The fundamental challenge for cities is to be a welcoming environment for the people who live there – one that nurtures and makes them work. Since the economic stagnation, which has led a number of countries to a severe crisis, and as there has been little economic security, cities lost this welcoming environment. Airbnb, co- founded by Brian Chesky, is a home sharing initiative, which partly came up as a response to this. Under the sound title of sharing economy, it – by a click of a mouse – enables anyone to become an entrepreneur and make a new income in 60 seconds. However, sharing economy, usually illustrated by Uber and Airbnb, is believed to have an ambiguous effect on cities.
To date, tens of millions travellers have chosen Airbnb for their temporary accommodation in a foreign city. It is an easy and convenient way, which provides the newcomer with an opportunity to experience places not as tourist, but as local. That is why Airbnb supporters have advocated that sharing home practices have tremendous positive social impact – it increases the circle of your friends. Furthermore, it has been proven that slightly more than half of Airbnb hosts are low or moderate income families, Airbnb guests tend to stay longer than regular hotel guests, and they usually use services in the local neighbourhoods. So, it supports residents and local businesses, encourages cultural exchange and this results in accumulating positive impact for local economies across the world. Thus, from Amsterdam, New York, Paris, Montreal, Budapest or Moscow to little towns in a countryside there hardly is a place without home-sharing practices. On the other hand, as Airbnb professionalises its effects multiply and the concern regarding the real ‘Airbnb effect’ becomes ever more present. Today multiple sources announce that Airbnb, which still has little consistent regulation, should be held accountable for growing property prices and community displacement – rather the opposite to the claims by Airbnb supporters. Not only the rise of property and gentrification, though, but also the rise of retailers using the service for company’s benefit, the rise of tourist rates in major cities count for the evidence in support for the negative ‘Airbnb effect’.
Under the Gentrified World Section this time the Guardian turns to Amsterdam where the question of Airbnb started disturbing local communities. Amsterdam, with a population of only 800 thousand, is the world’s most multicultural city, which, due to its appealing character, witnesses a yearly influx of about 5mln temporary guests. Thus far, with a well-developed tourism policies, this has not been an issue. To add, due to its limited size the housing shortage, rise of property value and even gentrification have been troubling the city even before ‘Airbnb affect’. That’s why city council together with researchers are quite hesitant in labelling Airbnb fully responsible for contemporary urban issues. However, it is evident that Airbnb adds up to this – the increase in a new available temporary housing on Airbnb platform has not only contributed to lower permanent housing affordability but also to an alarming mass-tourism rate – something that even Amsterdam is not ready to handle.
“It [Airbnb] drives up real estate prices that are already searing in Amsterdam. Neighbourhood business that creates ties between residents is replaced by businesses that only focus on tourists. Bike rental companies replace local grocery shops. And apartments that are continuously rented out to tourists are lost to people who want to actually live here,” the Guardian
The council welcomed it [Airbnb] at first because it meant an upgrading of the city. But now that it continues, you see the rise of very unilateral neighbourhoods. Families with children are leaving this city because they can’t afford to live in the good areas” Peter Boelhouwer, professor of housing systems at the University of Technology in Delft
Additionally, in Amsterdam Airbnb has become a threat to tourism as we know it. The unregulated tourism does not only contribute to the pain in local residents’ heads due to the noisy and partying tourists but it also destroys the unique atmosphere of the local culture.
“Overcrowding in key destinations is becoming a pressing issue. Without controls, we know tourism can kill tourism.” Mark Tanzer, chief executive Association of British Travel Agents
Fairbnb – Dutch alternative preserving the local culture
Amsterdam is known to be a leader in adopting new innovative practices. Despite focusing on being green and smart, Amsterdam is one of the strongest Airbnb partners also. Having been aware of Airbnb effect the city has respectively taken certain measures. Two years ago Amsterdam was the first to sign a multinational agreement with Airbnb. This agreement addressed issues like: Airbnb levying and handing over tourist taxes to the city, removing addresses where the council has intervened because of the resident’s complaints and setting some rules, such as, no longer than 60 days per year stay to not more than four guests at a time. Although, the actual enforcement of the agreement was more difficult than planned, and council currently focus on penalising any misconduct of the agreement. Furthermore, city’s innovators are trying to search for the right balance between visitors-residents life in a city experiecnce and even when the issue of liveability vs. mass-tourism does not have a clear answer yet, the Dutch alternatives present possibilities for setting new priorities for Airbnb. That’s why while steps are being taken to address the ‘Airbnb effect’ on the housing market, a new initiative has been taking shape: FairBnB – the alternative to work on the local, fair, non-extractive and collaborative economy.
“We would like to encourage visitors to stay in areas where they are not a disturbance, but could add something to the neighbourhood,” tells Sito Veracruz, co-founder of Fairbnb
Fairbnb confronts the same challenge for cities – to be a welcoming environment for the people who live there. It acts as a short-stay rental platform, but which is beneficial to the city and its inhabitants. This ‘upgraded’ Airbnb version only includes hosts who are registered with the council and neighbours who are involved in the management of the platform. The main questions raised by Fairbnb supporters are: ‘How these activities could be managed to be beneficial to local initiatives and be kept from extracting values only for investors and speculators? How could they be managed so that visitors are encouraged to stay in those areas where they are not a disturbance, but beneficial to the neighbourhood?’
‘We believe that any sharing economy platforms need to be transparent and accountable in order to be advantageous to citizens and the city. For this reason, we want to work towards a “FairBnB”. FairBnB is a movement that seeks to encourage vacation rentals that comply with the principles of a fair, non-extractive and collaborative economy.’ – meet up.com
Needless to say, the city is a system, which is in a continuous progress or – as David Harvey, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Geography would say – in a ‘process of becoming’. The city is a complex and incomplete event, a space and a condition at the same time, and that is why a city today is completely different from what it was centuries ago. This process of becoming should be perceived with caution, because sometimes cities might end up in a tragic event – cities might lose their ‘citiness’. Democracy is at stake here. In order to understand these processes, it is necessary to focus on a couple of particular questions. What is a city and who owns it? What processes in our cities are accelerated by the current economic and political system? And what could be the potential practice that would lead the way towards sustaining cities for everyone, and hence renovating democracy, that is, towards a ‘new democracy’?
By Joachim Meerkerk & Ieva Punyte New Democracy Pakhuis de Zwijger
In order to visualise the sound claim of a non-urban city in an era of global capital, widespread gentrification, and the dominance of top-down political decision making, it is first important to address the complex and incomplete system that a city is. In his book The City (1925), American urban sociologist Robert E. Park described the city as ‘something more than a congeries of individual men and social conveniences – streets, buildings, electric lights, tramways, and telephones, etc.; something more, also, than a mere constellation of institutions and administrative devices – courts, hospitals, schools police, and civil functionaries of various sorts. The city is, rather, a state, a body of customs and traditions, and of organized attitudes and sentiments that inhere in these customs and are transmitted with this tradition. The city is not, in other words, merely a physical mechanism and an artificial construction. It is involved in the vital processes of the people who compose it; it is a product of nature, and particularly human nature.’ Saskia Sassen – an urban sociologist whose research and writings focus on globalisation and its social, economic and political dimensions – stresses this in her book Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy. She states that a concrete, densely built city infrastructure is actually not enough to constitute a city. Rather the opposite – it could even constitute the loss of urbanity, i.e. the loss of its citiness. But what does that exactly mean?
Social, political and economic expulsion is a phenomenon described by Sassen that explains this the best. Expulsion is something that varies enormously across social strata, physical conditions, and across the world, but one of the ways to address it is by stressing the fact that cities of today – an era of international capital and global networks – are experiencing an increase in corporate urban buying. It is not a secret that urban land and property are an extremely profitable investment. Hence, by buying it, it is impossible to go wrong. This is not a problem in itself, but often the corporate buying leads to underutilisation or enclosure of the bought infrastructure. When national or foreign corporations buy property – housing complexes and cultural or industrial heritage for example – and leave it abandoned or enclosed, a city undergoes the loss of its citiness. It evaporates when the boiling social and cultural heterogeneity – in the form of communities with no property rights – is wiped out from cities, making them conserved for homogeneity and the owning elite. This is also closely related to the concept of gentrification.
Urban land is a resource. It is one of those things we need to make a city, just like real estate, radio frequencies, sunlight, urban waters (such as canals, lakes, and rivers) and much more. Citizens making the city has an intrinsic democratic quality that is appealing at a time when existing democratic institutionalisation is under pressure and the democratic reach and effectiveness of representation is questioned. The ownership of resources has an important meaning for cities’ inhabitants because it enables them to become active makers, who can develop and improve their neighbourhoods and the city as a whole. This is because ownership rights allow acquiring housing, while at the same time creating opportunities to introduce new initiatives, start activities for the neighbourhood, or undertake projects for energy production, food and water supply. The current system of ownership makes this process problematic. A city is not a pre-political and pre-market place like some non-urban areas are. Citizens don’t have free access to the resources a city has to offer. Almost all resources in the city are already owned and regulated either by the state or private entities. They are already part of a public-private usage scheme and are not open for any alternatives, without state or market complying with the change.
To clarify, the state here should not be perceived as a neutral party that merely represents the interests of diverse communities. Everyday reality shows that the state is subdued to more complex sets of interests, in which political parties, for example, play a decisive role. Unfortunately, there are plenty of examples where the state is serving interests that are opposite to those of the community. Let’s not go in depth however whether this is done intentionally or not. More important is the fact that communities and social innovators, who make the city bottom-up, are dependent on allowance and permission by other parties and do not own the resources they need to make the city. The only way to overcome this dependency is to obtain ownership, but this – obviously – is not within reach for all communities. As a matter of fact, only a small portion can be anticipated to gain such force in cities. The rest – the poor and the modest – get expelled.
This is why property rights are crucial in the way essential goods and resources are allocated, not just for people who own property, but for the non-owners too. What is actually hindered by the conventional property regimes, is the fact that property rights tend to expel the non-owners from the property. This is critical if we address the question of urban inequality. Despite the fact that the city is the main democratic space to act, the poor and the modest don’t get to own or organise, and so, in a large part are excluded from the process of city making.
Sassen stresses that cities have always been democratic spaces for everyone to make history, culture, and economy. Yet, with mostly privatized and state-owned land and property, those with less or no ownership lose their power and right to the city. Maybe they are left with modest neighbourhoods in a periphery where they are given a space ‘to do their thing’, but in the end, they get to be the makers without resources – dependent on the approval of owners, running the risk to be stopped and expelled at any given moment.
Unenclosed spaces with an open and unrestricted access not only ‘refresh the soul of the city, but they also empower citizens’, states American political scientist Benjamin Barber in his book If Mayors Ruled the World (2016). The loss of citiness is a strong indication of democratic shrinkage and decline of good governance. Diverse communities are not able to capture the full value of the urban life anymore. They become segregated due to their social and economic status and hence lose the right to live the life they have reason to value. The loss of the right to own a city as a collective resource is the loss of the freedom of a reasonable social co-existence – the loss of democracy.
Having stressed that cities lose their citiness when their inhabitants are deprived of their right to the city, the ’Urban Commons’ phenomenon appears as a progressive way to address inclusive, collective ownership as well as introduce democratic renewal. Urban Commons has been formulated by, among others, Sheila Foster, professor of Real Estate, Land Use and Property Law at Fordham University New York, and Christian Iaione, professor of Public Law and Government Economic Regulation at Guglielmo Marconi University of Rome. The commons in a city could be tangible as well as intangible goods and resources. That means it could be digital goods, knowledge, and culture, but it also refers to environmental and urban commons, such as squares, parks, waters, buildings, street paths, vacant lots, cultural institutions, and other urban infrastructure private or public units. These places are recognised to serve for social access and existential exchange, which makes them of a truly common good nature. In their joint work City as a Commons, Iaione and Foster stress that the quality of urban life depends on the open and collective access to the city’s common resources. This is why, the whole city should run as a collaborative commons, in other words: as a ‘co-city’.
What is particular about commons, is that it could be seen as an intervention into the logic of expulsions. Where expulsions, as addressed by Sassen, are about private wealth, exclusion, enclosure, and a culture of consumption, the commons is about common wealth, inclusion, and access, as well as openness to property and resources. It is not about consuming, but rather generating goods for human development, flourishing, and wellbeing. So, expulsions and commons are two opposing lenses through which local authorities perceive a city and its resources that many different stakeholders depend on. What is important here is that these lenses determine public policies, which are developed by governmental authorities, for example, on land use, area development, property and other.
Commons stakes out the claim to the city. It intervenes into privatisation and commodification of a city space by stating that city’s resources belong to a broader group of urban inhabitants than just the political and economic elites. This means that ownership of city resources should not be limited to a single entity because the underlying claim is that urban resources are not something that should be locked up by one owner, but rather belong to all city inhabitants and be open for city making by any one.
The commons lens focuses on two things. First, the issue of city resources and how we could categorise a resource that should be neither privatised nor solely owned by the state, rather accessible for those who have no formal property rights but – as every human being – have a right to flourish. This is how not just material assets but also immaterial ones – including relational interest of communities to a particular resource in cities – are protected. Second, the issue of governance regarding a democratic process of inclusive co-management of an urban resource. This means that city spaces and a city itself are the right place for a collaborative production of public life, goods and services. The commons means that city resources – formalised in communal ownership – should not only be accessible to but essentially should be governed by a broad and diverse range of stakeholders to make the city and simultaneously restore democracy from the ground-up. It aims to provide communities with resources – not on a temporary or use basis, but in a permanent manner. The democratic quality of commons depends, for a large part, on a cultural shift in terms of how we think about government. The commons challenge us to develop new governance structures.
This is why Foster and Iaione introduce the co-city with a co-creative governance scheme based on moving away from hierarchical, standardised, and uniform government toward collaborative or polycentric governance which aims to include multiple stakeholders in order to co-make the city. Communal ownership over the resource is a prerequisite for a truly co-creative governance, based on inclusivity and a productive use of expertise and the different roles and interests stakeholders have. It creates a form of accountability for those who are involved in the co-creation process as well as it shores the democratic legitimacy for the community at large, transcending the internal governance structure.
Every city has different urban development and governance paths. Every city differs significantly in terms of its political, legal and economic systems or even urban issues. Even within one city, there is this great variety. The idea of commons in the city is thus to come up with context-based policies and strategies to address both resource and governance issues and by doing so transforming cities into sufficiently responsive, flexible and adaptive spaces which engage and involve different ‘publics’ in owning and governing collective economic and social city assets. A co-city is a new democratic arena – the interface between state and society, conduits for negotiation, information, and exchange – to designate urban space, structure or infrastructure, like community gardens, parks, abandoned buildings, vacant lots, cultural institutions, as experimental Urban Commons in which different actors can collaborate to co-create solutions to meet local needs.
Despite that a co-city framework is meant to adapt to local peculiarities of different contexts, it has three underlying principles. The first one is collective governance. It refers to a pluralism of actors (members of the public, public authorities, businesses, civil society organisations, and knowledge institutions), incorporating sub-local communities, cooperating and collaborating together to create, access, use, and co-manage common resources. With collective action, it aims to identify and reinforce social norms and social capital as well as leverage access to civic and other assets. The second principle is an enabling state, which is based on the transformation of the local administrative culture and norms. This principle stresses the increase of local competencies and capabilities to incentivise and coordinate collective governance to change the ‘architecture’ of the city (administrative, cognitive and professional, technological, financial, etc.). The enabling state should take part in designing new legal and policy tools to facilitate collaboration and cooperation. The third principle is social pooling. It is a peer-to-peer production of goods and services (such as, Do It Yourself and open production, and value produced through open source software, information, data, and culture). Social pooling is based on social mutualism and reciprocity to produce social welfare and well-being through street, block or sidewalk level cooperativism (collectively ownership or management, internal collaborative decision-making). It is preceded by building on the value of local or sub-local ingenuity and entrepreneurship, anchoring the social and economic wealth of the community through public-private-community partnerships.
We could say that Foster and Iaione’s City as a Commons challenges Sassen’s City as a Commodity because one of the underlying objectives of a co-city is securing rather than reducing the right of its inhabitants to co-own and co-manage the city. The commons lens reorients city officials from a hierarchical, standardised, expertise-based governance model to a distributed, adaptive, collaborative one, in which local and sub-local actors share responsibility and collaborate with the city to achieve a range of social and economic ends. This commons-based approach is practiced on the ground having received support from Laboratory for the Governance of the Commons (LabGov), which experiments with a methodology or a Co-city protocol to support local city makers projects and strengthen the relationships between city officials and the local community at large, and thereby redesign democracy in practice. This is a profoundly experimental process, which differs in every city.
So far, LabGov is based in Bologna and New York, where it ensures collective and inclusive governance of community goods, develops and implements legal and institutional infrastructures that facilitate collaboration and cooperation, and promotes the cooperative production of goods and services (social pooling). As an ultimate goal, it aims to establish true commons and bring together community groups and neighbourhood anchor institutions, along with universities, social innovators, local businesses, and non-profit public interest organisations working as catalysers to co-design and implement local cooperative platforms or regulatory schemes, or city-wide networks or collaborative partnerships to create new opportunities to support the needs of all urban inhabitants and differentiated communities to flourish. A LabGov Amsterdam is in the making.
An example of a successful urban commons project is located in Bologna, where the City Council adopted the Regulation on Collaboration Between Citizens and the Administration for the Care and Regulation of Urban Commons. It is a regulation that allows the unorganised public, such as social entrepreneurs and social innovators, to become involved in projects that require ‘municipal assets or cooperation’ and also allows for a ‘collaboration agreement’ for each project that lays out the terms (what kind of support the city will provide citizens or civic groups, which can include supplies, property, or technical expertise). The securing of the city to its people is played out by pacts of collaboration that identify various kinds of opportunities for collaboration of residents, or whomever else, to take over some of the abandoned underutilised properties and enter them into a collaboration for the city in order to regenerate them. One of the core ideas behind the collaboration pacts in Bologna is to facilitate a transparent process, addressing questions who can access city resources and whether there is a mechanism that regulates this process.
With the co-Bologna project, LabGov Bologna has identified new ground for experimentation. Within the project, there are three locations at the edges of the city that share common features, like a high number of low-income families living in public housing complexes, a high number of first or second generation migrants and a high unemployment rate. The co-Bologna project is about the creation of social pools in these modest areas, where people would be enabled to share basic resources and the basic needs that they have in order to reach a common goal. In Piazza dei Colori, one of these neighbourhoods, where the underutilised commercial spaces have been used as sort of laboratories to start a collaborative economy circuit, in which all the actors on the ground would take part. This has proven to be the way to self-develop in support of other actors. These are hence social pools based on the outskirts of the city where local communities are the driving force. A lot of time and energy is needed in order to collectively build the culture of collaboration within the community itself. This is the reason why governance of commons is a continuous process based on experimentation in order to bring back citiness to the cities.
In order to be successful, co-city needs to be fully inclusive. This emphasises the fact that co-city is not just an invitation to the collaboration process, because this means that those who join collaboration are people who already have resources, such as, time, technical know-how, etc. Co-city rather pays special attention to including groups and individuals who are at the margins or the edges of the city in literal terms and stresses the increase of the capacity of people that are normally left out, expelled or dependent on allowance and permission to participate in city making. Only by adopting the commons lens in public policies on land use, area development, property and other, urban inhabitants are enabled to contribute to the new democracy at the city level.
The governance of the commons is a challenging process, nonetheless, it is going viral. The fact that laws and general city dynamics can be changed from the ground up is fascinating and this is why many cities are working along these lines. Securing commons to urban inhabitants is the way to bring the right to the city back to its citizens and intervene into the logic of expulsions. The commons gives us an answer to the question ‘Who owns the city?’ The answer is ‘We own the city’. Commons encourages us to start working on both the fundamental and practical interpretations of this statement. The commons requires us to define the meaning and culmination of: ‘We’ as the community that it concerns; ‘own’ as the governance structure to co-govern with the community; and ‘the city’ as the resource that this community co-governs.
LabGov in practice – Piazza dei Colori
Piazza dei Colori is a public housing complex on the outskirts of Bologna. It was built in the late 70s for Italians who moved from the South all the way up to the North of Italy. The building is four storeys high, with commercial spaces on the ground floor and three layers of apartments. During the 90s, a new group formed by immigrants and refugees found residence in this area. This had a significant impact on the social infrastructure. Moreover, many urban problems such as unemployment, poverty, addiction, and criminality begun to be visible in the area. Meanwhile, as the establishment of large supermarkets and other hyper stores in the area caused small businesses to fail, the commercial spaces on the piazza became vacant.
In an attempt to revitalize the area, the municipality – which owns the piazza and its real estate – started a programme to attract entrepreneurs and their respective ideas for new social projects in the piazza. The city itself had no money to invest but by providing initiatives and businesses with spaces, it has created opportunities for people who could invest not just in terms of money but above all time and entrepreneurship. To name some examples, Annabella Losco started a second-hand shop where people from the neighbourhood can contribute by donating things they don’t use anymore. The profit of the shop is being invested in social projects such as language courses for residents. In another space, Livio Talozzi and Andrea Sartori opened a FabLab. During the day they earn their money with commercial production and at night their lab is open for makers from all over Bologna. The FabLab reconnects Piazza dei Colori with the larger community of the city of Bologna, most of whom had no idea of its existence. It has also become a place for education and personal development for the local community.
Since 2016, LabGov is involved with the piazza. The project started with building a community and network. LabGov connects the different entrepreneurs and other stakeholders by organising meetings and co-design sessions. The first result of LabGov is the realisation of a jointly written regulation for collaboration, which was found necessary by the participants to build mutual trust. The next step is to develop joint projects and initiatives. LabGov has a long way to go with the piazza, but the potential is appealing. As a long-term ambition or end game, one can think of transferring the ownership over the commercial and public spaces to the community, making it a true commons.
Strengthening democracy at city level
While introducing commons in New York, Sheila Foster – professor of Real Estate, Land Use and Property Law at Fordham University – has focused on three main aspects: affordable housing and commercial spaces, climate resiliency and justice, and technological equality. Having a strong contact with local communities and being a respected property law scholar, she initiated drafting legislations and collaboration pacts, creating urban collaboration labs and establishing collaboration in experimental zones in Harlem, Brooklyn, and The Bronx. In the light of LabGov Amsterdam, she recently visited
Pakhuis de Zwijger to share her experience and insights and talk about urban commoning in Amsterdam with active urban innovators from The Netherlands. ‘There are some urban commons that are identified by their relationship to the surrounding community [at the scale of a block, a neighborhood, or a city]’, she answer when asked why she works with urban commons and what value the governance of the commons generates for the city. ‘One of the things about these spaces in the relation to communities is to talk about them in terms of what humans in cities need to survive and flourish, for instance, affordable housing, safe environment, and access to good food. The value generated by transforming an underutilised or vacant urban land or a building into a public or community good like a community garden, urban farm, affordable housing, cooperatively managed work space], outweighs or at least competes with whatever value that structure would have, either being sold on a market or laying vacant and underutilised.’ According to Sheila, local communities have the proper expertise to self-govern the commons. ‘Look at Detroit for example. Communities have turned some of the vacant, abandoned, burnt out land into urban farms and gardens. Urban abandoned structures were turned into places for affordable housing or for other community functions. This illuminated the categorisation of these resources not as privately
owned by someone who has abandoned it or even held publically by the city, but rather as a commons, property in transition that belongs to all of us’, she says. Commons is the way of saying that resources should be more accessible to a broader group of people, and in particular to those who are the most vulnerable to expulsion. ‘And not just accessible and available,’ she adds, ‘but most importantly generative, these resources should be made available so they can be used to generate other collective goods, such as housing culture, art, etcetera.’
This article was originally published here
This is article will be published at the NEW AMSTERDAM Magazine, you can find the last edition of the magazine here.
Last September, mayors, experts and City Makers – including municipal officials, researchers, students, social innovators and representatives from social organisations – of seventy-five countries from all over the world came together at the World Forum in The Hague, the city of Peace and Justice. They gathered to launch the first Global Parliament of Mayors (GPM) which was founded by Dr. Benjamin Barber with support of a number of active intellectuals and represents a trusted voice of the global public. GPM is an innovative, global governance body by, for and of cities. It is meant to empowering mayors to become more influential players in the globally interconnected world, as well as enabling them to proactively engage in the governance realm.
Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in urban settlements. Cities are a hotbed for knowledge and innovation, growth, art, and culture. Cities with hundreds of thousands (or even millions) of inhabitants are incredible generators of economic growth – they produce over 80% of the global gross domestic product – and wellbeing. It’s where local government is located, and not ideology or sound pledges, but education and health, transportation, safety, and other common needs are served – as well as local problems solved. Hence, cities and its inhabitants have tremendous potential in writing their respective urban narratives, rather than permitting organisations of nation states to do that for them.
NATIONS ARE NO LONGER DRIVING GLOBALISATION – CITIES ARE
Benjamin Barber – an American political scientist – first expressed the idea of a mayors’ parliament in his book If Mayors Ruled the World, where he emphasised that the parliament of mayors is the parliament of citizens without borders. He introduced GPM as a platform that is meant to address global challenges from a local point of view, having mayors share their practices, learn from one another and especially leverage collective political power of cities to craft real strategic solutions in borderless world with borderless leadership.
One of the core ideas, that Barber expressed during the inaugural convening, was that the GPM represents not anonymous millions [of people] held together only by abstract bonds of a frenzied [sense of] patriotism that can all too quickly become xenophobia, but rather committed residents of communities, where local government still works and the social contract still holds. ‘We come here not to speak top-down from the towering heights, but to speak bottom-up from the rich natural soil where the social contract was first engendered and the idea of citizenship was planted’, Barber stressed. ‘We know that democratic power springs up from local communities of people [who] intent on self-government, it does not flow down from arrogant national oligarchs claiming to represent people without ever engaging them.’
This is why – in regards to the complex global governance realm which appears to be disconnected from the people – what is actually needed is the change of the subject. In other words, more attention should be paid to political institutions where civilisation and culture were born – that is, cities rather than nation states. ‘Cities are closer to democracy, more trusted, much more involved with the citizenry’, states Barber, when – in opposition – ‘states defined by borders and sovereignty, compete and confront each other – having very little progress in terms of actual issues that cities’ inhabitants experience on the ground.’
CITIES AND THEIR MAYORS SHOULD TO WORK TOGETHER ACROSS BORDERS
And for that reason too, ‘a parliament of cities helps not just solve problems, but helps restore the faith in democracy. Cities and their mayors are pragmatists, they are problem solvers, and deal with reality as it is. That makes them very different from prime ministers and presidents, and that’s why we believe they have a chance – when they work together across borders – to really govern the world,’ says Barber. After the first successful convening of the GPM, it is highly promising that the parliament, encompassing practical proficiencies of small towns and large cities, can indeed make a significant contribution to the global strengthening of democracy and pragmatic decision-making in regards to problems that cities and their inhabitants around the world face.
The timing couldn’t have been better for mayors, experts, and City Makers to come together on the brink of present day challenges to confront anarchy, governmental gridlock, terrorism, climate change and the endless flow of economic and war refugees. As a pure matter of fact, a significant percentage of all these global issues comes from and is felt nowhere else but in cities and by its inhabitants. Among many issues, cities are also inequality traps. Home to billionaires and beggars, a number of cities show a higher level of inequality than the national average. With a rapidly growing urban population, it is crucial that cities don’t become the drivers of inequality. ‘The global community currently stands on a dizzying brink with hope tempered by cynicism’, Barber states. ‘With Brexit being a reality and neo-populist nationalists in revolt, the European community is in trouble. In Africa and Latin America, people struggle to secure their democracies. And even the admired American political process seems to have come unhinged. The United Nations has become the ‘Disunited Nations’ and democracy itself is in peril, seeming to have failed those most in need. Planet Earth’s very sustainability is at risk.’
CONSIDERING TODAY’S CHALLENGES, IT IS TIME TO TAKE ACTION
So whether or not states come into agreement with one another, cities and their inhabitants are in a strong position to contribute to mastering the challenges of these transnational and essentially interdependent problems. In reality, many cities are already working together, in order to collaboratively deal with climate change and migration, terrorism and trafficking. For example Barcelona established a City Protocol, together with tech company Cisco, thirty other cities, allied organisations and universities. The protocol ‘aims to define a global, cooperative framework among cities, industries and institutions with the goal to address urban challenges in a systematic way in areas, such as sustainability, self-sufficiency, quality of life, competitiveness and citizen participation’, their website states. Also, there is Mayors for Peace, which is an 5,664 cities organisation that brings the voice of mayors to the table, and puts the municipalities most likely to suffer from global war on the frontline of the peace effort. These and many other city organisations prove the claim that cities are ready to make a difference and progress in inclusive and sustainable urban development. This was undoubtedly acknowledged by Mayors from cities including Paris, Mexico City, Warsaw, Palermo, Seoul, Cape Town, Amman, Rio de Janeiro, Dakar, Mannheim, Rotterdam, Quito, New Delhi and Amsterdam – together home to millions of people. It has been unanimously agreed that the GPM confronts the central problem of democracy that is embedded in the asymmetry between on one hand 21st century brutally interconnected global issues, and on the other hand archaic and increasingly dysfunctional political institutions like nation states.
What makes the GPM different from other city organisations, is the fact that it is not just a cities’ network, but a parliament. It has an underlying objective to systematically develop strategic and adequate guidelines for action, and then take that action. At the inaugural convening last September, mayors, cities’ representatives and experts already addressed issues in plenary and strategy sessions on Migration, Environment & Climate Change, as well as Governance. This was not just another meeting of high-ranking officials talking about their concerns, but this occasion had an overall goal to express the voice of people and join local forces to craft strategic solutions to interdependent problems. The GPM is the closest it gets for citizens to address issues and exchange local knowledge and know-how to deal with them globally.
Currently, the GPM is moving forward in forming its Executive Committee with a president and a secretariat in order to become an autonomous body. Cities will then be capable to fund, plan upcoming parliaments, and come up with tangible actions to confront ‘glocal’ issues. What is needed now for the parliament to succeed, is a wider acknowledgement that would include cities from more than seventy-five countries and have these cities not only addressing problems, but offering solutions in terms of most urgent issues, such as common actions over climate change and refugees. Having more cities proactively engaged in the GPM, enables citizens themselves worldwide to contribute to the strengthening of democracy.
This article was originally published at New Europe Cities in Transition.
Commons stakes out the claim to a city. The claim that resources, which are hosted by cities, belong to a broader group of urban inhabitants than just for those who can afford. Thus, the nature of city as a commons is inherited in its accessibility to a wide amplitude of stakeholders including workers and the unemployed, pensioners and migrants as well as youth, among others. This claim has become viral. Bologna, New York, or Amsterdam are not the only places where people with an enabling local administrations have been turning abandoned buildings, degraded squares or parking lots to vivid social and cultural spaces, such as, vibrant and open access community gardens, self-managed health clinics, collective kitchens, neighbourhood assemblies and other profoundly inclusive spaces; the “Informal local movements are reclaiming public space in Greek capital” too, as The Guardian announces.
This is fascinating – commoning practices all over the world have shed the light over the fact that the city dynamics and even laws could be changed from the ground-up. To add, this reality illuminates two phenomena: first, S. Sassen’s claim that city is a “complex and incomplete event” and, second, that social innovators who care and want to take care of their cities are indeed experienced and competent City Makers putting human value above commercial and business interest.
The Guardian depicts exactly these phenomena in a Greek context. Athens inhabitants and the city at large witness a transition: the conventional understanding of space with fancy and over-designed infrastructure, which is either under public or private regime, is shifting to commons. To add, this phenomenon is insisted and governed by a multitude of stakeholders – a polycentric approach. Athens are gradually becoming a centre for the ground-up urban transformation, having creative, dynamic and resilient communities leading the struggle. A wide array of spaces, from abandoned offices to neo-classical buildings are being reclaimed by local urban and social innovators, thus, the activities at Navarinou Park or movements like ‘Us Here and Now and for All of Us’, which united local residents in transforming a parking lot into a community-managed space, are just a few illustrations of this.
This gradual reclaiming the right to the city via bottom-up practices followed the demise of the welfare state, tells the Guardian. At the time of Europe’s economic crisis which erupted in 2008, Greece had to bear with the severe consequences that hit the modest neighbourhood inhabitants the most. Nonetheless, the trauma of the economic collapse, which initially produced an unpleasant occurrence of street riots, also proved that city inhabitants are not paralysed by the crisis. Economic decline encouraged informal urbanism, which was born out of the spirit of solidarity and brought people together having them pooling and sharing resources, actively engaging with one another and contributing to the co-creation of collective well-being. This was recognised as compelling example of city revitalisation coming “in a sharp contrast to the practices of big donors sharing urban form that, from the first days of Athens being made the capital of a state romanticised as the cradle of western civilisation, have prevailed until now” tells the Guardian.
@ Navarinou Park. Photo by Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images, the Guardian
Thus, Greece, having undergone the uncompromising outcomes of financial and economic crisis, has simultaneously witnessed “an explosion of social networks born of bottom-up initiatives” as said by Stavros Stavrides, who was interviewed by the Guardian. Needless to say, what is extremely important here is that Mr. Giorgos Kaminis and Amalia Zepou are not strangers to these processes. A progressive mayor of Athens and his vice mayor for civil society and municipality decentralisation recognise the value of social and cultural needs and hence support the manner city dwellers reinvigorate the democratic processes and transform Athens to an inclusive and sustainable spaces for all. In the commons language Athens experience illustrates the main principles of the governance of the commons, which are polycentricism, the enabling role of the local authorities and social pooling.
Find the original article by the Guardian here.
On the 13th of September Sheila Foster had a visit at Pakhuis de Zwijger (PDZ) to share her insights and experiences from the Laboratories for the Governance of the Commons in Bologna and New York, as well as, in the light of a new project – LabgGov Amsterdam, organise a masterclass with a full room of active urban innovators from The Netherlands to talk about urban commoning in Amsterdam.
Sheila Foster and Joachim Meerkerk have welcomed Dutch urban enthusiasts from various sectors and emphasised that the Governance of the Commons goes hand-in-hand with New Democracy series organised by PDZ. These series aim attention at the democratic renewal as a transition phenomenon, which underlines both major global social and economic trends, such as, digitisation, and also niche practices, like initiatives at a grassroots level or other bottom-up practices in the city. The crucial aspect of this is to investigate how both global and bottom-up currents simultaneously put pressure and force the current government regime, which is based on public-private governance, to transit to sustainable public-private-community governance structures.
“This sheds a light on the distinction between urban commons and city as a commons. Urban commons is the set of practices on the ground and city as a commons is about changing the way city has been governed”– tells S. Foster.
Thus, talking about City as a Commons, it is important to think about a cultural shift in a city at large. This implies that the commons should be a leading way of thinking how to govern the city. The idea of the city as a commons is actually to have it so largely spread that it becomes the way of doing business. The crucial step in between though is translating the community-led practices, such as the urban community gardens, redevelopment of a park or a street to a hyper-local regulatory that makes it sustainable and protects against the market or any political changes in a democratic system (e.g. elections). And this is where LabGov comes in to facilitate the process.
Still having in mind Saskia Sassen’s overarching meta-analysis on economic, social and democratic exclusion of people in many different countries and many different layers of society (see more about it here), S. Foster stresses that it is important to see how it actually plays out on the communities on the ground. Thus, while talking about commons empirical analysis is significant, but it is not enough, the bottom-line is how, for instance, climate change affects the communities and which communities does it affect.
“It is worth emphasising that commons-related practices have been there for a while, we are not talking about something that hasn’t been done yet. What we need is to focus on how to make this a sustainable movement. There are so many small-scale initiatives, which in a multiple ways address issues related to environmental challenges, migration and inequality. It is important to support them, identify where they are lacking expertise and then scale-up – this forms a new paradigm that challenges the way our old system has been regulated” – S. Foster says.
Thus, the discourse on commons illuminates that by getting things done on the ground already has a major impact, and properly facilitated, has the full potential to lead to the new governance structures based on: social pooling i.e. pool of means and resources, enabling state and polycentricism or collaboration among and between 5 actors (the private, the public, knowledge institutions, civic social organisations and the unorganised public).
Foster and J. Meerkerk agree that the community, not the experts, should have the leading role here. “The model is less interested in the work that the communities do, because a lot of the communities are already doing it right and it’s not that we have to go to the communities and tell how to manage their commons”– stresses S. Foster. LabGov’s role is to help to sustain the practices, provide a network of experts and a toolbox to do this in different contexts.
Since commons are identified as city resources upon which a number of stakeholders rely (they could be tangible, intangible or digital goods such as knowledge, culture, security, infrastructure, and neighbourhood commons, among others, which are functional to the individual and collective well-being), the solutions to commons-related issues are various. Regarding the tools to facilitate the progress towards the city as a commons, again, there are many and various, what is necessary is to rediscover them in different localities. Being a property law expert S. Foster has put the most of her energy into administrative and legal ones – “property is a powerful framework while talking about the commons, because this is how things have been managed” – adds S. Foster.
Additionally, S. Foster refers to the tragedy of commons at the city, like what has happened to Detroit or what happens to the park that is not well managed, or what happens to an informal settlement (more about this here). There is a lens to say how we address the tragedy of the commons at the city, and one of the ways to do it is by using a normative claim, rather than a description of a problem (tragedy of commons) that needs solution, or, as conventionally addressed, a regime of ownership. By normative claim S. Foster means that, for instance, urban land should be held for the people, not bought and sold by private companies or state to make profit out of it. Commons is a resource that is commonly owned or not owned at all, but available to all. Thus, urban land is commons. Therefore, if the rules of property remain the same, then it is hardly possible to sustain the Governance of the Commons. This particular approach – “using the legal language”- is meant to protect and consolidate ground-up movements, make them sustainable with a fully protected status. J. Meerkrek agrees that later on “by having similar practices with an ample of initiatives creates an opening for a “virus” and when replicated, not only sustainability, but also scaling-up could be achieved.”
City is not a pre-political space, it is a highly regulated space hence the story of commons is a story of a value of collective production and consumption where regulation or a governance structure with a local government involved is necessary. There is no commons narrative yet for the use value and positive value of co-creation – collectively governing the resource that is commonly ours to co-create cities, which is a notion that goes hand-in-hand with the City Makers movement. Therefore, first it is important to address whose resource is it, and as S. Foster stresses the claim, it should be recognised that the city is our collective resource.
The social function of the property supports the commons based claims, unfortunately, people cannot just claim the common, communities have to have a legal right to the commons and the governance of it. “If you don’t work with the system that regulates it, commons is very fragile and a community can easily loose the access to it. That is the thing of “protecting” the commons” – tells S. Foster.
In an urban context, which is all built, the tools that S. Foster has emphasised during the masterclass were the public trust doctrine, park conservancies, park trusts or community land trusts, which are legal entities in and of themselves. Community land trust emphasises the collective governance structure that has its own legal instruments, checks and balances, to assure affordability of a common in a highly speculative market. This, as a matter, of fact is one of the main co-design issues : “how do you design an inclusive governance structure of a common?” As a follow-up, another question comes out: “how do you finance the commons?” One of the practices that S. Foster has introduced during the masterclass wasparticipatory budgeting (watch a video about it here), but it is necessary to figure out other ways as well.
At the masterclass S. Foster has shared her experiences from New York, where LabGov has worked with 3 different community-led initiatives related to environmental issues. The focal point of S. Foster work is to focus on community based adaptation and resilience. LabGov NYC has facilitated these communities by framing and shaping their activities in civil right, legal terms, by listening and understanding their needs, identifying where they need more power and legal support, as well as, bringing other actors to the play and figuring out how to bring all of this to the city’s administration bodies – elevate issues and force the local decision makers to change. Thus far, it has been indeed a great success, because now the state agencies have environmental justice and climate action plans implemented in their agendas. “Environmental action plans now include community land trusts and local grids, and this was not the case before”- presents S. Foster.
Nonetheless, environment-related problems and community based-resilience that S. Foster has been working on is not an isolated issue, and it should be addressed through the lenses of inequality at the neighbourhood level. S. Foster stressed that communities that usually suffer the most from climate change have experienced gentrification, they are poor, and with a high migrant population. Aspects like immigration status, access to services, built environment among others are significant here. Of course, macro-analysis can capture this, as there are set of factors that determine the vulnerability, which differs even within the communities, see Social Vulnerability Index (SVI). However, this requires micro-analysis and a close contact with people. This also illuminates the fact that, for instance, legal tools are significant to open up opportunities for commons, but as eventually it comes to the question of governance and how to manage a collective resource, it is important to investigate the needs of communities, exact causes of their vulnerability and then design policies that respond to that. The commons model is a model of collaboration that brings together the right actors. Collaboration with people can truly influence change, and as LabGov is a strong group of experts who speak the language of communities and are able to articulate it at the city level, in the end the way city’s resources are allocated depends on LabGov’s findings and a city has live up to that.
Thus, commons brings a new vision of a city, which is sustainable in economic, social and environmental terms. Yet, the progress to city as a commons is rarely linear. Cities need to help communities to co-create – mayors should focus on how their cities can sustain governance of the commons and facilitate resilient communities. LabGov hence by identifying communities at the grassroots level and having a strong relation with the city can hence provide the right knowledge, know-how, principles and how-to’s in order to locate the expertise in different contexts. The toolbox thus could point people and say “Listen, you want to turn that building in your neighbourhood into a commons? Here is what you need to do”.