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. 

Here a brief overview of how “shareable housing” can help a city, for example:

Resident-owned or nonprofit rental housing cooperatives offer a time-tested, affordable, and socially enriching alternative to private ownership and rental. Housing cooperatives can also boost the innovation and resilience of cities by making quality housing accessible to young entrepreneurs, students, low income families, artists, nonprofit workers, senior citizens, service workers, laborers, the disabled, and other low income populations.

Housing cooperatives can lower housing costs in a variety of ways including restrictions on profit from resale, self-management, nonprofit status, shared facilities, and subsidies. Limited equity cooperative housing can keep housing permanently affordable through legal restrictions on the financial gain on the future sale of shares. Cooperative housing can be developed from scratch or apartments can be converted to cooperative ownership through tenant buyouts.

A city can help encourage the development of small apartments and “tiny” homes, which in turn can help bring a younger, more entrepreneurial and culturally minded residents into the city.  Local governments can can get rid of high permitting fees and minimum square footage requirements to encourage the construction of “accessory dwelling units” (ADU), or small rental units. 

“Policies for Shareable Cities” has already attracted a lot of attention from city governments, universities, think tanks and activists.  Here’s hoping that it stimulates a broad reconsideration of the policies and programs that affect the social and economic conviviality of cities.