cities

Governments are so accustomed to dictating their will, through coercion if necessary, that they find it unimaginable that people might willingly – and with creativity and enthusiasm – self-organize themselves to take care of urgent needs.  So pause a moment to behold the remarkable Zaatari Refugee camp in Jordan.  This settlement of 85,000 displaced Syrians is showing how even desperate, resource-poor people can show enormous creativity and self-organization, and turn their "camp" into a "city."

In many respects, Zaatari bears an uncanny resemblance to the DIY dynamics of the Burning Man encampment in the Nevada desert – an annual gathering that attracts more than 65,000 people for a week.  Both eschew "government" in favor of self-organized governance.  Both confer opportunities and responsibilities and individuals, and facilitate bottom-up initiatives through lightweight infrastructures.

As the New York Times reported on July 4, the Zaatari camp has “neighborhoods, gentrification, a growing economy and, under the circumstances, something approaching normalcy, though every refugee longs to return home. There is even a travel agency that will provide a pickup service at the airport, and pizza delivery, with an address system for the refugees that camp officials are scrambling to copy.”  Times’ urbanist/architecture critic Michel Kimmelman declares that “Zaatari’s evolution points more broadly to a whole new way of thinking about one of the most pressing crises on the planet.”

Last week, at the Edge Funders Alliance conference in Berkeley, California, I learned how participatory budgeting is starting to get some real traction here in the US. Participatory budgeting, or PB to aficionados, is a process by which ordinary people determine how to spend municipal funds.  Ginny Browne of the Participatory Budgeting Project, which is based in Brooklyn, gave a terrific overview of the history and current state of this rare form of citizen engagement in government. The basic point is to let people have a direct say about the services that most affect them.

Participatory budgeting got its start in 1969 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, a city of 1.5 million residents.  Launched as an effort to bypass political corruption, PB is now used in that city to allocate 20 percent of the budget, or $200 million.  The process engages some 50,000 citizens in Porto Alegre, and has resulted in a doubling of sanitation services and more school buses for underserved areas.  (For more on PB in Porto Alegre, see the excellent book chapter by Hilary Wainwright in her 2009 book Reclaim the State.) 

Participatory budgeting first came to the US in 2009 when a Chicago city councilman attending the U.S. Social Forum decided to try it out in that city’s 29th ward.  In 2011 four New York City council members introduced PB in their districts.  About 1.5 million people participated in deciding how to spend $14 million for infrastructure projects. 

A year later, the city of Vallejo, California, introduced PB for $3.2 million in city programs and services. The idea had real appeal because the city had just gone through bankruptcy proceedings and citizen trust in government was low. A twenty-person steering committee for PB was created.  After brainstorming ideas and developing project proposals, 4,000 citizens chose which of twelve different projects to fund.

Homegrown Urban Parks in Toronto

To the people of Toronto, city parks are not something that the city government simply provides.  They are a passion that engages ordinary citizens acting as commoners.  A great example is the Homegrown National Park, a new green corridor in the heart of Toronto that the David Suzuki Foundation is building with the help of 21 “Neighborhood Park Rangers” and 14 partner groups. 

Taking inspiration from authors Richard Louv and Douglas Tallamy, who have written about our extreme alienation from nature and its negative effects on our well-being, the Homegrown National Park is building green space along the path of a “lost river” in Toronto, Garrison Creek, that was built over many years ago. The project also wants to connect all the “islands of green” in the city into an interconnected ecological space.

What makes the Homegrown National Park so unusual is its mobilization of citizens.  The idea is not just to build another park – which would be a fine and welcome mission -- but to re-connect people to nature.  It aims to help people step up to the responsibilities and pleasures of acting as stewards of their own urban spaces.  Volunteers are invited to plant native trees and shrubs, cultivate spaces for birds and butterflies, and help people grow food in their backyards and balconies.  You can watch a video of the project here.  (Thanks for the alert on this project, Paul Baines!)

The election of Bill de Blasio as Mayor of New York City suddenly presents a rich opportunity to reclaim a commons-based resource that the Bloomberg administration was on the verge of giving away. I’m talking about the pending introduction of a new Internet “Top Level Domain” for New York City, .nyc.   

Top Level Domains, better known as TLDs, are the regions of the Internet denoted by .com, .org and .edu.  They amount to Internet “zones” dedicated to specific purposes or countries.  Over the past few years, far beyond the radar screen of ordinary mortals, the little-known Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) – which manages TLDs -- has been pushing the idea of TLDs for cities.  If Paris wants to have its own Internet domain -- .paris – it can apply for it and get it.  Rome could have its own .rome and London could have .london. 

New Yorker Thomas Lowenhaupt of Connectingnyc.org – a long-time advocate for treating the TLD as a shared resource – has written, “I’ve often thought of the .nyc TLD in its entirety as a commons -- that the .nyc TLD is a digital commons that we all need to protect as we today (seek to) protect our physical streets and sidewalks by not littering, and provide clean air, parks, schools, health care, fire and police protection, and the like, to our built environment so that it best serves 8,200,000 of us.”

Here are some examples that Lowenhaupt has come up with for how .nyc could make New York City more accessible and navigable: 

The idea is that Internet users could use the TLDs to access various aspects of city life by using them in creative ways.  Instead of having to rely on Google to search for museums in New York (which would yield thousands of not-very-well-organized listings), you could use museums.nyc and find everything laid out more intelligently.  Or if you were new to Brooklyn Heights, you could go to brooklynheights.nyc and find all sorts of civic, community and commercial website listings for that neighborhood – the library, recycling resources, parking rules, links to relevant city officials.  And yes, the businesses. The possibilities are endless -- and potentially enlivening for a city.

How to Build a “Shareable City”

Shareable and the Sustainable Economies Law Center have released a fantastic new report surveying the ways in which cities can adopt policies to promote “sharing” in a range of areas -- food, housing, transportation and jobs.  The landmark report, “Policies for Shareable Cities:  A Sharing Economy Policy Primer for Urban Leaders,” pulls together “scores of innovative, high impact policies that US city governments have put in place to help citizens share resources, co-produce, and create their own jobs.” 

What exactly is a “sharing city”?  It’s one that encourages carsharing and bikesharing programs through specific policies, such as designating “pick-up spots” for ridesharing and altering local taxes to make carsharing more attractive.  A sharing city is one that encourages urban agriculture on vacant lots and allows homegrown vegetables to be sold in the neighborhood.  A shareable city supports innovations like shared workspaces, shared commercial kitchens, community-financed start-ups, community-owned commercial centers, and spaces for “pop-up” businesses.  It also encourages home-based micro-enterprises by lowering permitting barriers.

What’s impressive about this 40-page report is that it provides a practical action plan that any city could pick up and implement immediately.  Yes, there are larger federal and state policies that could help make cities more shareable and liveable, but it is a misconception that only such big, bold policy reforms will work.  Municipalities can take a wide number of modest steps right now that, by supporting the "micro-dynamics" of social life, can have enormous macro-impacts on the affordability, social fabric and quality of life of a city.  As a report focused on American cities, it’s unclear to me how far the policy recommendations may apply to non-American cities....but I suspect that many of the ideas could work abroad.  

The report’s introduction explains the rationale behind the shareable city:

The sharing economy challenges core assumptions made in the 20th century planning and regulatory frameworks – namely, that residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural activities should be physically separated from one another, and that each single family household operates as an independent economic unit.  The sharing economy brings people and their work back together through sharing, gifting, bartering, and peer-to-peer buying and selling.  City governments can increasingly step into the role of facilitators of the sharing economy by designing infrastructure, services, incentives and regulations that factor in the social exchanges of this game-changing movement. 

When I pump gas in my car these days, there is a video screen on the pump that abruptly turns on and starts shouting an annoying advertisement in my face.  It is so loud and obnoxious that it takes great restraint to not smash the damn screen with my car keys.  (For the record, the gas station is a Cumberland Farms convenience store.)

Thanks to architecture professor Malcolm McCullough of the University of Michigan, I now have a vocabulary for talking about such vandalism against our shared mental environment.  It is a desecration of the ambient commons.  The ambient commons consists of all of those things in our built environment, especially in cities, that we take for granted as part of the landscape:  architectural design, urban spaces, designs that guide and inform our travels, amenities for social conviviality.  Professor McCullough explores these themes in his fascinating new book, Ambient Commons:  Attention in the Age of Embodied Information (MIT Press).

Not many peole have rigorously thought about how new information technologies are changing the ambient commons of cities.  Nowadays media feeds are everywhere -- on building facades, billboards, hotel lobbies, restaurants, elevators and even gas pumps.  About three in five of us carry around smartphones, which have radically changed how we navigate the city.  GPS and Google Maps are a new form of annotated “wayfinding” that makes signage and tourist guidebooks less necessary.  The Internet of Things – sensor-readable RFID tags on objects – make the cityscape more “digitally legible” in ways that previously required architectural design. 

It has reached such a state that many retailers now use sensors on our smartphones to track our movements, behavior and moods during the course of browsing stores.  Retailers want to assemble a database of in-store customer behavior (just as they collect data during our website visits) so that they can adjust product displays, signage and marketing in ways that maximize sales.  This was described by a recent New York Times article and accompanying video, “Attention, Shoppers:  Store is Tracking Your Cell."   

The explosive growth in the “number, formats and contexts of situated images” in the city means that we now experience a cityscape in different ways.  We identify our locations, find information, connect with each other and experience life in different ways.  The embedded design elements of the ambient commons affect how we think, behave and orient ourselves to the world. 

“We move around with and among displays,” writes McCullough notes.  “Global rectangles have become part of the [urban] scene; screens, large and small, appear everywhere.  Physical locations are increasingly tagged and digitally augmented.  Sensors, processes and memory are found not only in chic smartphones but also into everyday objects.”

When people deliberately break the law to become squatters or take possession of public buildings, it is a pretty good sign that the market/state is failing to meet the public’s basic needs. This is the general scenario in many parts of Rome, reports Donatella Della Ratta of Al Jazeera, as various citizens’ movements take over theaters, public buildings and apartment buildings.  Squatting and illegal occupation are rampant. 

Much of the turmoil has resulted from budget cutbacks and the resulting failure of government to uphold its constitutional duty to provide adequate housing and meet other public needs.  Shady speculators then swarm into the picture to snap up buildings that the government is selling at rock-bottom prices in order to raise money. 

What’s a victimized public to do?  Defy the law and occupy what is theirs.  In Rome, former employees of the Teatro Valle, a grand public theater and former opera house, have taken over the premises since June 2011.  (Here is Della Ratta's November 2011 account of the Teatro Valle occupation.)  This act of defiance has now sparked many similar citizen takeovers around the city.  In one of the more notable occupations, citizens took over a government building used for motor vehicle registrations and drivers’ licensure.  As Della Ratta reports: 

“Scup (Sport e Cultura Popolare) as the place has been renamed, was occupied, cleaned up and brought back to life by a mixed group of young activists, sport instructors and some residents of the neighborhood.  They were outraged by the lack of public spaces for leisure and sport activities in an area that has become more and more gentrified while rental prices have soared.” 

A young activist, Carlo, explained:  “Occupying is an expression of public outrage.” 

As neoliberal policies put the squeeze on cities, what role can the commons play?  Some commoners in Greece decided to explore this issue by mapping the commons of Athens – and then this year, Istanbul.  The results are an inspiration and prototype for commoners in cities around the world.  The online maps and videos make visible the subjective, experiential commons that sustain people’s daily lives, giving a new twist to the official maps of a city.   

The “Mapping the Commons” project got its start when the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens commissioned the Spanish collective Hackitectura to convene an interdisciplinary group of artists, sociologists, scientists and researchers from universities in Athens.  Hackitectura is a group of architects and programmers that theorizes, and develops projects, that explore how space, electronic flows and social networks converge.  

The Athens project describes itself as “an open collaborative cartography of the contemporary metropolis based on the importance of the commons in times in of disaster capitalism.”  The project explicitly wanted to imagine a new Athens by seeing it through the lens of the commons.  As the organizers put it:  

We propose the hypothesis that a new [view of the] city will come out of the process, one where the many and multiple, often struggling against the state and capital, are continuously, and exuberantly, supporting and producing the commonwealth of its social life.

The workshop will develop collaborative mapping strategies, using free software participatory wiki-mapping tools.

Organizers noted, “Due to our tradition of the private and the public, of property and individualism, the commons are still hard to see for our late 20th century eyes. We propose, therefore, a search for the commons; a search that will take the form of a mapping process. We understand mapping, of course, as proposed by Deleuze and Guattari, and as artists and social activists have been using it during the last decade, as a performance that can become a reflection, a work of art, a social action.”

Shareable.net has published a terrific interview with Marxist geographer David Harvey on the future of cities as a place for commoning.  It’s a timely conversation now that many people believe that cities, not nation-states, will be the focus for economic and political renewal. 

Harvey, the author of such insightful books as A Short Introduction to Neoliberalism, The Enigma of Capital and Rebel Cities, spoke with San Francisco activist Chris Carlsson, who is co-director of the multimedia history project Shaping San Francisco (a wiki-based digital archive at foundsf.org).  Carlsson is also a writer, publisher, editor, and community organizer.

Shareable publisher Neal Gorenflo introduces the interview by noting that so much of the conversation about renewing cities ignores a basic reality:  "The commons is the goose that lays the golden eggs. Without the commons, there is no market or future. If every resource is commodified, if every square inch of real estate is subjected to speculative forces, if every calorie of every urbanite is used to simply meet bread and board, then we seal off the future. Without commons, there’s no room for people to maneuver, there’s no space for change, and no space for life. The future is literally born out of commons."

Here are a few excerpts from Carlsson's interview with Harvey.  Consider these passages a tease designed to get you to wander over to Shareable to read the entire thing.

Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of touring an incredibly vital cultural commons in the heart of Providence, Rhode Island.  My host was Bert Crenca, the artistic director of AS220.  Nearly everyone knows AS220 as one of the most happening places in the city.  It offers everything:  rehearsal spaces, poetry slams, live music, dance performances, figure drawing, affordable work studios, a print shop, specialized art equipment, cheap apartments for struggling artists, and more. 

What may be less appreciated is that AS220 is a self-sustaining creative commons (lower case).  While it has all sorts of interactions with the market, government and philanthropy, it is really an unheralded model of a commons for producing and enjoying the arts.  It is financially self-sustaining, independently managed, and grassroots-responsive.  It is dedicated to art made by and for the people.

The “AS” in AS220 stands for “Artists’ Space”; 220 was the initial address of the distressed building it originally occupied in 1985.  AS220 quickly outgrew that space and in 1992, with help from the mayor’s office and tax breaks normally used by commercial developers, acquired a 21,000 square-foot building in a blighted, drug-ridden part of town.  In 2006 and 2008, AS220 bought two additional buildings nearby that have allowed the sprawling Providence arts community to grow even more.  Now in its 27th year, AS220 has a budget of $2.8 million, 50 employees and hosts dozens of art projects in the three downtown buildings that it owns.

Calling AS220 a “nonprofit organization” fails to capture its real achievement or inner logic.  AS220 has been able to create its own commons for the arts largely because of its ingenuity in acquiring three downtown buildings.  This has allowed it to generate its own revenue streams that help it protect its autonomy and take greater risks.  AS220 rents out street-level spaces to restaurants and shops that share its funky, creative ethic, which in turn has enabled AS220 to leverage that money to develop a more diversified funding base:  membership fees to use studio equipment; fees for art classes; contract work for printing and computer animation; and of course the sale of artworks.  AS220 also rents out cheap studio space and artists’ apartments, covering its costs while advancing the arts. 

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