Sharing and cooperatives for urban commons
Sharing in the context of urban sustainability and justice refers to a paradigm shift away from individualistic and exclusivity practices, which are embedded in modern urbanism and urban lifestyles in regards to particular resources and services. Sharing is a central aspect of commoning practices, while commons governance often takes the form of cooperatives.
The concept of the commons is important to cooperatives. It represents a form of collective but decentralised control over resources, or forms of wealth, which (should) belong to all and must be actively protected and managed in a collective manner, for the collective good.
Cooperatives are jointly-owned and horizontally/democratically governed enterprises, and can include consumer cooperatives, worker cooperatives, or shared/hybrid cooperatives where ownership is shared between consumers, workers, and other stakeholders like non-profits. Cooperatives can govern housing, businesses, and food enterprises.
This page is part of an ongoing, open-ended online collaborative database, which collects relevant approaches that can be used by city-makers to tackle unsustainability and injustice in cities. It is based mainly on knowledge generated in EU-funded projects and touches on fast changing fields. As such, this page makes no claims of authoritative completeness and welcomes your suggestions.
General introduction to approach
During the last decade, a number of efforts have focused on gathering information about the sharing economy, sharing initiatives, and innovations that enable sharing . People often identify sharing initiatives in urban contexts such as co-working, co-living and co-housing; These are are often more focused on sharing space rather than resources and services. Resources and services can be shared through cooperatives, community-led management, co-finance and food sharing, among others.
Food sharing, for example, is a very prominent example of how resources can be optimised in order to strengthen social relations, while also securing food for the most vulnerable, and avoiding food waste. Sharing practices, especially when referring to the long-term sharing of a resource, can become synonymous of commons-based projects and/or cooperatives, in the sense that what is shared is managed by those who share it. However, this is not necessarily the case, as sharing can be to a large extent governed by external rules and formal institutions. For example, food can be shared between those businesses or households that have it in excess, and those organisations or groups that are in demand. This can be regulated by rules on quality, means of transport, and sanitary checks. However, food sharing can also mean the cultivation of food in a community garden and the distribution of the produce among participants in an informal manner. While one is a facilitated offer that does not necessitate social interaction between the two parties, the second is an example of a commons governance.
With urban sustainability in mind, the idea of cooperatives and commons has been applied to the local production/distribution of “clean” energy services such as bicycle-repairing, but also community gardens, social centers, and other public and private spaces that are reclaimed by citizen groups. Such spaces are reconfigured, transformed, and maintained "commons." Cooperatives are often integrated. Note: whereas in cooperatives the purpose and different roles within the “enterprise” are usually well-defined, in other forms of urban commons these are not always as clear.
Shapes, sizes and applications
‘Sharing cities’ is an idea and an approach of how cities can battle against some of their main challenges (e.g. poverty, health issues, housing needs, lack of space, lack of available land etc.), through the actions and networks of citizens and supported by committed city governments. The Sharing Cities network emerged in 2013 from a non-profit organisation based in San Fransisco (Shareable ) which set out to be a news, action and connection hub for cities and urban issues. Now, the ‘Sharing City Network’ comprises local communities and group of activists in more than 50 cities, who engage in a cooperative process by organizing sharing projects. The Network thus acts at multi-territorial and transnational level to collect information and promote sharing. They have brought together a collection of over a hundred sharing-related case studies and model policies from more than 80 cities in 35 countries , which covers examples of housing (e.g. cooperative Housing, short-term rental, open-source design), food (surplus food redistribution, community gardens, farmers markets), work (e.g. FabLabs, cooperative ownership, community wealth, maker-spaces, social entrepreneur networks), waste (citizen compost initiative, repair café, worker-owned recycling cooperative) and more. This shows the breadth of implementations that the sharing idea can have in cities, and the connection with cooperatives and commons projects.
A strong component of what is observed as urban sustainability-oriented cooperatives are those dedicated to, or include, the local production and consumption of clean(er) energy (see Rescoop  for a collection of identified such projects, geographically referenced). One example stemming from the results of the INCONTEXT (2010-2013) project  is the Emission-Zero initiative in Les Vents d'Houyet , Belgium. After its initial phase of experimenting with raising awareness and spreading information on renewable energy, now it is focused on raising capital for and volumes of renewable energy. The cooperative connects about 1000 cooperators and 10 000 affiliated members (2011). It built seven wind turbines that are now jointly owned (and democratically managed) by the cooperative.
Other examples range from tool libraries to financial cooperatives for mutual self-management, democratic engagement through/with digital means , and multi-faceted initiatives like Cooperation Jackson in Mississippi, USA .
Relation to UrbanA themes: Cities, sustainability, and justice
The idea of cooperativism, sharing, and common management of resources is not new. However, it has been intensely rediscovered in modern cities of today, due to increasing pressures that urban citizens experience on the physical environment (pollution, lack of green space, lack of healthy food), their livelihoods (non-affordable housing, precarious employment) and their political recognition and participation (lack of public space, mistrust in governmental institutions). As a response, urban commons, sharing and cooperatives are seen to operate mostly at the level of cities (but also in the digital sphere) as urban densities provide an adequate ground for sharing/commoning to be taken on board, both as viable alternatives or solutions to pressing problems related to lack of resources (including land, space, housing, food but also knowledge and expertise) and because population dynamics help these initiatives to build momentum. Recently, the rise of such initiatives in cities such as Barcelona or Ghent, has called for a more translocal vision (see Commons Transition Plan for Ghent, and the Electoral Program of Barcelona En Comu ). Moreover, many such initiatives (like consumer coops, urban agriculture initiatives), combine the use of both urban and rural territories and their interaction, in a way also helping in reconceptualising the relations and dependencies between urban-rural areas in metabolic, social and environmental terms.
(Re)claiming urban commons from solely profit-seeking actors and/or central institutions governed by distant and rigid bureaucracies that operate in increasingly neoliberal fashion, is part of reclaiming justice in the city. Through sharing, commoning and cooperativism, resources and participation in governance can become more widely accessible and possible. Most sharing food initiatives, such as community gardens, collaborative cooking and eating in community kitchens, surplus food sharing initiatives, can indeed address distributive justice by enabling socially vulnerable people to access healthy food.However, initiatives also face contradictions and challenges with regard to justice, as they are embedded in historical patterns of exclusion and discrimination, and current neoliberal rationalities. Some, for example, assume the withdrawal of the state from certain domains and take on individual responsibilities for aspects that should be of common and public concern. In the case of Gela (‘GEmeinsam LAndwirtschaften’), the arrangement between consumer groups and organic farm producers ensures security of income for the farmers and healthy food for urban citizens. However, if both those aspects are not supported by more universal public policy, these benefits might only accrue to those who can afford to invest and be part of such initiatives. Similarly, in the example of co-working, while sharing the cost of a larger space might be enabling for small enterprises, individual artists, or craftspeople to advance their work, circumventing high rentals in city centers, the type of business promoted and the inclusivity of some such spaces varies to a great extent. The Impact Hub , for example, is a network of 16.000 social entrepreneurs around the world, who all have very different visions, products and services, and thus very different relations to issues of inequality, ecology and justice.
Socio-environmental sustainability is not necessarily central to the goals of commoning/cooperative projects, but sustainability issues have increasingly become a central preoccupation of citizens and movements, thus are being increasingly reflected also in such projects. The community-supported agriculture initiative studied under INCONTEXT project, for example, has a strong sustainability perspective as it promotes organic food of proximity, reducing the use of agrochemicals and avoiding embedded energy consumption (transportation). Many of the sharing initiatives directly address issues of sustainability, as they have to do with the reduction of waste (through recycling/repairing/reusing materials, avoiding food waste) or the production of renewable/cleaner energy (through cooperatives), or by optimising the use of space and resources (in co-housing or co-working arrangements). Moreover, in places of sharing and conviviality, it is also the case that ideas (often about sustainability) circulate faster and with more potential for innovation, which in turn can enable sustainable transformations. The idea of sharing can indeed link sustainability and justice as it can enable redistribution of scarce resources in innovative ways. However, when justice is not an explicit concern in the development of these projects, they do risk of becoming enclaves of privilege, where those with access can benefit from each other and from niche services/knowledge.
At the same time, environmentalists find that working directly with citizens brings more promising results than with upper-level governments. Many dedicated organizations and NGOs that work towards increasing the share of renewables in energy, for example, are now looking at cooperative or public ownership for renewable energy facilities as a way of reducing the increasing resistance to big wind turbine facilities. However, aspects of sustainability are envisioned and implemented at different scales and in different ways in cooperative/commons projects. SomEnergia is an energy cooperative in Barcelona, which not only aims to produce local renewable energy but also promotes a degrowth perspective to energy use so that overall energy consumption be reduced.
Narrative of change
Cooperatives and other common-based projects that practice sharing are addressing interwoven problems of unequal and insufficient access to resources, knowledge, and services that urban citizens deem valuable, if not necessary, for their well being. They also address environmental concerns at various scales (from global warming to environmental health issues) which have deep justice implications as they differentially impact urban populations.
An underlying premise in some projects utilizing this approach is that by fomenting and practicing equal participation, common management of resources and direct democratic control over processes, wider socio-cultural and systemic change will also be enabled and dominant institutions will be challenged.
In the short term, a lot of projects are struggling to “fill the gap” that formal institutions leave unaddressed (e.g. making use of derelict land, making viable and accessible the production/consumption of healthy and organic food), and thus achieving change by “taking things in their own hands.”
Challenges to change: A great challenge for coop/commons and sharing projects is the ability to continue without burdening the community which sustains them. Many times, especially when projects do not constitute an important part of the participants’ livelihood, members that assume a lot of voluntary responsibilities get tired and burn out. While urban commons are often built around the concept of care, many projects still tend to privilege powerful positions or individuals. The challenge therefore also lies in building more empathetic and collaborative dynamic leadership within those projects, including addressing gender inequalities. Long-term institutional support from municipalities and other public actors proves crucial for these projects' sustainability. This support means both shifting materials/assets into common ownership and promoting an ethics of sharing, but also implementing more pro-citizen, socially just approaches to urban development and the decisions involved in it.
There is a growing expectation that bottom-up and citizen-led common-based projects will challenge dominant institutions that reproduce power structures and prioritise profit-based values while not accounting for environmental and social externalities. As urban governments work more closely together in domains like renewable energy and urban economy, and as the most progressive of those governments build synergies between public and common domains, socio-ecological transformation through citizen-led and -owned initiatives becomes possible.
As SHARECITY (2015-2020) project  observes, for example, sharing is increasingly being identified as a transformative mechanism towards sustainable cities as it can help reduce consumption, conserve resources, prevent waste and provide new forms of socio-economic relations. This can pose challenges to dominant institutions and powerful interests which depend on ever-increasing production and consumption patterns, that is, of the growth of the formal economy. Research has shown that configurations of community-based initiatives such as cooperatives and commons-based projects do provide a fertile ground for productive transformations, as long as they constructively deal with the contradictions and challenges that they face, and thus allowing for more resilient strategies and structures to emerge . But research has also shown that inequality can be reproduced within micro-level interactions in sharing economies . Not all sharing initiatives are challenging socio-economic power relations, even as they do contribute to new forms of thinking and doing with regards to sharing. This reflects the tension on what type of transformations are sought, and towards what direction.
- In Colombes, Paris (France), a pilot implementation of ideas that stemmed from the R-URBAN project  and is called Agrocité , aims at initiating locally closed ecological cycles that will support the emergence of alternative models of living, producing and consuming between the urban and the rural. Since 2012, a “bottom up strategy of resilient regeneration” started including a micro-farm for collective use, a mini recycling plant and cooperative eco-housing and, currently, 400 citizens are co-managing the project following also sustainability principles of reduced water use and reducing waste.
- At transnational level, the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) is a a non-governmental co-operative federation or, more precisely, a co-operative union representing 313 co-operative federations and organisations in 109 countries (see also the Case Study Report, by TRANSIT project .
- In Finland, the Helsinki Metropolitan Area Recycling Centre  is an example of a community-based initiative that assists in the recycling and recirculation of things that people donate, offering a sustainable and affordable way of purchasing furniture, clothes and bicycles, amongst many other goods. The initiative grew from a small grass-root activity to an influential actor in the recycling and re-using business. In 2014, they recirculated over 3 million items in their five shops (see also PATHWAYS project).
- Som Energia - Green Energy Cooperative, Spain. Energy cooperative based on funding from its associates, which main activities are producing and commercializing renewable energy. Their value proposition for potential associates is defined as follows: to support a renewable energy model that is efficient and citizen-owned, to support the development of a social and solidarity-based economy, to help dismantle the current energy oligopoly, to participate in a transformative social movement, and to obtain transparent information and a people-based customer-service.
- Schor J (2016) Debating the sharing economy. Journal of Self-Governance and Management Economics 4(3). Addleton Academic Publishers: 7–22.
- Sharing Cities. Activating the Urban Commons. Available for download here: https://www.sharingcities.net/
- Sekulova, F. et al. (2017) ‘A ‘fertile soil’ for sustainability-related community initiatives: A new analytical framework’, Environment and Planning A. SAGE Publications Sage UK: London, England, 49(10), pp. 2362–2382.
- Schor, J. B. et al. (2016) ‘Paradoxes of openness and distinction in the sharing economy’, Poetics. Elsevier, 54, pp. 66–81.
- Picabea, F., Kunze, I., Bidinost, A., Phillip, A. and Becerra, L (coord.) (2015) Case Study Report: Cooperative Housing. TRANSIT: EU SSH.2013.3.2-1 Grant agreement no: 613169.Available at: http://www.transitsocialinnovation.eu/content/original/Book%20covers/Local%20PDFs/244%20TRANSIT%20Case%20Report%20-%20Co-Housing%20-%20Final.pdf