Management of Urban Commons through the Social-Ecological System Framework

Vijaylakshmi Suman

In urban areas, the condition of different forms of nature and access to them is not unanimous. Some are found in a better condition, as they are more ecologically functional and thriving, whereas some others have been completely decimated. One of the human used resources, like lakes in the city, are embedded in a complex, social-ecological system (SES) (Nagendra & Ostrom, 2014). SES can be understood as multiple subsystems where internal variables within these subsystems function together at multiple levels. For instance, in a resource system like that of a fishery, a resource unit (fish), users (fishermen), and governance systems are relatively separable but they also interact to produce an outcome at the SES level (Ostrom, 2009).

In the presence of different stakeholders, managing urban commons can be challenging. An article by Nagendra & Ostrom (2014) looks into the issue of governance of urban social-ecological commons. Their research is based in the city of Bangalore, which is also known for its numerous large water bodies. However, in recent times, due to rapid encroachment and pollution, the condition of lakes has changed rapidly. People’s perception and usage of the lakes have changed tremendously with urbanization, transitioning from a space valued as a source of water to an urban recreational space used by urban health enthusiasts. As mentioned earlier, in the case of water bodies too, some are being restored and managed effectively, while some are left in an extremely polluted condition, eventually leading to their drying up and encroachment. This study has used the SES framework to inquire why some lakes, based on their location, were able to negotiate changes in the governance of an ecosystem from community-based systems to state management, while some of the other lakes have deteriorated.

Aerial View of Lakes in the City of Banglore
Credits: Vinu Thomas from Bangalore, India / CC BY-SA

As part of this study, seven lakes were studied which together form a part of a lake network in the Koramangala-Challaghatta Valley of Bangalore. Data related to mapping, restoration, assessment, networks of local residents, researchers, and government organizations that had organized several activities to promote maintenance and restoration of lakes was collected. Further, they also identified the broad characteristics of the Resource System and related Resource Unit, Governance Systems, and Actors who combine and affect interactions and outcomes related to the ecosystem. These are also categorised as SES variables which combine and work together either as facilitators or barriers in the act of ecological restoration of lakes.

As a broad takeaway, it can be inferred that the Social-Ecological System (SES) framework was applied to examine the multiple social and ecological factors that affect the condition of the lakes and their restoration. The results showed that that out of seven lakes, only two lakes were in better ecological condition. The difference in the state of lakes was due to lack of some variables not performing equally, which had left some in a degraded condition. The implementation of the SES framework also helped to understand the combination of variables that affect the outcomes of collective actions and ecological performance. This framework also provided a structured way to compare different cases with successful and unsuccessful outcomes and also to identify which combination of factors worked in favour of making the condition of lakes better.

Urban Commons is an important part of urban areas as they act not just as providers of ecosystem services but they also fill the gap between human and nature in the cities. Considering their importance, the SES framework could be one of the tools to study their condition and make them equally better for all residing in cities and towns and not for just a few sections of the society.


  • Nagendra, H., & Ostrom, E. (2014). Applying the social-ecological system framework to the diagnosis of urban lake commons in Bangalore, India. Ecology and Society19(2).
  • Ostrom, E. (2009). A general framework for analyzing sustainability of social-ecological systems. Science, 325(5939), 419-422.

Cover Photo: SlowPhoton / CC BY-SA

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