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Sharing the city as a commons can create stronger, inclusive communities

by Darren Sharp

The sharing economy is an exciting and disruptive set of developments turning old paradigms of production, consumption and exchange on their head. Major themes include access over ownership and unlocking the idling capacity of various assets including stuff, space and skills.1 At its most sublime level the sharing economy brings peers together to match needs with haves, build social capital and neighbourly connectedness through tool libraries, community gardens, clothing swaps, skill shares and Repair Cafes.2 Melbourne is home to many inspiring sharing programs like the Clothing Exchange3 that runs clothing swaps to promote sustainable fashion; 3000 acres4 which works with public and private sector asset owners to unlock vacant land for urban agriculture; and Brunswick Tool Library5 that pools equipment for hire to encourage sustainable consumption.

Brunswick Tool Library in Melbourne provides local members with shared access to tools and equipment. Image source: Assemble Papers, photographer: Fred Kroh
But the sharing economy is not without its drawbacks including the enclosing influence of platforms that monetise formally sacrosanct areas of private life. A ride to work, some help around the house, or a spare room for an out-of-town guest have become commodities to be bought and sold through a handful of on-demand platforms. The economic benefits of these services favours asset owners with a desirable car or home to share. Governments have been slow to respond to the shocks caused by Uber, Airbnb, and Deliveroo and their disruptions to transportation, the housing market and the freelance sector.6 These so called 'gig economy' platforms provide convenience to their users but also raise serious concerns as this seemingly 'inevitable march of progress' creates winners and losers, enriching start-up founders and investors while making it hard for gig workers, who are mostly independent contractors, to make a living.7

Commercial platforms have also skillfully leveraged the agglomeration benefits of proximity, density and amenity of public goods and shared resources that nobody owns but that we all benefit from - what we used to call the commons. These include everything from the tax-payer funded public roads which are quickly becoming congested by the presence of Uber and other rideshare operators,8 and the unique culture and quiet enjoyment of our cities and neighbourhoods which is being threatened by Airbnb as long-term rental stock is removed from the market and converted into short-term housing accommodation.9

As David Bollier reminds us the enclosure of the commons is a recurring threat and happens when private sector interests often working with the support of government, privatise or convert shared resources into private resources and treat them as tradeable commodities.10 Enclosure of the commons has been going on for centuries if we look back at the English enclosure movement where aristocracy stole the pastures, forests, water and grazing lands used by commoners and declared them private property.11 Today we see a new enclosure movement as big tech companies with the support of governments, use proprietary platforms and network effects to commodify our data and take over critical city infrastructure under the rhetoric of disruptive innovation and the smart city. The failed plans for an Apple Store at Federation Square is just the thin edge of the wedge - a branding exercise that sought to extract the civic and cultural value of Melbourne and its citizens to further Apple's growth ambitions.12 We must zoom out to see how tech giants have their eyes on the bigger prize - capturing our cities for the deployment of more tightly integrated data and service ecosystems on which government, business and citizens rely on for essential infrastructure but which undermines our technological sovereignty.13

Google is now in the city-building business as seen by Toronto waterfront re-development under its subsidiary Sidewalk Labs. The smart city plan involves "creating a neighbourhood from "the internet up", powered and severed by data; with sensors monitoring everything from air quality to pedestrian traffic, even the flushing of toilets."14 Quayside is the proposal's pilot community, a 12-acre area along the waterfront with an intention to expand the experiment to the remaining 800-acre site to Toronto.15 This is just one of a growing number of projects where tech giants with the support of governments are converting shared resources into private resources. Enclosure of the commons erodes community by turning citizens into consumers and creates vendor lock-in and walled gardens which undermines democracy by colonizing our public space with proprietary platforms that constantly monitor our behaviour and commodify our data in what academic Shoshana Zuboff has described as the pernicious rise of "surveillance capitalism."16

View of Toronto waterfront. Image: Sandro Schuh on
The sharing city is a new imaginary of urban transformation that offers hope through peer to peer collaboration, citizen participation and shared infrastructure to create greater social and economic inclusion.17 Sharing cities proponents tell a new story of the sharing economy grounded in grassroots innovation, municipal provisioning of shared infrastructure and diverse forms of sharing that engender social justice, economic democracy and ecological sustainability.18 The idea of the sharing city was pioneered by Shareable19, a nonprofit action hub and news site for the sharing economy that uses narratives of change and enabling tools like collaborative mapping to encourage urban experimentation that brings civil society, local government and alternative market actors together to create new forms of sharing for the common good. Shareable launched the Sharing Cities Network (SCN), a grassroots initiative "to mobilize, inspire and connect" sharing advocates around the world. To date over 50 cities have created SCN nodes, run MapJams and ShareFests to connect the dots and activate sharing within local communities using collaborative mapping to make shared resources more visible, convene local stakeholders and create new opportunities for partnerships to emerge.20

The Share Yarra Map was the result of a community MapJam workshop at Fitzroy Town Hall in 2014. Image: author
The sharing cities movement has inspired local governments to formally declare themselves Sharing Cities and drive new institutional arrangements through policies and programs to make their city assets like public buildings, vacant land and open data more amenable to sharing. Seoul has made 800 of its buildings available to the community for use during idle hours, run as start-up school to support the next generation of sharing entrepreneurs and has invested millions of dollars through subsidies from taxes paid by citizens.21 Seoul designates sharing enterprises and organisations as part of their Sharing City program if they commit to solving urban problems through sharing via the economy, welfare, culture, environment and transportation sectors. Amsterdam became Europe's first Sharing City and convened the Ambassador Group with local representatives from the corporate, government and knowledge sectors to develop a program of activities to support the ecosystem and prototype sharing projects. The Amsterdam municipal government has also run a pilot program to make its meeting rooms available to organisations with a social impact mission.22

The 'city as a commons' is another new urban imaginary that creates post-neoliberal pathways for local governments to play a key enabling role in making services, programs and staff available to the community to support urban transformation through new models of collaborative urban governance. One of the best examples can be found in the City of Bologna's 'Regulation of Collaboration Between Citizens and the City for the Care and Regeneration of Urban Commons' that supports active citizens to co-lead city interventions through collaboration agreements, an instrument that aligns deliberative processes and intent with a legal contract between citizens and the municipality.23 Since the regulation passed in 2014 with the support of researchers from LabGov, over 280 citizen-led projects have signed collaboration agreements with the city under the regulation to co-govern shared resources. Bologna 'city as commons' projects include an association of Bologna women who turned an unused city-owned building into an 'ethical boutique' to support migrant women and Social Streets that helps neighbours get to know each other and strengthen community by building mutual aid networks at hyper-local level.

A Social Streets gathering in Bologna  - an example of the 'city as a commons' in action. Image:

Such experiments in collaborative governance through "public-private partnerships of people and communities" are underway across other cities in Italy with five types of actors including social innovators, public authorities, businesses, civil society organisations and knowledge institutions.24 Following the success of Bologna, LabGov turned its attention to Centocelle's Archaeological Park in Rome which became the focus of urban commoning initiated by researchers and community stakeholders working on collaborative governance experiments. A co-design process was used which led to the creation of a community group dedicated to the regeneration of the park. This has resulted in a variety of site interventions including rubbish removal, tree planting and landscaping which has activated the park and created opportunities for collaboration between citizens and the local council.

Sharing cities and the 'city as a commons' movements demonstrate how alternative urban imaginaries, narratives of change and collaborative mapping create new structural contexts outside of neoliberal market and policy logics to support transformative modes of experimentation. These new imaginaries provide a guiding vision for urban actors to develop new economic practices through the social production of value and modes of collaborative governance like Seoul, Amsterdam and Bologna. Urban actors can share resources and use technology to strengthen community but resisting enclosure and maintaining technological sovereignty will be an ongoing challenge that will define our future cities.

About the author.
Darren Sharp is the Director of Social Surplus and works with grassroots innovators and public sector partners to develop community empowerment strategies, collaborative governance experiments and facilitate capacity-building using strength-based and design-led approaches. Darren is also the Australian editor of Shareable, Melbourne coordinator of the Sharing Cities Network and co-authored the book Sharing Cities: Activating the Urban Commons which contains 137 case studies and policies that showcases how city residents around the world are using commons-based strategies to meet their needs in housing, food, transportation, work and energy. Darren helped established and run Livewell Yarra, an urban living lab in Melbourne and recently completed his PhD at Curtin University Sustainable Policy Institute where he undertook action research on transformative urban experimentation for sustainability transitions funded by the CRC for Low Carbon Living. His recent academic publications appear is Sustainability and Urban Policy and Research.

See: Botsman, R. and Rogers, R. (2010). What’s Mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption. New York, NY. HarperCollins; and Gansky, L. (2010). The Mesh: Why the Future of Business is Sharing. New York, NY. Penguin Group.
8 LeBlanc, S. (2018). Studies are increasingly clear: Uber, Lyft congest cities. Associated Press. Available from:,-Lyft-congest-cities
17 Shareable. (2018). Sharing Cities: Activating the Urban Commons. San Francisco, CA: Shareable.
18 Sharp, D. (2018). Sharing Cities for Urban Transformation: Narrative, Policy and Practice. Urban Policy and Research, 36(4), 513-526.
20 Johnson, C. (2013). We gathered, we mapped, we shared: a #MapJam follow-up. Shareable.
Available from:
24 Iaione, C. (2016). The CO‐City: Sharing, Collaborating, Cooperating, and Commoning in the City. American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 75(2), 415-455.


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