A Book Review of Sharing Cities: Activating the Urban Commons

By Jose Ramos

Dr. José Ramos, founder of the consulting network Action Foresight, is a social change researcher, trans-disciplinary collaborator, and advocate for commons-oriented social alternatives.

Sep 27, 2017 | Governance, Society | 0 comments

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.  

You can download a free copy of Sharing Cities: Activating the Urban Commons here, on Shareable.

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