Making and Caring for a Commons
The nonprofit organization Shareable in partnership with the Sustainable Economies Law Center released a report in September of 2013 entitled Policies for Shareable Cities. The report documents practices of “resource sharing and peer production” and explores a number of topics we take up in Take Back the Economy. It discusses public initiatives to encourage mutual aid practices like ride sharing, public bike access programs, urban gardening and urban farming, co-housing, voluntary simplicity and the use of vacant commercial space as community enterprise incubators. What makes the report innovative is the partnership between Shareable and the Sustainable Economics Law Center: in relation to each of these topics they describe how many municipal ordinances get in the way of innovation and, conversely, document law and policy experiments in cities that promote the growth of shareable cities (or for that matter community economies).
The policy brief documents efforts by municipalities like San Francisco to build car sharing into the parking space planning, Boston’s efforts to build extensive one way public bicycle sharing programs, San Francisco’s ordinance to expand appropriation of vacant lands for urban farms and Portland Oregon’s commitment to surveying public lands to expand urban farming. Many of the policies documented in the brief offer a “carrot”—creating new legal and regulatory frameworks to encourage sharing; others are focused on giving bad behavior the stick. For example, Richmond California (now famous for its city council’s proposal to use immanent domain to return foreclosed properties to their owners) passed an ordinance in 2008 which fined banks $1,000 a day for vacant properties with code violations. This created an incentive for banks to either find potential occupants for foreclosed community spaces or to donate them as community spaces.
In reading through the report I cannot help but think of David Harvey’s recent book Rebel Cities where he argues that the city itself should be reconceived, not just as a site of collective struggle, but as a site of production. In my reading of his book he argues that the city is now the factory floor, that we the citizen produce the city only to see its value appropriated by a tiny elite. While Harvey may well read a policy brief like this and dismiss it as a series of small efforts, not equal to the task of laying claim to a right to the city, isn’t it also possible that what we have in Shareable Cities is a series of legal strategies and experiments that, in effect, transforms the body of the cities—its roads, commercial spaces, residential spaces and vacant places—into a sort of commons that we both make, and more importantly, share?