Cities, Climate, Inequalities

The (very) concrete utopia of Bâtiment 7: A common facing the challenges of its financial autonomy

April 2024

Sylvain A. Lefèvre, Professor, Department of Strategy, Social and Environmental Responsibility, (ESG-UQAM) and David Grant-Poitras, PhD candidate in Sociology, (UQAM)


With an emphasis on community self-management and self-determination, the commons represents a mode of governance with great potential for rethinking social and economic development at a neighbourhood level. Unlike the logic of commodification and privatization that all too often governs the “economic revitalization” of central and pericentral neighbourhoods, the logic of the commons encourages forms of urban development that are much more compatible with the imperatives of the social and environmental transition. Indeed, beyond supporting a more sustainable approach to managing the resources on which communities depend (Ostrom, 2010), commons embrace democracy, equality, sharing, inclusion, and autonomy (both individual and collective) as core economic principles (Abraham, 2019; Durand Folco, 2017, L’Allier, 2021). Accordingly, the growth of commons-based initiatives has the potential to provide new political opportunities for countering neighbourhood gentrification (a major source of inequality and social exclusion) and for building more resilient and supportive communities that are mindful of their environmental footprint.

Developing commons within a capitalist society remains a complex and difficult task. With this in mind, our study sought to reflect on the economic and financial operationalization of such institutions. Specifically, our research focused on Bâtiment 7 (B7), a grassroots initiative to reappropriate, repurpose, and communalize an abandoned and polluted industrial site. The first of its kind in Montreal, this initiative provided us with an opportunity to explore how financial matters are handled within a commons where issues of sustainability, accessibility, and economic democratization converge.

State of the Academic Literature

In the literature, the idea of the commons refers to a wide range of social institutions established with the aim of controlling resources according to the principles of self-governance and self-management. Rather than a specific category of resources, “the commons” refers to a particular approach to resource management that exists alongside the redistributive model promoted by the state or the market-based models promoted by the business sector. Silke Helfrich and David Bollier have put it this way: “A resource becomes common property as soon as a community or network takes responsibility for it. Community, resource, and rules form an integrated whole” (2015, p. 99). The commons is an ancient socio-economic institution, one that long predates the advent of capitalism and market societies. It is currently experiencing a resurgence, in an age of global neoliberal capitalism. Amid the ongoing commodification of many spheres of society, Benjamin Coriat and al. (2015) have observed how this resurgence serves as a counterweight to a hegemonic “proprietarian ideology” (Piketty, 2019) and the new cycles of enclosure[1] the latter has produced.

Within this historical context, academic interest in the commons has exploded over the past fifteen years. Economist Elinor Ostrom (2010) has been a pioneering figure in this emerging field of study, documenting a diverse range of examples from around the world where resources—and especially natural resources—are managed according to the logic of the commons. In this way, her work provides empirical evidence of the fact that a third option exists, beyond a state economy and a market economy.

Building on these empirical findings, scholars like Dardot and Laval (2014) have taken a normative stance and explored the question from a societal perspective. They have theorized that the commons constitutes the fundamental building block of an already emerging post-capitalist society. From this point of view, the role played by the commons in the society of tomorrow will be equivalent to that played by private enterprise in today’s capitalist society. Various other researchers have followed suit, basing their studies of the commons on this political standpoint while helping flesh out an alternative vision of society (Federici, 2019; Gibson-Graham et al., 2013; Hardt & Negri, 2012; Harvey, 2019). The recent renewal of interest in the commons among social scientists can therefore largely be explained in terms of the institution’s revolutionary potential.

However, although the normative underpinnings and political scope of the commons movement have been extensively theorized, little attention has been paid to the practical conditions required for developing and operationalizing specific instances. This is particularly true when it comes to financial issues, which have tended to be dismissed as an external constraint or a logistical detail. And yet, funding opportunities and related decisions have major consequences, both for a project’s economic viability and for its real capacity to put the ideals of social inclusion and democracy into concrete practice. Moreover, such matters can be settled in ways that either extend the logic of the commons through collective deliberation, or circumvent it through more concentrated, opaque, and arbitrary forms of decision-making. It is therefore vital to carefully examine how the relationship between political autonomy and financial autonomy is understood and put into practice. We call this “the micropolitics of financing.”

The empirical study of the micropolitics of financing can help lay bare the political issues at play in building a common. In this way, our research has drawn on the work of Gibson, Cameron and Healy (2016), who “characterize commoning [building the commons] as a relational process—more often a struggle—of negotiating access, use, benefit, care, and responsibility.” (p. 196). For our part, we set out to show the central importance of funding-related questions (the answers to which impact both access and use) for this relational process of commoning.

Case, Methods, and Original Research Data

Our case study looked at how the micropolitics of financing have played out at B7, a one-stop service centre self-managed by and for the community in Montreal’s Pointe-Saint-Charles neighbourhood.

Data collection, which ran from fall 2018 to summer 2022, took place in the context of a research partnership with B7 members and grant-making foundations that have helped fund the initiative. The study itself was funded by the Canadian Philanthropy Partnership Research Network and overseen by UQAM’s Service aux collectivités (SAC). We took an ethnographic approach that combined direct observation of meetings and individual interviews. This article primarily draws on data gathered during 11 semi-structured interviews conducted with B7 members involved in financial and operations management, as well as on observations made at meetings of B7 management or operational bodies. Prior to the implementation of COVID-19 restrictions, we attended four meetings of foundation-funded groups, one meeting of the Finance Committee, and one meeting of the “General Circle.” The latter brings together all B7 stakeholders. While attending meetings, we recorded observations in a field journal.

Meanwhile, the fact that this was a partnership research project adds an additional reflexive layer to the analysis, insofar as group discussions continued to be organized while we interpreted their content. These discussions mainly took place within the framework of the Comité d’encadrement de la recherche, a SAC-led body on which all the stakeholders mentioned above were represented. Between 2019 and 2022, the members of this committee held a total of nine meetings (either in-person at B7 or online). These meetings served two main functions: (1) to plan the next steps in the research process and (2) to support the co-construction of knowledge.


Our research findings make a pair of important theoretical contributions. To begin with, by using the literature on the commons to better define B7’s organizational form, we have been able to identify certain unique characteristics that shaped its financial arrangements. Second, our conclusions shed light on the political choices that underpin the financial policies of this particular commons-based initiate. In this context, the micropolitics of financing revolve around three points of tension. Furthermore, the need to address these tensions is what drives the experiments, struggles, and debates that give rise to social innovations. In turn, these innovations make it possible to align the initiative’s financial practices with its larger mission.

B7: A Multidimensional Common

Several other Quebec researchers have recognized B7 as a common, based on its commitment to pursuing socio-economic development “by and for the community” (Abraham, 2019; Kruzynski, 2017; L’Allier, 2021). However, its distinctive features as a commons have not been explained in detail. Based on our analysis, we would characterize B7 as a commons that is at once negative, urban, and social.

According to philosopher Alexandre Monnin, a negative commons is one that is concerned “with issues that arise from the management of certain realities that have negative impacts, especially on the environment: waste, nuclear power plants, and various other problems the community will eventually inherit and find itself having to deal with” (Monnin, 2021, p. 59). Before it came to house a variety of community projects, B7 was an abandoned and polluted industrial site, with all the drawbacks that entails. Recognizing B7 as a negative commons therefore makes it possible to acknowledge the collective efforts required to protect, preserve, and decontaminate the site before it could reemerge as a “positive commons.” These efforts entailed considerable financial and social costs.

At the same time, B7 also meets the criteria of an urban commons. There are several reasons for defining a commons in such socio-geographic terms. To begin with, the city is a key site of capital accumulation and consumerism. A commons located in an urban context therefore faces the contradictions of capitalist development in a “hyperconcentrated” form (Harvey, 2011). Strategically located on the edge of downtown, the Pointe-Saint-Charles neighbourhood has been acutely vulnerable to gentrification since the turn of the millennium. In addition to the condominiums that have been springing up at a breakneck pace, developers and public authorities have expressed interest in using the former CN rail yards for large-scale projects designed to attract private investment. In other words, the B7 site is coveted by powerful interests that have resisted its appropriation and communalization.

Finally, B7 can also be considered a social commons, insofar as it is “characterized by the pooling of social resources—such as health, employment, or cultural resources—that are associated with universalist aims and local democratic access.” (Defalvard, 2017, p. 43). Because the groups based at B7 are active throughout the neighbourhood, the notion of a “social commons” helps to clarify the extent to which the development of the building and the adjacent lands is aligned with a desire for social change. Indeed, B7 defines itself as a “factory for collective autonomy.” According to its mission statement, it “aspires to become an engine of cultural, social, political, economic, and environmental change” (Bâtiment 7, 2022). In pursuit of these ideological and political objectives, it has pledged to “guarantee that the site remains accessible to everyone, with an acknowledged bias in favour of  marginalized and impoverished people ” (Bâtiment 7, 2022).

Table 1 summarizes how these three different versions of the commons apply to B7 and explains the main financial implications of each.

Source : Autors, 2023

 Structural Tensions in the Micropolitics of Financing

Our second theoretical contribution relates to the micropolitics of financing that played out at B7 starting in 2018, with the launch and operationalization of the Pôle des pratiques and its various projects and workshops. We were able to observe how, at times, these efforts could involve trial and error, differences of opinion, and even conflict. We believe that the dynamics at play can be best described in terms of “structuring tensions” (Audet et al., 2017). This concept recognizes the diversity of objectives that can be articulated within the same organization, the pressure associated with reconciling the sometimes contradictory (from both normative and logistical perspectives) principles associated with those objectives, as well as the role played by experimentation and innovation in overcoming such challenges. In the context of our study, we observed three main structural tensions, all of which were tied to B7’s commitment to political and financial autonomy.

The first tension relates to funding: Should the initiative prioritize independent sources or rely more heavily on external ones? At first glance, a clearly expressed desire for autonomy would suggest that external funding should be avoided in favour of internally generated revenue. Such an approach would be in keeping with B7’s very high level of volunteer engagement, its “do-it-yourself” ethos, its reliance on communal work gatherings (corvées) to mobilize support, its emphasis on materials recovery, etc. However, independent sources of funding proved insufficient to ensure the initiative’s financial survival. In fact, it required substantial financial support from the public sector as well as from other funders. At this stage, B7 began experimenting with interesting social innovations that allowed it to raise funds without compromising its autonomy and democratic principles. Examples include experimenting with community bonds (Sorin & Gruet, 2017) and establishing a more “horizontal” structure for collaboration with charitable foundations (Grant-Poitras & Lefèvre, 2022).

The second structural tension we observed relates to the definition of autonomy: Was each individual project meant to be autonomous, or only B7 as a whole? This tension stems from the difficulty of developing the larger entity while staying as true as possible to the libertarian ideal that defines its sociocratic structure—that is to say a decentralized, egalitarian structure intended to empower all stakeholders. Figure 1 is an organizational chart showing the various “circles” that support democratic life at B7. An emphasis on self-management has posed major organizational challenges in terms of both the viability of the initiative as a whole and its overall cohesion.

The third structural tension relates to the organization of work, and fundraising work in particular. Should associated tasks be entrusted to professionals? Or should responsibility be shared among members of the collective, as with other kinds of tasks? Essentially, the tension is between two divergent approaches to the division of labour. On one side lies a tendency toward specialization, professionalization, and paid labour; on the other, an emphasis on shared tasks, voluntary work, and activism.

Conclusion: Key Learnings, Study Limitations, and Suggestions for Future Research

Our research findings show that financial issues should not be dismissed as a technical matter. Rather, they are central to the process of managing a common. The micropolitics of financing, as we observed them playing out at B7, bear the imprint of a dialectic between ends and means, not only with respect to the conditions under which a common is possible and accessible, but more broadly with respect to its potential for transformative social change and the impact of its activities, whether in terms of reducing inequalities, combating discrimination, or fostering a ecological transition. As a result, B7’s status as a common is constantly being put to the test, insofar as its organizational decisions constitute so many answers to a series of fundamental questions: Who is meant to benefit from the commons? Who shares what with whom? What are the ties that bind community members together and where do the boundaries of the community lie? Who should be excluded from the commons? Who, among those currently outside the community, should be brought into the fold?

Above all, we want to emphasize that every common will have its own unique features, which will be reflected in a unique set of structural tensions. Accordingly, the model for analyzing the economic and political operationalization of a common presented in this article would be enriched through the study of novel tensions encountered in the context of other initiatives.

[1] In this context, “enclosure” refers to the conversion of public property or property held in common into private property. The historical movement of the same name emerged in late-16th century England, where commoners were progressively deprived of their right to access and use common lands. Karl Marx (1963) argued that the enclosure movement played a decisive role in the primitive accumulation of capital, thereby helping lay the foundations of the capitalist system. That said, even late-stage capitalism continues to rely heavily on fences to extend its reach and conquer new markets.

To cite this article

Lefèvre, S. A. et Grant-Poitras, D. (2024). The (very) concrete utopia of Bâtiment 7: A common facing the challenges of its financial autonomy. In Cities, Climate and Inequalities Collection. VRM – Villes Régions Monde.

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