Urban studies: Blueprint for a cooperative city

528330a-i1As urbanizing countries grapple with the need to provide sustainable energy and transport for their burgeoning cities, start-up companies are creating a culture and economy of sharing. Many are commercial. Commercially mediated sharing can have a dark side. Sharing can skew local economies. Property owners turning to Airbnb may convert entire buildings to de facto hotels in cities such as New York, potentially contributing to housing crises. And Uber uses a surge-pricing algorithm to match supply and demand, meaning that users can face unpredictably high fares during periods of peak demand.

There is an alternative: bottom-up ventures that are digital or based in communities, rather than commercial. In Sharing Cities, environmental consultant Duncan McLaren and urban-policy scholar Julian Agyeman lay out, with impressive depth, clarity and wisdom, a comprehensive prescription for a sharing paradigm that incorporates such models. Noting that sharing has been a sociocultural and informal practice for millennia, McLaren and Agyeman also reveal the promise and pitfalls of such an approach at a time when neoliberal economic policies emphasizing individualistic profit often trump public goods and services.

Sharing Cities explores the potential in dense urban spaces for ‘deep sharing’ of goods, resources, services, talent and experience through the Internet, with its rapid, extensive linking of lenders and borrowers. The models that the authors examine include barter clubs, credit unions, cooperative land trusts and co-housing to online and other peer-to-peer (P2P) networks and supper clubs. As they point out, commercial services barely scratch the surface of what is possible in a true sharing economy. For example, decentralized P2P networks such as TaskRabbit — in which users can exchange skills and services without strong corporate oversight — can facilitate substantial sharing networks with minimal supervision. Public-transport systems can be considered a form of sharing, because the costs of mobility are shared between many.

Read the book review in Science magazine’s website