Sharing Cities

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Wishing everyone a Happy New Year. Here is another guest blog post, this one from Duncan McLaren an environmental consultant with interests in energy, climate change and environmental justice. We hope you enjoy it.


Our towns and cities have long been places where people share many things: services and spaces above all. But sharing behavior is changing dramatically in contemporary life with the growing role of sharing intermediaries.


Amongst these are the darlings of the so-called ‘sharing economy’: companies like Airbnb and Uber who operate on-line platforms where ordinary people can offer and find services – in these cases, overnight accommodation and car-rides. Despite owning no productive capability, and employing only a few hundred staff, these companies command multi-billion-dollar valuations.


They also pose serious threats to effective urban planning. Airbnb and similar ‘couchsurfing’ accommodation services might seem innocuous, but as Barcelona has found to its cost, collectively the tourists they enable can swamp local services, turning peaceful residential areas into party districts. And while owners or tenants letting out a room occasionally might help them stay in expensive areas, the displacement of tenants to enable full-time Airbnb rental of properties seems to be contributing to shortages of affordable housing and gentrification in cities like San Francisco and New York. Participants in such services often disregard abuses of planning or zoning rules.


Such problems could be overcome with better regulation and enforcement, and in themselves don’t stand as a reason to reject the ‘sharing economy’. Janelle Orsi and her colleagues at the Sustainable Economies Law Centre have mapped out the sort of balanced rules that could enable householders to participate fairly and sensibly in the sharing economy.


Uber – the ride hailing service – has also taken a great deal of flak for contributing to precarious employment: it is fighting a legal ruling in California that its drivers should be treated as employees, rather than zero-hours style contractors. It has also been criticized for undermining taxi regulations designed to promote safety and equality (such as provisions for passengers with disabilities). Its spread could also threaten effective urban planning, competing with, rather than complementing public transit; and adding to pressures for suburbanization.


But we argue that these are symptoms of a bigger problem – our collective fixation on money, markets and the economy. Companies like Uber and Airbnb are no longer driven by a sense of purpose – if they ever were – but by the dictates of venture capital and stock markets. So commoditizing our spare rooms, and exploiting our spare time to maximize corporate profit becomes the name of the game.


But if we see sharing as an economic issue only, rather than as a social and political opportunity, then we are missing an even bigger opportunity. A Sharing City would not just regulate commercial ‘sharing economy’ operations fairly and sustainably, it would look to harness the potential of sharing to deliver social good.



In Seoul, the city has supported an accommodation-sharing platform which matches seniors in need of company with students in need of affordable accommodation. Across much of Europe, Refugees Welcome uses an Airbnb style platform to match householders with refugees in need of short-term housing. In London, the Casserole Club – supported by local authorities, facilitates meal-sharing with elderly people in need of social support.


Yet the sharing economy and its intermediaries are only a part of a broader sharing paradigm. Sharing fundamentally relies on reconnecting people and rebuilding social capital, it offers a vehicle for rediscovering public services such as libraries, as well as creating new community facilities such as shared kitchens and workspaces.


And even those approaches are still only a narrow window onto the possibilities of sharing. In cities like Bologna in Italy, a new movement is emerging to protect and rebuild the urban commons: the shared spaces and facilities of the city that are both the foundation of living ‘together’ in cities; and a co-creation of the citizens, in a process that David Harvey calls ‘urban commoning’.


And this is why Airbnb in its current incarnation is so worrying – it exploits and encloses the value of the thriving and healthy city, which is not created individually, but collectively. There are better examples of urban commoning in squatting than in couchsurfing: when squatters turn unused spaces into artistic centres and community facilities for those excluded from city life by its high costs; there is far greater community benefit and far more sharing going on than when developers or landlords keep property off the market in an effort to realize private gain through redevelopment or rezoning.


So a real sharing city will not only share public facilities and public services, and support private sharing, but it will enable and support the sharing of the urban commons. There are many things cities can do to help, but getting the planning system right as well as planning policies is a vital step. Once we recognize the urban commons is a co-creation of citizens, then the logic of third party appeal rights is irrefutable; and the idea that planning gain should be realized by the community – perhaps through land value taxation – rather than by developers or private landowners, is hard to deny.


In our new book ‘Sharing Cities’ Julian Agyeman and I outline the ways in which politicians, planners and citizens can use the idea of sharing to build truly smart, sustainable and fair cities and towns for the future.


Sharing Cities is published in the UK on December 18th 2015: Read an excerpt online at https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/sharing-cities


The views expressed in this blog post are not Planning Democracy’s.

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