“Sharing Cities: Activating the Urban Commons,” is a collection of 137 case studies and policies in 11 categories that demonstrate that a city run by the people is not only possible, but that much of it is already here. From participatory budgeting in Brazil to resident-managed public spaces in Italy to taxi cooperatives in the U.S., there’s almost no service that can’t be run democratically by citizens for each other.
With the backdrop of worsening income inequality, climate change, and fiscal challenges, the growth of self-organized, democratic, and inclusive means for city dwellers to meet their own needs by sharing resources couldn’t be more relevant. These cases and policies taken together offer a new vision for cities that puts people – not the market, technology, or government – at the center, where they belong. Moreover, the book represents a claim on the city by people – a claim increasingly being made by city-residents the world over. This book was written for a broad audience, but may find special resonance with those who share this people-first vision of cities and want to act on it. Written by a team of 15 fellows with contributions from 18 organizations around the world, “Sharing Cities: Activating the Urban Commons” not only witnesses a movement, but is a practical reference guide for community-based solutions to a range of challenges cities face such as affordable housing, sustainable mobility, and more.
THE START OF A MOVEMENT
On May 7, 2011, Shareable, the nonprofit media outlet I co-founded two years earlier, hosted a daylong conference called Share San Francisco at the Impact Hub coworking space in the city. We brought together 130 leaders from city government, nonprofits, and social enterprises to explore one key question, “How can we amplify the city of San Francisco as a platform for sharing?” We wanted to learn how San Franciscans could share more when they already shared a lot. After all, cities are fundamentally shared enterprises.
We hoped to catalyze positive change from a set of opportunities coalescing around cities – some particularly evident in San Francisco, where Shareable is based. What has transpired since has gone well beyond our expectations. It all started with a conversation around a few observations that by themselves are important, but have world-changing potential if managed together for the common good.
The keynote speakers – including Lisa Gansky, entrepreneur and author of “The Mesh,” Jay Nath, at the time San Francisco’s Director of Innovation, and myself – framed the opportunity for sharing in cities around the following observations:
- Humans had only recently become a globally-connected, urban species with more people living in cities and owning a cellphone than not. We’ve only just begun to tap the potential of a new situation.
- In an era of gridlocked, ideologically-driven politics, cities are where change is still possible, as exemplified by pragmatic, solutions-oriented leadership we see in issues like climate change.
- With the rise of extremely low-cost production technologies and highly efficient, coproduction methods, producing things could become far more democratic and distributed geographically. Dependence on multinational corporations for goods and services could be greatly reduced.
- Cities are more energy efficient per capita than nonurban areas, thus mass adoption of collaborative models of production and consumption could dramatically improve that efficiency.
- If managed correctly, these trends could turn cities into great places to live for everyone while addressing challenges that threaten our species’ very existence, like climate change, wealth inequality, and social division.
- Government, business, and civil society all have a role to play and have to work together to realize this opportunity.
I illustrated the potential impact with car-sharing, which had already been studied extensively by Susan Shaheen and her team at the University of California, Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center (TSRC). TSRC’s 2010 survey of North American car-sharing members showed that one shared car replaced up to 13 owned cars, and 51 percent of members joined to gain access to a car when they previously did not have access to one. A separate estimate by the National Building Museum showed that for every 15,000 cars taken off the road, a city could keep $127 million in the local economy. Not surprisingly, the large majority of spending on cars ends up in the coffers of multinational corporations.
As I concluded in my keynote at the event, there aren’t any other innovations I know of that can dramatically increase access to resources, boost the local economy, and reduce resource consumption simultaneously. I asked participants to imagine the whole economy organized around access rather than ownership, and the huge impact that might result from such a transformation.
In any case, we did our best to make the case that sharing and cities offered a unique, world-saving opportunity. The message became cornerstone of the global Sharing Cities movement that started to unfold shortly after Share San Francisco.
In San Francisco, city officials showed immediate interest. Nath wanted to learn more. Over the next six months, we shared our knowledge with him, connected him to more local sharing entrepreneurs, and discussed how to grow the local sharing movement. He eventually asked Shareable to host an educational roundtable for Mayor Ed Lee about the sharing economy and organize the public launch event for a new city government task force called the Sharing Economy Working Group (SEWG), which was to take point in formulating sharing-related regulations.
Milicent Johnson, Shareable’s community organizer at the time, took the lead in organizing the SEWG launch event, which was held April 3, 2012, at SPUR, San Francisco’s urban policy think tank. Mayor Lee, the president of the board of supervisors David Chui, and I gave the keynote talks, along with other leaders from various sectors. After the keynotes, I moderated a panel featuring local sharing entrepreneurs, including Joe Gebbia of Airbnb, Jessica Scorpio of Getaround, and Leah Busque of TaskRabbit, all soon to be white-hot focal points of the global sharing-economy phenomenon. Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of SPUR, later told us that it was the most attended event in SPUR’s 100+ year history. Much to our surprise, the event also garnered significant worldwide press coverage.
Just six months later, Mayor Park Won-soon of Seoul, South Korea, launched Sharing City Seoul, at least partly inspired by San Francisco’s SEWG. In contrast to SEWG, Sharing City Seoul (described in more detail in Chapter 4) had more substance. It was launched as a substantial package of policies and programs with the goal to mainstream sharing in Seoul, and in the process, address Seoul’s most pressing problems including unemployment, pollution, and social isolation. It had funding, a multiyear implementation strategy, numerous citizen-stakeholders, and the city’s 60-person innovation department behind it.
However, Sharing City Seoul’s importance to the Sharing Cities movement goes far beyond its instructive details. It is Mayor Park’s signature program for a mega-city of 10 million people. Moreover, Seoul is part of a small cadre of the world’s largest, most modern cities that are defining what a city is in the 21st century. In this context, Mayor Park decided to tell a new story about what a city can be, a story that diverged significantly from the usual talk of cities as competitors in a ruthless global market. Instead, he focused attention on a practical, interpersonal action – sharing – that ordinary residents can engage in to help each other and the city as a whole. Unlike some efforts, it’s a genuine extension of Mayor Park’s career as a human rights lawyer, social justice activist, and social entrepreneur – someone who clearly saw the great human and environmental toll his city has paid in catapulting itself from a backwater to one of the world’s most modern cities in one generation.
For these reasons, Sharing City Seoul became the single biggest catalyst of the global Sharing Cities movement and earned Mayor Park the prestigious Gothenburg Award for Sustainable Development in 2016. Its impact has been immense. It has inspired dozens of cities to start similar programs:
- In Europe, the London-based SharingCities.eu consortium is working with London, Milan, Lisbon, Warsaw, Burgas, Bordeaux, and other Sharing Cities projects. Netherlands-based ShareNL has long worked with Amsterdam (the first European Sharing City) and is now reaching out to many more cities in Europe and beyond through their newly-formed Sharing City Alliance. The P2P Foundation has recently completed an urban commons transition strategy for the city of Ghent. Last year, the Paris-based nongovernmental organization OuiShare co-hosted Sharing Lille, a multifaceted festival attended by over 1,000 people meant to foster more sharing in Lille, France. The 2017 theme of the organization’s flagship Paris event – OuiShare Fest – was cities. In addition, its far-flung members are working with numerous cities on sharing projects through its network in Europe and South America.
- In Asia, the Sharing Economy Association of Japan (SEAJ) is currently developing Sharing Cities programs with 26 rural municipalities in Japan. Last year, five Japanese cities – Chiba, Yuzawa, Taku, Hamamatsu, and Shimabara – unveiled plans, developed with SEAJ, to foster more sharing. And, of course, the movement has taken off in South Korea. On Nov. 6, 2016, at Seoul Sharing Festival, which I attended as a member of Mayor Park’s Sharing Economy International Advisory Group, seven Korean cities – Seoul, Jeonju, Suwon, Seongnam, Siheung, Gwangju, and Don-gu – signed a joint declaration announcing their plans to develop their Sharing Cities programs together.
This is just a start at outlining the movement. It’s hard to judge its scope and size because, like many movements, there is no central organizing body and its boundaries are somewhat fuzzy. I’ve only mentioned cities that we know of – and our network has its limits – that self-identify as a Sharing City or have a Sharing Cities program. There are also other cities – such as Bologna, Barcelona, Frome, and many more – that do not use the label “Sharing City” to describe projects or development strategies where sharing, the commons, and coproduction play a central role.
In addition, there are many efforts that we consider part of the movement that do not involve a city government. For example, there’s ShareCity, a large, university research project led by scholar Anna Davies studying food-sharing enterprises in 100 cities from around the world. There’s Friends of the Earth UK’s Big Ideas project, which catalyzed Duncan McLaren and Julian Agyeman’s groundbreaking book, “Sharing Cities: A Case for Truly Smart and Sustainable Cities.” There are also cities like Portland that have a rare concentration of grassroots sharing projects including clothing swaps, lending libraries, and shared workspaces. Sharing Cities are part of, and intersect with, a much larger and more diverse set of efforts by people working toward sustainability, democracy, and shared prosperity in cities.
As the Sharing Cities movement unfolded, Shareable catalyzed it further through continuous news coverage, publishing the first ever Sharing Cities policy guide, “Policies for Shareable Cities,” in 2013, and launching our Sharing Cities Network. Together, this helped grow the movement, particularly among local activists and politicians in the U.S. and Europe. The Sharing Cities Network, an events network Shareable started in 2013, was crucial not only to this effort, but to this book. The idea for it came from network members.
A BOOK IS BORN
When we decided to create this book, we also decided to walk our talk by creating it collaboratively. We assembled a team of 15 fellows from nine countries (see the Contributors page for their biographies) to crowdsource the book proposal and write the book. We officially launched the project January 20, 2016. Simone Cicero, our collaboration fellow from Rome, Italy, ran what became an extended visioning process to create a shared understanding of the purpose, structure, and content of the book. This was done through a series of video conferences. It resulted, after much deliberation, in a book proposal that everyone unanimously supported. The extra time spent on the visioning process was well worth it considering the book proposal’s clarity.
The team decided to create a collection of short, accessible, and proven or promising case studies (of programs, projects, or enterprises) and model policies (laws, regulations, or city plans) that support sharing in cities. We decided to organize the cases and policies by 11 functional areas of a city such as housing, food, and transportation, and curate about six of each per chapter. Each chapter is the product of two fellows who together selected and wrote the cases and policies. In addition, 18 organizations contributed articles including ICLEI, Story of Stuff, and Club Cultural Matienzo (see the Contributors page for the list of participating organizations).
The collection not only illustrates the vision of a Sharing City through examples, but also communicates the book team’s core belief. We believe that it’s possible to run much of a city on a commons basis, that a city could be in nearly every way of, by, and for the people, and that the urban commons is, as Silke Helfrich pointed out in her IASC Urban Commons Conference keynote in 2015, a “concrete utopia.” In other words, a credible utopia that’s well within reach because its parts already exist, though they’ve not yet been assembled in one place to make a complete Sharing City. The team wanted the book to represent this concrete utopia and serve as an assembly manual for it, or at least a start at one.
While the selections were curated by the book fellows, they aren’t offered in a dogmatic spirit. We don’t presume to be the final authority on what constitutes a Sharing City. We see ourselves as contributing to a dialogue, and imperfectly so. This is a reference book, so you can use whatever is relevant. Most of the material in it can stand independently. The book is designed to be modular so that it can be excerpted, remixed, and otherwise remade as you like. In fact, all the material is Creative Commons and available as a text file, so you can literally curate your own book from this book.
It’s also an unfinished work. We’ve imagined it as the kernel of an open-source project that requires a community to fully flesh it out. Or as version 1.0 of limitless versions, because we’ve only scratched the surface of what’s in a dynamic, growing field. There’s so much more that deserves to be widely recognized. Raising awareness needs to be an ongoing community effort. One of the lessons I learned while working on this book is that there’s a blindness to the power people have to meet their needs outside of the market and state (the commons option), which is made more poignant because we need this power now more than ever. Hopefully, this book opens many eyes to what’s abundant as leaves of grass in a vast plain. Perhaps it’s human nature to overlook what’s always around us. To live in a city is to be completely enveloped by what is shared, from sidewalks and streets to parks and squares to space and time itself. So I strongly encourage you to expand this catalogue of hope.
WHAT’S ACTUALLY IN THE BOOK? CIVIC IMAGINATION INSIDE
There are 69 case studies and 68 model policies in this book. Though the book only scratches the surface of what’s out there, the geographic and sectoral diversity of our selections will expand your view of what’s possible. Together, they are provocative in the best possible way. In terms of the case studies, I challenge you to flip through the book and not be amazed at what ordinary people can do when they commit to projects where personal interests and the common good are aligned. The case studies undermine the myth that “there is no alternative” to capitalism – TINA for short – and show that “there are many alternatives” – known as TAMA in the commons world.
Take, for instance, RideAustin, a nonprofit Uber alternative described in Chapter 2 that has raised $8 million in donations, facilitated over 1 million rides, raised $100,000 for local charities through its app, and is on track to be self-sustaining through an innovative funding model, all without charging drivers anything. Along similar lines is COOP Taxi in Seoul (Chapter 2). Seoul supported the development of this new taxi service that combines convenient ride-hailing technology with driver ownership and control of the business. These are just two of many examples that prioritize community and/or worker control over a global, investor controlled option that extracts as much revenue as possible out of the hundreds of cities it serves. Why should a city risk dependence on a startup that extracts money from the local economy when it can cultivate options that keep money circulating in it?
Also consider Club Cultural Matienzo (CCM, Chapter 4), formed in 2008 in the wake of a tragic nightclub fire that killed 194 people and triggered a wave of club closings that throttled Buenos Aires’ grassroots arts scene for years. CCM innovated a safe, legal, profitable, and worker-controlled business model for cultural spaces. Its support helped the number of local venues grow by 800 percent (from 100 to 800) in nine years. Today, these clubs buy supplies together to reduce costs, host multi-location festivals, and lobby the city for arts-friendly policies. The result is a safer, vibrant arts scene that supports artistic talent at a mass scale while creating decent jobs for young workers. This is far cry from the commercial club scene that all too often exploits artists, workers, and fans with little regard for overall vibrancy of a community’s arts scene. In Buenos Aires, grassroots culture is supported as a commons.
The model policies are exciting in their own way. As legal tools, they open space for the kinds of projects highlighted by our case studies. Most, like the ghost tax regulation in London (to reduce vacant housing), peer-to-peer parking regulation in Montreal (to increase supply of parking in crowded areas), and open land data policy in Rotterdam (to manage land better), are solutions aimed at addressing specific challenges. However, there are a few policies that are multifaceted and represent a new commons-based paradigm. This includes Cuba’s agricultural model (Chapter 3), Barcelona’s policies for the “commons collaborative economy,” which is made of 120 crowdsourced policy ideas to create a more fair, local sharing economy (Chapter 4), and the regulatory foundation of Seoul Sharing City (Chapter 4). Another paradigm-shifting standout is Bologna’s Regulation on Collaboration Between Citizens and the City for the Care and Regeneration of the Urban Commons (see Chapter 11), which allows citizens to no longer be passive recipients of city services, but active agents in shaping public life for the better. It provides a legal framework and administrative process by which citizens can directly care for urban commons such as parks, streets, cultural assets, schools, and much more. It fills a gap in administrative law that doesn’t allow citizens to maintain or create public assets and services in cities.
The book also covers some expected territory – how cities should regulate Airbnb (Chapter 1) and Uber (Chapter 2). However, it might surprise you that our book fellows’ interest in this aspect of Sharing Cities was surprisingly low. It was more of a box to check. The book team felt that while it’s important to reorient aggressive commercial actors toward the commons, the more game-changing innovations are commons-based from the beginning.
There were many challenges in selecting the case studies and model policies even though our crowdsourced book proposal set out clear standards – that they be commons-oriented, city-based, and easily-replicable. For instance, there are few cases and policies that are purely commons-oriented. The majority of the pieces have a commons element, and the rest arguably set the stage for commons development. For instance, Barcelona’s Solar Thermal Ordinance (Chapter 5) helps to localize renewal energy production, setting the stage for a commons approach to energy, but doesn’t imagine a commons in its effort to promote sustainability.
The scale requirement was also a challenge, because sectors like energy, water, and waste have critical regional and national dimensions. This sometimes made it difficult to find solutions that were discretely city-based. In addition, many cases did not fit snugly into the categories the team chose. This was particularly true of the broad, paradigm-shifting policies – like Seoul Sharing City – which seek impact in a variety of areas. This was a lesson in the intertwined nature of different socio-geographic scales, the inadequacy of siloed approaches to resource management, and the need for whole-systems thinking in urban design.
This should give you a taste for what’s in the book. These are days when city residents need options, especially as established institutions all too often fail to exercise what urban commons scholar Christian Iaione, a Bologna regulation co-author, calls “civic imagination.”
CONTENT IN CONTEXT
The commons was part of, but not the core of, our Sharing Cities vision when we hosted Share San Francisco in 2011. This changed pretty quickly for two reasons. First, it was clear that Sharing Cities could easily be co-opted by commercial interests to help promote a technological vision of cities or simply be subsumed under the corporate smart cities rubric. We had experienced this kind of co-optation firsthand with the sharing economy. We chronicled the birth of the sharing economy in San Francisco starting in 2009, but once billions of dollars in venture capital started to flow into these once fragile and communitarian-minded startups, the concept of sharing became a moral cover for a particularly aggressive extension of business as usual. When this happened, our reporting turned critical on the Silicon Valley version of the sharing economy. We also began to frame sharing in relation to geographic-bounded communities through our Sharing Cities reporting and activism to reduce the chance of co-optation. Still, the risk remains.
Second, and most importantly, we benefited greatly from ongoing collaboration with a community of commons theorists including Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation, Silke Helfrich and David Bollier of the Commons Strategies Group, Christian Iaione of LabGov (who co-wrote the Bologna regulation), law scholar Sheila Foster of Georgetown University, and others. Over the last few years, they’ve worked within a wider network of stakeholders to flesh out a commons-based political economy for cities through a global program of research, public communication, and civic laboratories. We at Shareable were fortunate to have participated in some of this work, but we mostly reported on it. We did this because we not only saw their work as groundbreaking, but also believed it could help define and defend a people-first vision of cities. We felt that any such vision of cities, Sharing Cities or otherwise, needed its own political economy or it would simply melt into the corporate grid, no matter how good the intentions. That’s what our experience with the sharing economy taught us.
THE URBAN COMMONS
The importance of the urban commons to cities today is that it situates residents as the key actors – not markets, technologies, or governments, as popular narratives suggest – at a time when people feel increasingly powerless. To paraphrase commons scholars Sheila Foster and Christian Iaione, the city as a commons is a claim on the city by the people. Furthermore, a commons transition is a viable, post-capitalist way forward, as the groundbreaking fieldwork of the P2P Foundation in Ecuador and the examples in this book suggest.
But what is the commons and why is it a credible alternative? David Bollier’s excellent primer, “Think Like a Commoner,” gives a good definition.
According to Bollier, the commons is:
A self-organized system by which communities manage resources (both depletable and replenishable) with minimal or no reliance on the Market or State.
The wealth that we inherit or create together and must pass on, undiminished or enhanced, to our children. Our collective wealth includes the gifts of nature, civic infrastructure, cultural works and traditions, and knowledge.
A sector of the economy (and life!) that generates value in ways that are often taken for granted — and often jeopardized by the Market-State.
Importantly, as Bollier points out, the commons is not merely a resource and the people who use it. The most important component is the relationship between a resource and its users, which is embodied in the user-managed governance arrangements that regulate access.
The commons is a credible alternative or augmentation of state and market resource management because it’s been used for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. An estimated 2 billion people rely on it today, mostly in rural areas. It’s also been extensively studied. Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom’s decades of research on the commons contain a message that couldn’t be more relevant today – that commons-based resource management is often more efficient and long-lasting than state or market approaches. This book benefited greatly from the contributions of Ryan T. Conway, a member of the Ostrom Workshop at Indiana University, a legendary center for commons research since 1973. The policy he contributed about polycentric planning for climate change in Dortmund, Germany (Chapter 11), goes even further. It reflects Ostrom’s belief that a decentralized, local approach to climate change could be more effective in aggregate than current global approaches.
While the commons is a promising approach to urban challenges, the study of the commons has historically been focused on relatively isolated, rural, natural resource commons like irrigation systems, fisheries, and forests. In comparison, research on urban commons is fairly new. It remains to be seen if the commons can become the new, dominant paradigm for resource management – as some commons activists posit – in a place like the city where all the forces of society come to bare.
Still, we at Shareable believe that the commons needs to be elevated to a dramatically higher level of importance in urban development, but not to the exclusion of the state and market. Instead, the three spheres of commons, state and market must be put on a peer basis institutionally, harmonized, and managed to control the excesses and foster the strengths of each. We don’t think government or markets are inherently good or bad. They, like any institution, including the commons, can be guided to serve or degrade the common good.
As such, commoners must build and fight, to borrow from the strategy of Cooperation Jackson. We must build the urban commons and reform the government and market. The commons can’t thrive if the government and market are hostile to them, which largely is and has been the case historically speaking. Moreover, cities need strong, socially responsible versions of all three spheres to become truly resilient. Coral reefs are famously resilient because every function in the ecosystem is managed by numerous species in different ways. Similarly, cities need a heterodox political economy to thrive. This is a job for the finest versions of all our tools. Simply replacing a free market orthodoxy with a commons-based one is not the way forward. As Elinor Ostrom herself once said, “No panaceas!” In other words, no simple, one-size fits all formulas, and that goes for the commons too. It’s not the answer to everything.
In this way, a Sharing City is less a thing and more a mindset and a dynamic, participatory process characterized by the below principles, and perhaps more:
- Sharing Cities represents a revived story about cities that recognizes community as the heroic protagonist in urban transformation. Aristotle, the leading philosopher during Athens’ golden age, believed that the city existed for the well-being of its people. In this story, people work together for the common good rather than compete for scarce resources. This age-old wisdom challenges popular narratives that portray high technology and competitive markets as heroes in the story of cities. A Sharing City is of, by and for all people no matter their race, class, gender, sexual orientation, or ability. In other words, Sharing Cities are primarily civic, with residents focused on taking care of each other, their city, and partner cities too. Their primary function is to produce residents capable of working together for the common good, the foundational skill that makes all other things possible in society. Looking forward, and to paraphrase the Buddhist monk Thích Nhât Hanh, the next Buddha will be community. A multitude of loving, human-scale communities managed by capable residents is how we’ll protect all life on earth. The solution is us.
- Distributed architecture. Sharing Cities support a commons-oriented shift from an industrial model of urban development, which centralizes the various functions of a city in separate zones for batch processing by bureaucracies, to a networked architecture, which distributes functions throughout the city for real-time processing through open networks. The distributed model is characterized by mixed-use zoning, modular architecture, event-based use of multifunction assets, and on-site processing of energy, water, and waste. It also enables new ways to manage resources (access over ownership) and multiple types of currencies (fiat, local, reputation) and property (public, private, and community). If managed democratically, Sharing Cities’ distributed architecture has the potential to dramatically increase the health, wealth, and resource efficiency of all city residents.
- Private sufficiency, civic abundance. To quote George Monbiot, “There is not enough physical or environmental space for everyone to enjoy private luxury... Private luxury shuts down space, creating deprivation. But magnificent public amenities – wonderful parks and playgrounds, public sports centres and swimming pools, galleries, allotments and public transport networks – create more space for everyone, at a fraction of the cost.” Civic abundance should include public schools, spacious squares, expansive walkable cityscape, extensive bikeways, lending libraries, Fab Labs, pocket parks, coworking spaces, cultural centers, child care co-ops, food pantries, and more. In fact, each neighborhood should have a mix of civic amenities tailored to their needs. Sharing Cities are a path to abundance and celebration, not deprivation and drabness that downscaling consumption often suggests.
- Common needs, co-designed solutions. Sharing Cities focus on common needs and pragmatic, community-developed solutions as opposed to top-down, one-size-fits-all solutions. This requires co-design, experimentation, learning, and iteration by the community. It also requires avoiding unnecessary replication of divisive national politics at the local level, which can take the focus off common needs and solutions. To paraphrase Father Arizmendi, the founder of Mondragon cooperative: ideologies divide, common needs unify.
- Transformation over transaction. Sharing Cities emphasize solutions that build residents’ ability to work together. This is preferable to solutions that reduce provisioning to mere economic transactions. Services that build collaborative capacity can produce transformative social goods, lead to new collaborations, and help put a community on a positive, long-term trajectory. As in the case of northern Italy, a strong civic culture can last for centuries and is a precondition for long-term shared prosperity. Moreover, this emphasis creates space for individuals to develop as human beings. As Desmond Tutu has said, “a person is a person through other persons.” We need each other to become fully human.
- Local control, global cooperation. Sharing Cities create many democratic, local centers of power that cooperate globally. This cooperation can take many forms. For instance, city governments could develop an open-source urban commons technology stack together. Think Airbnb and Uber, but with locally-owned, democratically-controlled instances of services that are also connected through a global platform. This is what futurist José Ramos calls “cosmo-localization.” It’s a strategy to achieve scale while building solidarity.
- Impact through replication, not just scale. Sharing Cities can systematically encourage the documentation of local solutions so they can be adapted and replicated in other places. Here, solutions are only loosely connected. This process requires minimal technology and administrative investment. Scale is not the only path to dramatic impact. Both scale and replication strategies should be pursued.
- Cross-sector collaboration, hybrid solutions. To thrive, the urban commons must adapt to the dense institutional web of the city. Unlike isolated rural commons, urban commons have no choice but to negotiate mutually beneficial relationships with government and the market. This must happen at the project and city scale as demonstrated by Bologna’s urban commons and the Co-Bologna project. Sharing Cities’ solutions are often hybrids of the commons, government, and market.
- Systems thinking, empathy. City residents, urban planners, local politicians, and single-issue advocates need to become more aware of how different functions within a city interact with each other and are shaped by the surrounding region. For instance, the impacts of land use, transportation, housing, and jobs on each other are profound. There is an increased need for them to be planned together, and at a regional scale. Stakeholder groups must have empathy for one another and co-design urban solutions that optimize for the whole, not just one or a small cluster of issues or jurisdictions.
- Build and fight. Sharing Cities must seize the immediately available opportunities for commons development. Many commons projects need little if any funding or permission to start. While political change is necessary, it’s unwise to depend solely on or wait passively for it. Today’s urgent challenges require immediate action. That said, a completely independent, parallel economy is not possible. The urban commons need to be fought for politically too, and that takes long-term vision and commitment. To borrow from Cooperation Jackson’s strategy, we must build and fight for Sharing Cities.
- Competitive advantage through quality of life, security, and distinctiveness. Sharing Cities are great places to live because they foster healthy relationships and natural environments, top contributors to health and happiness. Sharing Cities enhance social and environmental resilience. In an increasingly unstable world, the advantages of a supportive community and an accessible resource base represent an attractive safety net. In addition, Sharing Cities are distinctive because the commons preserve local culture and tradition. This distinctiveness helps them compete globally. The best cities will increasingly be known by the unique, and even transformative, experiences they make possible. The 21st century version of cathedrals, which drew millions of people to European cities during the Middle Ages, will be the uplifting social interactions, safety, and everyday joy experienced in Sharing Cities. As the old Irish proverb goes, it is in the shelter of each other that the people live.
What principles would you add?
A CALL TO ACTION
This is no time for mere resistance. Nor is it time for blame, resignation, or sharpening our differences. It is time for bold, new visions. It is time to reach across boundaries, identify common needs, and work together to meet them directly where we live. It is time for pragmatic solutions by the people. It is time for human beings to go on new, creative adventures together as if our lives depended on it, because they do.
This call to adventure in cities must be answered. There, “the fierce urgency of now,” to quote Martin Luther King Jr., is felt acutely. Soul searing, society-rending levels of inequality, racism, pollution, and social isolation are the daily lived experience of billions of city dwellers, now making up over half the world’s population. Yet, cities remain places of great hope. There, the potential for change is as abundant as suffering. Cities are simultaneously leading us toward and away from the brink of extinction. They are rising faster than nations to meet global challenges like climate change – at the same time they are the key drivers of such systemic problems. We live in a new age of cities, but the human future has long been forged in cities, the cradles of civilizations and arguably our species’ most important and durable social innovation.
The future, however, is never assured. It must be made together. We must decide together what kind of cities we want to live in and what kind of people we want to become. We are more knowledgeable than ever about what makes a great life and what brings out the best in human beings. Our power to shape the conditions that shape us has never been greater. So, there may be no more important question than this: How can we turn cities from impersonal engines of destruction into intimate communities of transformation?
The global economic crisis woke many up to the realization that prioritizing economic growth over all life on planet Earth is the source of the multiple crises we face and not a solution as some establishment politicians stubbornly insist. As the recent shifts in global politics suggest, there’s growing agreement among ordinary people that the status quo is failing us.
To paraphrase commons scholar Keith Taylor, when markets and governments fail, we have us. In other words, we have a largely unacknowledged ace up our sleeves, another way to provision our lives that puts us in control – the commons.
Let’s use it.