Opinion

opinion | Duncan McLaren and Julian Agyeman

How to build smart, sharing cities

Pep Montserrat for The Boston Globe

With soaring house prices, scarce affordable rents, and increasing income inequality, modern cities like Boston aren’t working well for everyone. The city isn’t doing a good job of sharing urban spaces, resources, and infrastructures. Traditional old-fashioned face-to-face forms of sharing with friends and neighbors have declined as stable local communities and social capital have eroded. Yet cities are where sharing should be easiest: densely populated and highly networked places where demographic, economic, and cultural forces are bringing people together in ever-growing numbers.

Although novel forms of sharing facilitated by online platforms are booming, they can bring new problems. “Sharing” is often too narrowly conceived as being just about economic transactions. The poster children of the “sharing economy” are being co-opted by the interests of venture capital and its insatiable demands for rapid growth and high-value exit strategies. For example, Taskrabbit, founded to make it easier for neighbors to help each other out with errands and chores, is becoming a glorified temping agency, leaving its participants in the same precarious boat as those on zero-hour contracts. Uber, rather than enabling ride-sharing to cut congestion, is now little more than a luxury taxi company serving the global footloose elite. Lending Club has refocused on venture loans for entrepreneurs rather than providing peer-to-peer loans for those otherwise excluded or at risk of predatory money sharks. And Airbnb, the couch-surfing website, turns a blind eye to the growing use of its platform by landlords buying up affordable rental property to convert to short-term lets, which is contributing to gentrification and housing shortages.

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There are better ways of using modern technologies to create more just, inclusive, and environmentally efficient economies and societies. Humans are natural sharers, but commercialization of the public realm, and rapid, destabilizing economic and technological changes have dissolved trust as we spend more time working and hide from our neighbors behind our digital security locks.

Yet there are new opportunities for collaboration, sharing, and trust-building at the intersection of urban space and cyberspace. Sharing organizations that put community before commerce, and culture before economics, are flourishing in the shadows of the sharing-economy unicorns. Kiva City provides interest-free loans to local social businesses. Founded in Cambridge, Workbar provides coworking spaces. Shared public Bus Rapid Transit systems are transforming cities like Medellín, Colombia, by providing previously marginalized communities with access to jobs and facilities, and could, if BostonBRT had its way, do the same here. Where communally rather than economically inspired sharing gets help from city administrations, it is transforming norms and cultures.

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Unconstrained commercial models threaten to force workers into casual contracts, privatize public services, and drive up rents, deepening social and spatial inequalities and injustice. Some of these models should be rejected: It’s no coincidence that the world’s first “Sharing City” — Seoul, South Korea — has banned Uber. Others just need a firm hand: Amsterdam limits Airbnb rentals to 60 days per year to protect the rental stock, while enabling homeowners and tenants to use the platform to help offset high housing costs.

More generally, city leaders need to support communal models of sharing that build solidarity and spread trust. Sharing systems designed around equity and justice can help shift cultural values and norms toward trust and collaboration. In turn, increased trust means more public support for social investment in sharing infrastructures, public goods, and the public realm; strengthens civil society; and enables collective political endeavour. As long as civil liberties are properly protected, the same measures that enable sharing online also enable collective politics online and create new venues for healthy debate.

Innovative cities could build hubs for communal sharing — both on- and off-line — and reclaim the urban commons of public spaces and facilities for the citizens. They could make “sharing the whole city” their guiding purpose, harnessing digital technology to a genuinely smart agenda of sharing and solidarity.

Duncan McLaren is an independent researcher and consultant. Julian Agyeman is professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University. Their book “Sharing Cities: A Case for Truly Smart and Sustainable Cities’’ has just been published.
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