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Sharing the Urban Commons

  • Written by  Duncan McLaren and Julian Agyeman
  • Published in Opinions
Sharing public space is key to the success of Copenhagen Sharing public space is key to the success of Copenhagen Telia
07 Feb
The growth of cities is one of the defining challenges of our century. Efficient, compact urban living might relieve environmental pressures, but urban sprawl could add to the climate crisis

Inclusive cities might help billions out of poverty, but divided cities could exacerbate social tensions. The crux is how well cities share their resources, infrastructure, prosperity and opportunities among all their people. In other words, how well and how fairly they share the ‘urban commons’.

First and foremost, cities must recognise that the urban commons is a co-creation of the city’s people, institutions and communities. Genuine sharing cities need to work out how best to support the processes by which urban commons are created and maintained.

Cities are already critical institutions in an emerging era in which economies and societies alike are being reshaped by sharing. While popular discourse argues over whether sharing-economy giants like Airbnb and Uber are really sharing platforms, cities around the world are adding bike-shares, tool-libraries, edible parks and other facilities to their long-standing roles as providers or managers of shared services and infrastructures.

Genuinely smart cities are sharing cities, harnessing smart technologies to social purpose so as to transform city governance around the shared and co-created urban commons

Cities such as Seoul and Amsterdam are at the leading edge of a sharing movement that combines smart tech with goals of social inclusion. They engage proactively with the contemporary commercial sharing economy, yet also support, enable, invest in and procure from civic, communal and charitable sharing organisations. They are making opportunities to provide more efficient services, reduce environmental impacts and support social inclusion by connecting services and platforms across the sharing ecosystem, acting as city sharing hubs.

Sharing cities are also experimenting with regulation and incentives, using policy, planning, taxation, permitting, standard setting and other tools to identify the mix of approaches most appropriate for their situation. In Seoul, Uber has been banned to make space for locally-owned alternatives. In Amsterdam and Berlin, Airbnb rentals are restricted to prevent short-term tourist rentals changing neighbourhoods and depleting the affordable housing stock. Mostly these regulatory approaches are co-produced, with the involvement of users, the sharing platforms, and city officials.

We can also learn from cities that have not embraced the sharing economy. In helping us understand and govern cities as shared spaces and systems, and facilitate inclusive sharing by all citizens, cities such as Medellín, with its approach of urbanismo sociale, have much to offer. Social urbanism seeks to enable inclusion in the shared public realm by investing primarily in low income districts, improving public transit, education and cultural facilities using revenues from the city’s public utilities company and guided by participatory planning and budgeting. Medellín shows the importance of designing for justice and inclusion, of engaging with the hard and soft infrastructures of the urban commons like public spaces and utilities, not only with sharing services and organisations; and above all of sharing power, with democratic models that empower users, protect civil liberties, and provide shared spaces for collective politics.

seoulSeoul is one of many cities pioneering various sharing schemes, such as cycle hire (Image: TK Kurikawa / Shutterstock)

Sharing is nothing new: it’s an evolved human behaviour that dates back millennia. Yet traditional sharing is too often exclusive – focused within families and communities. The modern world demands sharing that is cosmopolitan and inclusive. From sharing our homes with refugees to sharing our atmosphere and climate with nine billion others, humanity needs to share across the boundaries of difference. The experiences of ‘sharing’ cities from Amsterdam to Medellín, and from Berlin to Seoul, reveal how cities working to share their urban commons can offer the best of both worlds – sharing that is inclusive and cosmopolitan; but also civic and communally directed.

We argue that a paradigm of sharing is the best guide for cities to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Successful sharing cities will: focus policy and planning interventions on increasing equity and social justice by investing in low-income neighbourhoods, such as with Medellín; practice ‘urban acupuncture’ for example by pedestrianising streets and enabling citizens to express their cultures in public spaces, such as in Copenhagen; intervene to regulate the commercial sharing economy and provide support for affordable alternatives, as per Seoul; encourage participatory budgeting and popular deliberation in the allocation of funding for city projects (as in Porto Alegre); demonstrate the power of reclaiming public spaces and enable citizen participation in the management of city spaces, such as in Bologna with its regulation for the urban commons; and facilitate the emergence of communal and civic sharing projects to meet needs and build capabilities across the city as demonstrated in Amsterdam.

Such cities show how genuinely smart cities are sharing cities, harnessing smart technologies to social purpose so as to transform city governance around the shared and co-created urban commons.

Duncan McLaren and Julian Agyeman are the authors of Sharing Cities: A Case for Truly Smart and Sustainable Cities, out in March (£17.95, pb). mitpress.mit.edu/books/sharing-cities

This was published in the February 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.

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