Activating the Urban Commons Through Sharing Cities

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* Book: Sharing Cities: Activating the Urban Commons. by Shareable. Shareable, 2017



By Neal Gorenflo:

"“Sharing Cities: Activating the Urban Commons,” is a collection of 133 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.

In the backdrop of increasing privatization, income inequality, and fiscal challenges, the growth of self-organized, democratic, and inclusive means for city dwellers to meet their needs 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. More than that, the book represents a claim on the city run 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."

What’s actually in the Book? Civic Imagination Inside

Neal Gorenflo:

"There are 67 case studies and 66 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 on 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 COwOP 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 multilocation festivals, and lobby the city for arts-friendly policies. The result is a 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 laws that don’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 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.”


Introduction 8

Chapter 1: Housing

Cooperative Housing, Short-Term Rental Policy, Accessory Dwelling Units, Tiny Houses For The Homeless, Open-Source Design, Community Renewal.

Examples in this wiki:

Chapter 2: Mobility

Ride Hailing, Cooperative Taxi, Walking School Bus, Car Sharing, Shared Mobility Strategy, Bike Sharing, Mobile Transit Platform.

Examples in this wiki:

Chapter 3: Food

Kitchen Library, Surplus Food Redistribution, Community Gardens, Peer-To-Peer Food Sharing, Urban Orchards, Farmers Markets, Urban Agriculture Incentive Zone.

Chapter 4: Work

FabLabs, Cooperative Ownership, Community Wealth, Platform Cooperatives, Makerspaces, Arts Cooperatives, Social Entrepreneur Networks.

Chapter 5: Energy

Community Choice Aggregation, Wind Energy Cooperative, Purchasing Alliance, Shared Ownership of Renewable Energy Infrastructure, Feed-In-Tariffs.

Chapter 6: Land

Community Land Trusts, Placemaking, Reclaiming Public Land, Open Land Data, Public Art and Culture, Peer-To-Peer Space Rental, Foreclosure Fine Ordinance.

Chapter 7: Waste

Citizen Compost Initiative, Repair Café, Worker-owned Recycling Cooperative, Zero-Waste, Municipal Reuse Center, OpenSource Benchmarking, Zero Waste Party Pack.

Chapter 8: Water

Remunicipalisation, Community Bill of Rights, Community Science, Community-led Management, Depaving Public Space, Resident-managed Sanitation.

Chapter 9: Information And Communication Technologies

Internet for All, Crowdsourced Data, Managing Response to Disasters, Open-source Software, City Making, Open-data Policy, Addressing the Digital Divide.

Chapter 10: Finance

Credit Unions, State Banks, Local Currencies, Community Benefits Agreements, Civic Crowdfunding, Civic and Elder-care Time Banking, Citizen Investment in Local Food Systems.

Chapter 11: Governance

Urban Commons, Participatory Budgeting, Civic Project Software Platform, Participatory Planning, Polycentric Planning for Climate Change, Neighborhood Partnership Network.


Jose Ramos:

"Cities are disproportionately entangled in the critical challenges that we collectively face. Cities consume disproportionate amounts of energy and produce disproportionate amounts of waste while contributing significantly to economic and racial inequality. If cities continue pursuing contemporary development strategies, things are bound to get worse as the share of global population living in cities is projected by the UN to grow to two thirds by 2050 from just over half today.

Many of these urban challenges result from cities’ modernist legacy. Created as locales for industrial production with highly centralized utilities, separate zones based on activity, and planning often guided by self-interested developers, cities often create social isolation rather than community. In the face of entrenched resistance to change, cities can feel like static monoliths impervious to the needs and voices of current and future generations. The challenges we face in transforming our cities are immense — not just related to functional challenges (for example, reducing energy use) — but more substantively related to the very framework by which the purpose and vision of a city is conceived.

There’s a logical line of argument that can be simply stated in the following way: If we are to address our great challenges, our cities need to be transformed. Yet, transforming our cities will require a transformation of our understanding of what a city is and should be.

The last few years have seen such a resurgence of thinking. Described by terms such as the “Urban Commons” or the “City as a Commons,” cities are being reimagined as places that should nurture and protect all residents’ well-being, empower citizens as innovators, and practice collaborative governance.

Cities such as Bologna in Italy, Ghent in Belgium, and Seoul in South Korea, have led the way in reshaping the popular imagination for what a city can be.

Yet these examples can feel distant. What we need is a detailed compendium of various examples of urban commoning around the world, across a whole number of themes. Such a collection would provide detailed operational and policy logic for various urban commoning strategies. It would also provide a kind of user’s guide which social innovators, policymakers, and entrepreneurs could use to strategize and plan. It would demonstrate what it means to create a city as a commons and show us how we could do it in our own cities.

Shareable’s “Sharing Cities: Activating the Urban Commons” not only rises to this occasion, it hits the ball straight out of the park. Reading through the book invokes a sense of awe. Page after page, the book is filled with unique and powerful examples of remarkable projects from all around the world. Each of the examples is beautifully concise and expertly edited, written in plain language but with nuance and sophistication that delves into the intricacies of each example. There are literally no words wasted. The breath of the book is impressive. It covers eleven themes: housing, mobility, food, work, energy, land, waste, water, finance, governance, and information and communications technology. This is all brought together in under 170 pages; an efficiency which is impressive.

To read each chapter is to visit a future which is close at hand because the real-life examples give us a near immersion experience into what it looks like to create and live in an urban commons. For example, in the energy chapter, examples include a case study from Hamburg on a campaign for the municipalization of the city’s energy system, a Danish wind energy cooperative that allows citizens to generate their own electricity, an energy purchasing alliances in the U.S. that drives cost savings and an uptake in renewable energy, a renewable energy bond in Canada which encourages people to invest in local energy production, and an energy consumer trust in New Zealand which democratizes Auckland’s energy production. The strength of each chapter lies in the diversity of commons strategies that are exhibited. There is no one-size-fits-all policy prescription — all strategies have succeeded in creating value for people in a variety of locales.

In the chapter on food, examples include the Incredible Edible movement that started in Todmorden, U.K., which has created “open-source food” throughout the city, the “league of urban canners” in Massachusetts in the U.S., which maps, harvests, preserves, and shares lost fruit from the city’s many private and public orchards, restaurant day in Helsinki, Finland, in which food sharing is used for cross-cultural exchange to build social cohesion, a lending library in Portland which allows home chefs to access cooking equipment, and an Urban Agriculture Incentive Zone in San Francisco which lets owners of vacant property get tax reductions in exchange for putting their land into agricultural use for at least five years. Again, each chapter has many examples that seem futuristic, except for the fact that the initiatives are already in place.

Because of this, the reader can take a number of approaches to this book. For citizen activists and social innovators, the book provides a wide range of ideas to seed their imaginations, and allow us to consider what strategies we might take in our cities. For policymakers, it serves as a guidebook for developing urban commons policies. For researchers, it offers an array of well-grounded examples that can be used for analysis and a deep understanding of the emerging dimensions of the urban commons. One of the best aspects of the book is that it helps us understand a critical concept in the development of the urban commons: urban collaborative governance. Last year, Sheila Foster and Christian Iaione wrote a landmark article in the Yale Law & Policy Review called “The City as a Commons.”

In the paper, they put forward the proposition that urban commoning is typified by “urban collaborative governance,” which they described as follows:

- “The idea of the state as a facilitator—a relational state—is part of the move from a “command and control” system of governance to what we call “urban collaborative governance,” a system which at its core redistributes decision making power and influence away from the center and towards an engaged public. The facilitator state creates the conditions under which citizens can develop collaborative relationships with each other, and cooperate both together and with public authorities, to take care of common resources, including the city itself as a resource.”

Foster and Iaione provide a powerful and succinct theoretical framework and explanation for urban collaborative governance; yet at the same time, for the citizen innovator or the policymaker, there’s a big gap between theory and action. What does urban collaborative governance look like? Where do we start? “Sharing Cities” helps us to see what urban collaborative governance means from the vantage point of hundreds of real-world examples. By providing these succinct examples, across eleven themes, urban collaborative governance is no longer an abstraction, but a reality revealed. In the process, strategy and action is facilitated.

There are many uses for this book, as previously mentioned. The book is certain to become an essential resource for urban planners, activists, social innovators, urban policymakers and social entrepreneurs and likely to inspire and inform thinking for years to come. From here it is up to us to absorb the various examples and lessons in the book and allow our imagination to become infused with the possibility of transformed cities; the kind of cities needed for our and our world’s well-being." (


History of the Book

Neal Gorenflo:

"When we decided to produce this book, we wanted to maintain the ethos of sharing by producing 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 Jan. 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 mostly time-tested case studies (of enterprises, mostly) 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 to be recognized publicly. Uncovering it 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 to meet our own needs without complete dependence on the market or state, 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. And 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."