leaders seeking to address heterogeneity, generational population shifts, and migration. She synthesised the ethical questions and empirical challenges of migration by incorporating both the putative threat of diversity to legitimacy and also ‘rules of use’ through the following questions to which a shifting community and CPR should be held:

  • Is there general agreement on the rules related to who is included as a member with both benefits and responsibilities?
  • Do the members have a shared understanding of what their mutual responsibilities are as well as the formulae used for distribution of benefits?
  • Are these rules considered legitimate and fair?
  • How are the rules transmitted from one generation to the next or to those who migrate into the group? (Ostrom, 2009)


In this set of questions, Ostrom highlights both analytical and normative challenges of migration for the city. Because migrants join communities that may already be tenure-insecure, whether in rural or urban settings, local groups ‘can be quick to abandon or to change ways of tenure in the face of significant migrant arrival, because there can be little reason to continue with rules that others are not following’. The central question of legitimacy, a crucial component of protection against eviction in much of the global south, is complicated, as migrant groups may shift, appropriate, or alter the premises for access to land-based resources. But the question of legitimacy in the city also invokes the ethical obligation to the stranger, in other words, the rights of new arrivals to have rights. It does not isolate empirical diversity from contested ethics of the good life, and instead points toward the inevitable mixing of moral private problems and instrumental public issues.

The contemporary city consequently reframes the sense of arrival. Ethically, we arrive in the present as somehow strangers to ourselves. The facility of the modern is the chameleon-like propensity for change so rapid that vernacular knowledges of place are trumped by the transformation of spaces of the everyday in processes of economic restructuring. We may identify and belong in one place, but owe a debt of obligation to those near and distant in both time and space in the city that is yet to come.


Ostrom, E. (1990) Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Ostrom, E. (2009) ‘Governing the Commons from a Citizens’ Perspective’, Heinrich Boll Stiftung.

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