Cooperative Cities

From P2P Foundation
Jump to navigation Jump to search

* Special issue: Cooperative Cities, Volume 9; edited by Miodrag Mitrašinović and Gabriela Rendón. Journal of Design Strategies. VOL. 9, NO. 1 | FALL 2017



Joel Towers:

“The articles collected here describe a range of recent and current initiatives that seek to redress, in imaginative new ways, social and political problems charac- teristic of urban living. The problems include those associated with gentrification and the displacement of established communities; economic disruptions that large corporate concerns can cause within local neighborhoods and business districts; inadequate government management of urban spaces and the distribution of social services; and various forms of structural or de facto discrimination, often along racial or ethnic lines, that can result from urban planning and development policies that do not take the interests of all stakeholder groups sufficiently into account. In general, the responses to the familiar urban challenges described in the fol- lowing pages represent innovative attempts to work within (or between) existing spatial, legal, or economic arrangements. Most involve ways for people to work together to meet shared needs—ways that do not rely exclusively on market mechanisms or on legal institutions such as private property. It is particularly noteworthy, although perhaps not surprising, that almost all of the projects recounted in this volume have been initiated or primarily maintained by women: not surprising in that, in urban contexts throughout the world, women tend to be disproportionately affected by the sorts of problems indicated above. The creativity, thoughtfulness, and determination that the women profiled in these pages have brought to bear in jointly addressing their shared challenges—often without official state support and sometimes in the face of serious injustice—is truly inspiring. They are enacting new forms of economic cooperation, of social participation, and of political action, in the process lifting up entire communities while setting examples and suggesting new possibilities for us all.”

Introduction by the editors

by Miodrag Mitrašinović and Gabriela Rendón:

“In this issue of The Journal of Design Strategies, entitled “Cooperative Cities,” we focus on ways in which urban activists, most of them women, have in recent years conceptualized and fostered the co-production of non-hierarchical and cooperative urban practices. The articles collected here detail the work of seven women engaged in a wide range of fields—including art and design, architecture and urban curatorship, social art and political activism, economics and sociology — who stand at the forefront of cooperative and community-driven practices within city environments, and who represent the agency that female leaders have assumed in the production of new systems and processes of urban transformation. The various contributions to this volume also illustrate some of the tactics and organizational frameworks involved in the urban practices they describe, as well as their impact in urban communities across the world.

Historically, women have often constituted a counter-power in urban environments and communities. Sensitive to common needs and demands, they have led the creation of collective forms of care and social reproduction in the context of hegemonic political and ideological systems based on individuality, competition, and strict divisions of labor. Their creation of “solidarity economies” and other forms of commons-building have helped women and other traditionally marginalized groups around the world to mitigate and counteract the violence and exploitation that current systems of power have frequently imposed on them and their communities.

Cooperativism can be traced back many centuries, starting with organizational and

working schemes utilized especially by ethnic and rural communities to maintain

ancestral lands as a means of subsistence. In modern times, the cooperative move- ment, with roots also in social and labor movements, became an important force in ameliorating the impacts of the industrial revolution, which had radically changed the social and economic structure of cities and rural communities alike. The past century has witnessed the creation of new urban organizational forms and practices of solidarity, from agricultural, banking, and worker cooperatives to cooperatives providing housing, education, insurance, and various social services. Interestingly, these progressive endeavors, like their predecessors, have not generally derived from intellectual theorists or urban experts, but rather from those traditionally underrepresented in the production of cities: immigrants, minorities, women, and other vulnerable and often-disfranchised groups. It is our claim, however, that the important contributions these practices represent constitute a call to action for all of those involved in the production and transformation of cities, including academics and professional urban practitioners.

Today, cooperative urban practices increasingly emerge as manifestations of socio-spatial organizations at the meso level, meeting needs of urban dwellers that neither public nor private institutions are currently able to address, whether through lack of capacity or of political will. In the face of scarce and inconsistent public financing, predatory and profit-driven urban development, and recurrent economic downturns, citizen- and democratically-controlled urban practices and enterprises have emerged as vital to sustaining members of urban communities worldwide, by promoting principles of self-help, mutual aid, equity, reciprocity, knowledge exchange, and solidarity, while also fostering fair distributions of power and benefits among individuals and communities. In many cases, cooperative practices have arisen as a means of survival, necessitated by the various economic, environmental, or political challenges cities are facing. In periods of economic hardship, these undertakings have been able to support a dignified livelihood for those who would otherwise be unemployed, displaced, or marginalized. Today, as masses of dis- enfranchised urban residents across the world grow, organize and increasingly mobilize, calls for the right to change our living environments, and in the process to transform our political, social, and economic realities, are becoming increasingly forceful. These developments thus give a corresponding timeliness to this volume’s exploration of the politics of cooperation, solidarity, and the commons as a foundation for the production of just, inclusive and resilient cites. It is particularly appropriate that we undertake this exploration in the context of a leading school of art and design, and a university historically committed to social justice

Curiously, the increased interest in cooperative practices among those traditionally excluded from the planning and production of urban space has been echoed by a growing interest in theories and practices of cooperative social organization among scholars, intellectuals, urbanists, and social justice advocates. Indeed, we have witnessed the increasingly urgent call for progressive changes in the production of urban space and the social reproduction of urban citizenship in our own classrooms at Parsons School of Design, as well as in the work and everyday lives of faculty and students across the various programs, schools, and divisions of our home university, The New School. It has been particularly inspiring to note an increasing student interest in the above-noted developments, coupled with a desire to imagine, design, and realize new organizational and cooperative forms in the urban communities we work with in New York City and beyond. Acknowledging and reacting to all these trends in a spirit of solidarity, “Cooperative Cities” underscores a variety of ways in which urban cooperative practices, featuring non-hierarchical organizational structures, have produced new socio-spatial, economic, and political configurations, and ways that art and design have been involved in conceptualizing and realizing these compelling schemes. In the following seven articles, clear thematic convergences can be traced in the motivations driving the various urban cooperative practices described, despite differences in local context, resources, institutional frameworks, and political dynamics.

Taken together, these thematic convergences provide a theoretical and practical context for the discourse advanced in this volume, and support an understanding of “cooperative practice” as:

(a) an instrument of political and economic resistance against the onslaught of neoliberal urbanization;

(b) a mechanism for the development of alternative, locally-based and community- driven economic models based in equality, solidarity, equity, voluntary and open participation, democratic organization, and concern for community ;

(c) a way to provide services and products that neither public agencies nor the private sector can or will provide;

(d) a process aimed at designing equitable and inclusive urban institutions and agencies which can in turn help to incorporate a “cooperative mind-set” and prac- tice into complex systems of urban management;

Compare Jessica Gordon Nembhard’s contribution to this volume, “Black Women, Cooperatives, and Community,” which lists the International Cooperative Alliance’s seven fundamental cooperative principles: voluntary and open membership; democratic member control; member economic participation; autonomy and independence; education, training, and information; cooperation among cooperatives; and concern for community.

(e) a way of imagining and creating new forms of self-organization and self-gov- ernance, and of providing political representation to those traditionally un- or under-represented; and

(f) a way of incorporating accountability and transparency into the organizational triple bottom line: economic imperatives, such as community wealth creation; social imperatives, such as mutuality, democratic participation, and well-being; and ecological imperatives, such as the parallel pursuit of economic and environ- mental sustainability objectives.”


  • Black Women, Cooperatives, and Community. Jessica Gordon Nembhard
  • Commoning The City: From Survival to Resistance and Reclamation. Silvia Federici
  • A Feminine Reinvention of the Commons. Doina Petrescu
  • We Stay in San Roque! Fighting for the Right to the Territory in

a Popular Market in the City of Quito, Ecuador. Ana Rodríguez

  • Working Together: Toward Imagined Cooperation in Resistance, Elke Krasny
  • Putting the Solidarity Economy on the Map. Maliha Safri, Stephen Healy, Craig Borowiak, and Marianna Pavlovskaya
*Building A Neighborhood Cooperative: Interview with Jeanne van Heeswijk Gabriela Rendón


“Gordon Nembhard chronicles women-led African American cooperatives and their place in the movements for Black civil rights, social justice and economic equality. With its comprehensive detailing of the principles, protocols, processes, and practices that underlay the North American cooperative movement, the article makes an ideal introduction to this volume. Gordon Nembhard points out that African American women have been especially marginalized throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, and suggests that this has made them particularly predisposed to seek individual economic and social gains, as well as broader strategies for improving their communities, through economic cooperation and group solidarity initiatives. They have found that the cooperative model can offer a desirable combination of social and economic development, by uniting community members into voluntary, autonomous, democratically-controlled associations that have the capacity to meet shared social, cultural, and economic needs and aspirations. Of particular importance, Gordon Nembhard argues, is the fact that Black women have been traditionally involved—often through leadership roles — in the Black churches, mutual aid associations, and collective programs in African American communities across the U.S. Their activist and leadership roles in the African American cooperative movement are thus intricately intertwined with the struggles for Black liberation and with the Civil Rights Movement.

Gordon Nembhard provides specific examples of women-led African American cooperatives through four distinct case studies: Cooperative Industries of Washington, D.C., founded in 1936; Freedom Quilting Bee, established in 1967 in Alberta, Alabama; Cooperative Home Care Associates, founded in 1985 in the South Bronx, New York City; and an arts-and-crafts cooperative, Ujamaa Collective, founded in 2007 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. An important distinction that these cases help make clear is that, unlike most African American cooperatives established in the 1930s and 1940s, which were generally consumer-owned and focused on consumer rights and freedom of choice, the most recent cooperatives tend to be hybrids of producer-owned and worker-owned enterprises. This is a critical development in the history of the African American cooperative movement, as it has enabled members of these “co-ops” to own both land and the means of production, leading to significant improvements in economic independence and political agency.

Federici’s article, “Commoning The City: From Survival to Resistance and Reclamation,” elucidates how cities have historically depended on their hinterlands for survival, and the ways in which “the incessant expulsion of rural communities” from their traditional lands has helped fuel urban economies of subsistence in cities around the world. Federici asserts that in these challenging and fragmented urban spaces, survival has increasingly come to depend on women’s subsistence work. In the most marginal spaces, in areas occupied though collective action and in confronting permanent economic crises, a new political economy based on cooperative forms of social reproduction has been emerging, in the process laying new grounds for resistance, reclamation, and claims of “the right to the city.” In many cases, she states, emerging commoning practices are not only allowing residents to survive, but also to create new modalities of self-governance.

Federici illustrates how the struggle for survival can become a transformative force when women, disillusioned with the capitalist economy and government alike as means of supporting life, instead foment a “silent revolution” in which their organized efforts deliver essential services and ensure the maintenance of everyday life.

She also describes ways that reproductive work has in many places ceased to be a purely domestic activity, with women emerging onto the streets in cities, sharing domestic labor and developing a concomitant consciousness that in some cases has come to represent a threat to entrenched power. Finally, Federici also highlights the role of art and creative practices that have taken on political significance in some urban communities, providing information and insights about government policies, and thereby supporting informed political discourse and grassroots mobilizations.

Krasny advances the argument that art-making and urban curating have the capacity to create the space and time necessary for working out a politics of cooperation. Building on the work of Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Krasny claims that cooperation, far from its common conceptualizations based in labor organizing and identity politics, is the act of working together towards creating imagined “communities of resistance.”

In Mapping the Everyday, Krasny—at the time an invited artist in residence at the Audain Gallery in downtown Vancouver—initiated a cooperation between the gallery and the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre (DEWC), a women-led community organization that provides refuge and shelter from conditions of poverty and violence to over 300 local people, most of them women. The proposed cooperation was contested because the gallery, as part of the recently-relocated Simon Fraser University School for the Contemporary Arts, was widely viewed as contributing to the gentrification of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, a notoriously underserved neighborhood where the DEWC had long been situated. Recognizing that “cooperation cannot be but difficult,” Krasny envisioned an archival mapping of the history of the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre, using a series of claims and demands recorded in the Centre’s newsletter, published continuously since 1978. The women Krasny worked with organized the material chronologically and thematically, identifying some 200 claims and slogans drawn from the newsletter to be included in the exhibition at the Audain Gallery, thereby registering the evolving needs and aspirations of the DEWC’s client population over the prior four decades.

The exhibition was accompanied by a series of debates, round tables, and other events at the gallery, organized by community activists and focused primarily on issues of urban struggle and resistance to gentrification over long periods of time.

As Krasny argues, the project embodied a differentiated type of cooperation, one “based upon a praxis of attentiveness, care, and listening.” In this way, Krasny helped to unearth historically repressed voices, claims and demands of the displaced and impoverished downtown Vancouver women, and to model of a form of self-or- ganization and political representation among a traditionally marginalized group.

Maliha Safri is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Economics and Business Department at Drew University, a political activist, and a scholar whose work focuses on non-capitalist economies. Her article, “Putting the Solidarity Economy on the Map,” describes an ambitious effort, undertaken with fellow researchers Stephen Healy, Craig Borowiak, and Marianna Pavlovskaya, to identify and locate a growing set of practices that promote quality of life in communities across the U.S. through non-profit enterprises and other ventures oriented toward goals other than simple profit maximization. The underlying premise of this collaborative research project is that the solidarity economy has significant impacts on local and regional economies, but that these impacts are largely unrecognized. The mapping project aims to create a repository for the empirical research being done to evaluate the contribution of these initiatives, by providing tools to make them visible and to measure their economic as well as social impact. The spatial distribution of the initiatives can also be analyzed against demographic data on race and class.

Examples of solidarity economy organizational forms are found by Safri’s team of researchers in many parts of the economy, including production, distribution and exchange, consumption, finance, and governance. Safri’s article outlines specific projects analyzing solidarity economy initiatives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Worcester, Massachusetts, and also features a special focus on housing cooperatives in New York City. This section of the article provides an insightful view of the impact of limited equity housing cooperatives, from providing permanent affordable housing for low-income households to building tight-knit communities, and from allowing residents to exert more control over their own economic lives to prevent- ing gentrification at the neighborhood level. Lastly, the article acknowledges a risk that cooperatives might come to be incorporated into conventional strategies of poverty alleviation, a possibility that could actually make it more difficult to address the deeper structural barriers to realizing “social solidarity and progressive economic transformation.”

Jeanne van Heeswijk is an artist and activist known worldwide for changing the local politics in places that have experienced disinvestment, or where urban communities have been disfranchised, sometimes deliberately. In a revealing interview, van Heeswijk discusses two of her long-term collaborative urban projects, both of

which have helped local communities to assume some agency in defining their own

future: the Afrikaanderwijk Cooperative, located in the south of Rotterdam, the Netherlands; and the Homebaked initiative, a project involving the establishment of a cooperative bakery and a community land trust in an underserved neighborhood in North Liverpool, England. Van Heeswijk describes the decision-making process that led to the constitution of the Afrikaanderwijk Cooperative, a unique neighborhood-based worker cooperative in an immigrant-majority district singled out by the Dutch government as a priority area due to the concentration of physical, social and economic challenges there. Against the odds, van Heeswijk’s organizing

work in the neighborhood helped to shift attitudes and attention, from a focus

on “urban problems” to a fresh assessment of resources already available to the community, through highly imaginative deployments of cooperative practices.

Van Heeswijk discusses how this project has managed over time to “radicalize the local,” eliciting the emergence of a new social infrastructure for creative cooperation that today incorporates a large number of small local businesses and residents engaged in formal and informal economic exchange. She also describes the process of setting up a cooperatively-run and -managed bakery, which in turn helped lead to the establishment of a community land trust to preserve the

working-class residential district of Anfield in Liverpool. She explains the way the

Homebaked project built community agency by first converting an unused commercial bakery into a cooperative, then further evolving the bakery into a broader platform for collectively envisioning alternative urban and housing development schemes, in a neighborhood pressured by market-driven urban development. Van Heeswijk’s compelling interview concludes with a reflection on women’s instrumental roles in urban cooperative processes, and on the long-term initiatives she has led throughout her long and transformative social-art practice.”