Cities as a commons: Sharing vision, resources and power

Posted on:

by Alex Gillis

Uber, Airbnb and other sharing enterprises allow people to buy rides, rent homes and hire people for everyday chores, but are those initiatives really about sharing?

“They are full of the steroid of venture capital,” explained Julian Agyeman, co-author of the book Sharing Cities and professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University, in the United States. “These are not sharing enterprises anymore. These are about making lots of money, and about exploiting workers and neighbourhoods.”

Last month, at Toronto’s Evergreen Brick Works, Agyeman spoke about true sharing enterprises, the types that involve “just sustainability,” as he puts it, a sustainability that melds human equality with environmental issues, merges social justice with ecological sustainability. He was one of four international experts at an event organized by Evergreen and the J. W. McConnell Family Foundation’s Cities for People initiative, an event that’s part of collaborations to foster inclusive, innovative and resilient cities.

“Let’s go beyond the idea of the sharing economy, to explore approaches that are more cultural than commercial, more political than economic, and that are rooted in the broad understanding of a co-created urban commons,” Agyeman said. “The urban commons is in retreat.” The Internet, for example, is a commons and is under threat. “We need net neutrality,” he argued.

The idea of the ‘commons’ is 800 years older than the internet but is as revolutionary now as it was then. ‘Commons’ refers to places and resources that are open for all people to share — a tradition that’s always been counter to privatization and commodification of places and resources. The origin of the commons can be found in the Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest, both created in the thirteenth-century to alleviate the mass hunger and suffering created when the nobility took over forests and rivers.

Later, in the England of the 1600s, the idea of the commons was revived after commoners challenged powerful elites who had fenced huge tracts of land for private use. The bloody conflict led to the beheading of the English king and the English Civil War.

Today, the idea of the commons is enjoying a revival and means new things.

“These ‘new’ commons include knowledge commons, cultural commons, infrastructure commons, and neighbourhood commons, among others,” write Sheila R. Foster and Christian Iaione in “The City as a Commons.” In this paper, they argue that inhabitants have a ‘right to the city,’ have a right to be part of creating the city, and have a right to use tangible and intangible collective resources in the city. They list examples: streets, parks, community gardens, open spaces and business and community improvement districts.

And both authors propose new governance models to make the city the facilitator of inclusive decision-making and equitable distribution of resources to vulnerable and disenfranchised groups.

Cities need these new models to address new urban problems. Two thirds of the world’s population is projected to live in cities by 2050, a massive increase from current levels. Migration and urban planning, along with climate change, violent conflict and gaping inequality, are important challenges of the twenty-first century.

Given these overwhelming problems, how can we create smart and sharing cities? The short answer is: urban innovation networks. Successful models in the Colombia, UK, U.S., Italy, Germany and the Netherlands provide examples for Canadian cities — models that inspired the federal government to launch the $300 million Smart Cities Challenge Fund.

Participatory City – Illustrated Guide

The Participatory City initiative in the UK is one such model. “These projects see people working together on practical ideas that make their neighborhoods more exciting and enjoyable and sustainable socially, economically and environmentally,” writes Tessy Britton, founder of Participatory City, which is in the seventh year of researching and prototyping new ways to support practical participation.

“At the heart of the city as a commons are citizens and their creativity,” she explained at the Evergreen event. “Small exchanges of friendship create networks of cooperation that are the building blocks of a sustainable future, but only if we have encouraged these on a large enough scale.” Her organization focuses on redesigning or re-structuring systems to makes it easier for people to participate on a practical, everyday level. “We are creating a commons platform,” she said.

Their next project in the UK will be in a northeast London borough with a population of 200,000. “It’s the ninth most deprived borough in the UK, with a blanket level of deprivation, unlike other areas where you have pockets of deprivation and pockets of middle class areas,” she said. The organization is hoping to raise £6 million over five years for over 300 projects.

“If you live there, you’ll have 70 opportunities each week to share or cooperate with neighbours, whether you’re cooking, growing things, learning, repairing, or participating in everyday activities.” The point is that the urban innovation networks won’t be extraordinary; they’ll be normal and a part of everyday life. “To mainstream and scale up participation, we have to make it attractive, accessible, convenient and beneficial, and every action has to benefit everybody who’s taking part in it.”

“These neighbourhoods will also be created by everyone living in them — not by heroic or extraordinary efforts — but simply by doing many of the things we do in the course of going about our daily lives together, rather than alone,” she added.

Julian Agyeman explained something similar: “There are four conditions to just sustainabilities: improving our quality of life and well-being; meeting the needs of both present and future generations; justice and equity in terms of recognition, process, procedure and outcomes; and, finally, living within ecosystem limits.”

Medellin, Colombia

“Reinvention and revival of sharing could enhance equity, rebuild community and dramatically cut resource use — and we could meld cyber and real space and develop platforms where equity is enabled,” he said. He pointed to Medellín, Colombia, where the city developed the urban commons — providing access to poor areas, opening library parks with free broadband access and practicing other ‘urban acupuncture’ (pinpricks of innovation around the city). Most importantly, the city uses participatory budgeting and planning, a process that contributes to a large portion of the city’s budget.

In Italy, the LABoratory for the GOVernance of Commons (or LabGov) is an organization that, each year, trains about 30 students and experts in urban-commons governance. It focuses on partnerships of citizens, NGOs, public administrations, local business and communities that share scarce resources and care for the commons, both tangible and intangible, in urban areas. LabGov is leading an initiative in the city of Bologna, Italy, to encourage development of a shared city, with urban roads used as a commons. It’s also establishing an agency for industrial and cultural commons. Phase 2 will involve citizens starting projects in the city.

In the U.S., Living Cities and Reimagining the Civic Commons include innovative concepts of the commons. Living Cities is an organization that collaborates with multidisciplinary, civic leaders in approximately 40 American cities to develop new approaches to improving the well-being of low-income people. Reimagining the Civic Commons is an initiative that counters economic and social fragmentation in cities by revitalizing public places, such as parks, plazas, trails and libraries, to bring together people from different backgrounds.

Back in Canada, the next phase of Cities for People involves working with partners to build the Future Cities Network, a collaboration to link new and existing hubs in Toronto, Montreal and other cities. This joint venture between multiple partners, including the McConnell Foundation and Evergreen, intends to pool and coordinate learning opportunities and substantial investment in the coming years. The Toronto hub of the Network — the Future Cities Centre — is already under construction at Evergreen Brick Works.

--

Alex Gillis

Alex Gillis is an investigative journalist and author who’s written for many of Canada’s mainstream publications. He’s also worked with community- and international-development organizations.

 

Learnings from The City as a Commons series

Posted on:

In late March (20-28), Julian Agyeman, Tessy Britton, Gorka Espiau and Rony Jalkh joined us for The City as a Commons conference series in three Canadian cities. Throughout these two weeks of activities they participated in meetings on how to advance transformative city building and thinking.

Below are some takeaways from these gatherings:

  • To strengthen the City as a Commons, we need to incorporate multicultural thinking in our day-to-day work. This can be achieved through dialogue and reciprocal understanding between residents. Developing inclusive cultural practices will help us advance toward more inclusive cities.
  • Creating a truly participatory city means making sure that city neighbourhoods are made by everyone and for everyone. Neighbourhoods are places that can fuel social transformation; they can o
  • perate as platforms, laboratories, schools, models of sustainability and models of equality.
  • An inclusive city is one where participation has been mainstreamed (embedded in local values and beliefs) and scaled up. An inclusive city is participatory by nature.
  • Participation can be mainstreamed and scaled up if we make it attractive, accessible, and convenient - and with concrete benefits.
  • There are two different systems that work together to create a participatory city:
    i. participation opportunities that facilitate civic engagement in practical projects that align with residents’ daily lives
    ii. support systems that make it easier to maintain or grow collections of projects.
  • Placemaking is nourished by participation and trust; it encourages residents to find a place where they feel welcome. Like peacemaking, placemaking requires courage, compassion and collaboration.
  • A shared narrative has the potential to transform communities, attitudes and behaviors.
  • An understanding of a community’s social fabric and its waves of transformation is required to create a shared narrative (incorporating questions of who we are, who the neighbourhood is, what is possible and what is not). The deeper we understand the waves of transformation and the processes that happen within a community, the more the impact we can achieve through our initiatives.
  • Stories for social transformation are not controlled by a central command. They are connected in terms of value systems and the impact we wish to achieve as a collective.
  • Understanding the city as a commons involves going beyond quaint notions of the gift economy  - it requires engaging in systemic restructuring. The commons are not only about asset building but also about the processes of creating and producing together.
  • To strengthen the commons, we have to go beyond top-down and bottom-up approaches. Conversations should be framed around how citizens and institutions can work better to transform places, moving the centre of gravity out of the town hall and into neighbourhoods.

A list of practical ideas to support placemaking for social inclusion:

  1. Create places for children.
  2. Organise exhibitions and competitions where new residents can showcase their food.
  3. Support cultural and art fairs: music, fashion, dance, instruments.
  4. Conduct gatherings that foster a sense of caring among newcomers.
  5. Conduct activities for space appropriation (such as murals).
  6. Create community gardens using plants familiar and useful to newcomers.
  7. Use public spaces for book clubs and intercultural conversations.
  8. Create informal playgrounds where children can use their imagination in public spaces.
  9. Develop art therapy activities: public spaces can be used as a platform for residents to express their feelings through art. Contemplating these art expressions helps people to better understand each other.

Got any learnings to add to the mix? Please share them with us by commenting or on Twitter #civiccommons.

Placemaking for Peacemaking

Posted on:

This is the third in a Placemaking Profile series in which we will share short conversations we’ve had with urban innovators – from those who are actively building places that foster social inclusion to those who listen, engage, and tell stories from the communities.

For more information about placemaking, please click here.

Rony Jalkh: Placemaking for Peacemaking

As part of a panel discussion on strategies to go beyond Habitat III at the Placemaking Leadership Forum (Vancouver, BC. September 14-16, 2016), Rony Jalkh shared his work on Placemaking for Peacemaking, a two-way process for intervening, activating and improving public spaces as a way to promote inclusion and interaction in socially fragmented cities, particularly with immigrant and refugee communities.

We had the chance to chat with Rony before his session to get a glimpse on his approach to placemaking and ways to promote civic engagement in marginalized neighbourhoods.

What is placemaking for you?

To me, it’s about making place with the people, for the people. And it’s for all the people. I started working in Beirut. The project was about promoting placemaking because it’s not something known in Lebanon. We don’t have the culture of public spaces and we don’t have the culture of a participatory approach. In Lebanon we have a proverb that says “kill two birds with one stone.” This means that I want to make placemaking for two reasons: I want to tell people that they have the right to have public spaces and to claim them. But also I want to tell municipalities that people must participate in these projects.

Who would be the mediator in this process of placemaking for peacemaking?

We have to find someone who can be the link between community and municipalities. Someone who can play this role, someone who is dynamic and a catalyst. I believe universities can help. University students are young, dynamic, open and capable to play the linking role between the community and municipal authorities.

What has been your experience working with university students as mediators?

I started by providing workshops at universities. I implemented a pilot project at the American University of Beirut. I took placemaking because to me it’s a flexible process, we can always adapt it to local contexts. So I prepared a syllabus and I taught these courses for free. I wanted to test what I prepared to connect students to the community. Timing was good because we had municipal elections in Lebanon and the municipality was open to new ideas.

What challenges did you experience working on this project?

It was not easy because the students have never been to these communities. The students came from middle- to upper-income Lebanese families. I focused my work on marginalised neighbourhoods, mostly in the suburbs. Some of these neighbourhoods had immigrant populations (predominantly from Syria). The cultural shock experienced by students helped us screen their level of commitment to the project.

How did you bring students closer to the reality of residents in marginalized communities?

I included anything related to communications as part of the syllabus of the courses that I organized. The students often did not speak Arabic because they came from upper class families.

We also implemented a listening process among students. We explained to them how to ask questions in Arabic and introduced them to the cultural reality of these communities. For instance, we explained to students that it’s not enough to speak the language, they need to understand the slang and be sensitive to these nuances so that they can come closer to their reality. We worked a lot on communication skills. We also helped students learn how to negotiate the design and co-creation process with the community and told them that every opinion counts. I gave them an example. I said “You are architects. When you graduate you will build a house for your clients. So you will prepare the design and you will have to negotiate with your clients the number of floors. For public spaces the client is the people. You cannot build public spaces without negotiation. The community is your client. You must make something that is feasible, tangible and accessible for everyone.”

What was the scale of this project?

During three months we worked on 21 designs prepared by 21 students for different locations in Beirut. We are talking about small spaces because publicly accessible land is scarce in Lebanon. These are little land pockets where we could plant a tree to make people come. We worked under the idea that public spaces must remain open anytime and for everyone.

How can we use placemaking to bring peace in fragmented communities?

Placemaking is about connecting people in a space. And peacemaking is also about connecting people to each other. And for me peacemaking cannot succeed if it is not in a concrete place. It means we have to bring people together but how, where? So, the place should be a tool to bring peace. Placemaking for peacemaking is an approach, they reinforce each other. Placemaking is a participative approach. When you let people participate, the participation will bring trust and when you build trust you can have peace. So if I work with you, we will have to trust each other. If we make peace together, we will be more encouraged to work together.

But how do you engage people to work together?

Trust. In Beirut we learned that when we co-create neighbourhoods you don’t bring contractors, you work with the community. I asked students to identify skilled people within the community: carpenters, construction workers, plumbers, and so on. We invited students to work together with these people and friendships were made. These interactions facilitated teamwork.

While working with Syrian communities in Beirut, I explained to them that if they wish to be accepted they need to contribute to city co-creation. We saw Syrian and Lebanese residents working together in creating public spaces.  I’m not saying this is magic but if the public space is a place where we all wish to come, we could begin by building peace through the public space. If we have playgrounds for Lebanese and Syrian children we can facilitate interaction and parents might begin talking to each other.

Once I worked on a tree-planting project in a marginalized neighbourhood in Beirut. We designed the streets and we told residents “This is your tree and it’s up to you to take care of it. Tomorrow we will plant it, please be ready to help us.” It was the residents and not volunteers who were involved. Ten years later, I observed that trees grew and provided shade to residents. Working with communities takes time and requires patience. Trees, like communities, do not grow up in one day, they are the result of patience.

Rony will be joining us as part of The City as a Commons, a series of conversations in Canada with international innovators who are advancing transformative change in participatory city building and thinking. He will be giving talks open to the public (RSVP required) in Montreal on March 20 and 24; and in Toronto on March 27.

About Rony Jalkh

With nearly 16 years of experience working with UN-Habitat and other international organizations, Rony has extensive knowledge managing and monitoring projects relating to governance, civil society and working with the public sector. As an activist and practitioner of Placemaking, he provides lectures and workshops throughout Lebanon and abroad. As a senior fellow at the Project for Public Spaces, Rony is currently leading research on “Placemaking for Peacemaking” with the objective of creating placemaking resources and tools to promote urban equity and inclusion.