Sharing Strikes Back: A New Era of Urban Commoning

By Duncan Mclaren And Julian Agyeman

In this article, the authors offer three visions of modern sharing beyond that of the “sharing economy”: as a challenge to consumerism, as a revival of the ethos of the public sector, and as an inspiration for a collective and progressive politics.


Soaring house prices, scarce affordable rental opportunities, increasing income inequality: modern cities aren’t working well for many. Most cities are doing a poor job of sharing their collective resources in anything like an equitable and just manner. As urban populations continue to boom across the world, and resource scarcity and changing climates bite, the success of cities in sharing resources, energy and land is the critical challenge of the coming century.

In this article we outline the case set out in our book Sharing Cities, that cities must be proactive in harnessing dramatic shifts in the nature of contemporary sharing as a means to rebuild civic culture, progressive politics and a shared urban commons. In short, we see the coming together of three visions of sharing: as a challenge to consumerism, as a revival of the ethos of the public sector, and as an inspiration for a collective and progressive politics. We first describe how sharing is changing in the 21st Century – becoming more commercial, and intermediated. We then explain how that is impacting on values and norms of consumerism, individualism and intercultural interaction; and suggest how cities could exploit changing values and novel sharing technologies to enhance sustainability, resilience and justice.


The Changing Nature of Sharing

Cities have long been both shared spaces, and places where communities share everything from homes to skills. Cities have been built around shared services and infrastructure from transit to schools, and from sewerage to libraries. Close-knit social and ethnic communities have maintained sharing traditions such as mutual self-help, cooperative buying, informal social and child-care, credit unions, and sharing of tools and local facilities.

But in this age of neo-liberal capitalism and austerity, all these forms of sharing are under pressure. Public services and even infrastructures are cut-back and privatised. Communities have been fragmented by unemployment, job insecurity, fears of crime, gentrification and more, to the extent that neighbours scarcely know each other, never mind trusting one another. Traditional old-fashioned face-to-face forms of sharing with friends and neighbours have declined as stable local communities and social capital has been 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. And indeed, sharing hasn’t disappeared in cities, but it is transforming in line with these pressures, becoming commercial, rather than communal; and rather than reflecting traditional socio-cultural practices, being increasingly enabled by formal intermediaries (a move from top right to bottom left on figure 1 (see figure 1 above)). The so-called “sharing economy” fronted by platforms such as Uber and Airbnb is leading this shift, enabled by the spread of the mobile internet, with on-line location, identity and payment facilities widely available.

Critics of the sharing economy point to the ways in which it is enabling precarity, gentrification, and the commodification of ever more of our lives, turning us all into 24/7 micro-entrepreneurs. And indeed, sharing is often too narrowly treated 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. Taskrabbit, started to make it easier for neighbours to help each other out with errands and chores, is becoming a glorified temping agency. Lending Club has refocused on venture loans for entrepreneurs, rather than providing peer-to-peer loans for those at risk of predatory money-sharks. And Airbnb, the former couchsurfing website, overlooks the growing use of its platform by landlords buying up property for the purpose, and thus enabling gentrification and displacement.

Yet the sharing economy – even in the limited form represented by these commercial giants – is also challenging the ways we construct our identities and shifting cultural values.


Sharing New Values

It might seem that many sharing economy models and platforms actively reinforce consumer norms and brand identities. Rent the Runway, for example, which provides temporary access to top-label fashion brands, would appear to play to our basest instincts in “keeping up with the Joneses” And other platforms that allow us to borrow big-ticket consumer items that we could never afford to own – such as boat-sharing sites like Cruzin – surely fuel consumerist desires. Such sites are manna for brand conscious individuals, allowing them to borrow these fashionable accessories and valued brand identities.

Sharing products like boats, cars, or fashionable clothes and accessories widens choice and allows those on lower incomes to more rapidly change image and apparent status compared with ownership. In a “postmod-ern” society, such a model, allowing us to change image and identity swiftly to keep up with the rate of change in contemporary life, can be good for our psychological sense of self.

Yet commercial sharing that relies on the power of brands is ultimately self-defeating: as the sharing model becomes more popular and well-known, the cachet attached to previously exclusive expensive labels is inevitably diluted. If everyone is wearing Dior and Armani, driving a Ferrari and staying in fashionable apartments, at least occasionally, then these brands and activities no longer signify exclusivity (or even individuality), forcing us to turn to other means of self-expression rather than consumerism.

Sharing thus demands that we displace reliance on consumption and possessions to shape our identities. It shifts norms and values, especially where sharing itself is more communal. From libraries to street carnivals, and from fab-labs to cooperatives, sharing offers new models and norms for living – which resonate with our evolved nature as collaborative social animals. For example, toy libraries not only cut waste, enhance social inclusion, help parents share values such as sustainability and frugality, and expose children to sharing norms; they also allow children to experiment with and challenge cultural identities – especially those attached to gendered toys.1

Critics of the sharing economy point to the ways in which it is enabling precarity, gentrification, and the commodification of ever more of our lives, turning us all into 24/7 micro-entrepreneurs.

Because sharing relies so heavily on inter-personal contact, more sharing – even if commercially intermediated – can help resist the decline in public trust and social capital, and renew values of community and collaboration. And where sharing is facilitated with new web technologies it is also much more cosmopolitan and intercultural than traditional sharing practices. On platforms like Airbnb, Freecycle – which finds willing recipients for otherwise unwanted things, keeping them out of landfills – and even Streetclub – which shares tools in local communities – we share with strangers, whose reputations are established using the technology, rather than only sharing with people we already know and trust. Contemporary sharing communities are building spaces which recognise and respect the rich diversity of cultures in modern cities, and enable and encourage contact between those cultures. Even though typical social problems of the commercial realm appear in the sharing economy too – evidence for example that black hosts in New York earn less for similar apartments shared on Airbnb than whites2 – with sound regulation the sharing economy offers great potential to increase intercultural contact.

Sharing approaches also rebuff the hyper-individualism of modern society, instead they encourage us to locate our identities in the communities with whom we share (whether Freecyclers or Couchsurfers), and in relationships, rather than in possessions; while the good or service becomes merely a utility or commodity.

Civic sharing – from public transport to participatory budgeting – similarly promises to restructure the ways we construct and communicate identity. Civic sharing offers the potential to reattach identity to the places we live, and, also to build community solidarity and reinvigorate ideas of citizenship. Supporting sharing with a range of civic, charitable and communal intermediaries, as well as commercial ones allows cities to benefit from a shift of identity from consumerism to citizenship, reinvigorating civic politics; a shift from individualism to community, rebuilding solidarity; and a shift from communitarian to cosmopolitan or intercultural values, enabling the city to take the opportunities that come with diversity. Of course, this means sharing power too, through tools such as participatory planning and budgeting. To deliver this, cities must rediscover their role as service providers and managers of shared services and infrastructures, but also engage citizens as commoners in the governance and management of such services and infrastructures. And they need to go further in actively engaging with contemporary opportunities in virtual commons, peer-to-peer communities and online sharing platforms, as cities like Seoul and Amsterdam are trying to do.


Sharing Practices

As Europe’s first “Sharing City”, Amsterdam has provided fertile ground for sharing initiatives like Konnektid, a skill-sharing platform which facilitates users forming groups around shared interests, Peerby, a platform enabling sharing of virtually any item or service; and Repair Cafés which bring together people with repair skills and those in need of help. Seoul, the world’s first “Sharing City” has a long-standing, city-funded project which aims to make sharing activities accessible to all citizens by expanding physical and digital sharing infrastructure, incubating and supporting sharing economy startups, and putting idle public resources to better use. Seoul’s efforts to enable locally based sharing platforms have helped the emergence of initiatives like Kozaza (a couchsurfing platform) and Zipbob (a mealsharing intermediary).

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.

Such new opportunities for collaboration, sharing and trust-building are arising at the intersection of urban space and cyberspace all around the world. Sharing organisations 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. Freecycle diverts thousands of tons of functional but unwanted things from landfills. Workbar provides co-working spaces. Often the most transformative forms of sharing we found in our research originated not in entrepreneurial ambition or city plans, but in the hidden niches and bubbles of counter-culture. Like music, video and file-sharing, activities such as co-housing, squatting, skipping (or dumpster-diving), edible parks and forests, Repair Cafés, time-banks and alternative currencies all started with small groups of activists pushing against cultural norms and expectations, and building their identities in those struggles. Such grassroots innovation has spread new values and anti-consumerist identities and behaviours through much wider populations – not least in the shifting norms that many people already apply to digital media, and are impacting on any business whose products face rapidly declining marginal costs. Not only activists, but also consumers are beginning to expect much cheaper and easier access to and control over domestic and community micro-generation of energy, 3-D printers and other fab-lab accessories, online education and more.3  

Sharing cities need to facilitate such counter-cultural, grassroots innovation. It’s simply not enough to build “creative hubs” and “technology innovation parks” that end up sterile and over-priced. It’s no coincidence that historic creative cities have had run-down artistic districts, often with a preponderance of squats, and other low-cost accommodation. Moreover, it’s in such spaces that sharing can also enable effective counter-cultural responses to the weaknesses of modern democracy in the face of commercial capture.


Sharing Politics

Political movements such as Spain’s Las Indignadas, France’s Nuit Debout, and Occupy – are not typically understood as sharing activities. Yet in so many ways they are: they draw heavily on peer-to-peer and anarchist organisational methods; they use the same online technologies and virtual spaces as sharing platforms; they actively share physical public spaces, resources and skills amongst participants; and they have generated and supported cooperative and collective responses to political and economic crisis in many countries, including community hospitals in Greece, and integrated cooperatives in Spain. Despite being rooted in the same failures of economic inclusion as right-wing populist movements such as those driving Brexit and Trump, these “anti-political” movements are also strongly intercultural, welcoming immigrants and refugees and the cultural differences, experiences and opportunities they bring.

In the coming together of sharing as a challenge to consumerism, sharing as a revival of the ethos of the public sector, and sharing as an inspiration of collective and progressive politics, there is an emerging cultural transformation led by such counter-cultural movements. Of course commercial interests will seek to redirect and coopt these movements, but the opportunities for a new politics of commoning at the city scale is real and spreading, with examples as diverse as Seoul, Barcelona, Bologna and a host of Latin American cities, where the discourse is different, but the practical interventions are much the same. In   Medellín for example, shared public Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems are providing previously marginalised communities with access to jobs and facilities. Curitiba is pedestrianising streets and promoting children’s art workshops in the street to create a more walkable and shareable city. In Belo Horizonte, local city food systems ensure access to shared provision and lower prices on a range of essential foods for those on benefits. In Porto Alegre, participatory budgeting, popular deliberation and decision-making guide the allocation of funding for city projects. And in Bogota, graffiti is given priority over advertising, enlivening city spaces and reclaiming the urban commons
from advertising.

Often the most transformative forms of sharing we found in our research originated not in entrepreneurial ambition or city plans, but in the hidden niches and bubbles of counter-culture.

Sharing cities need all these approaches, and they need both careful regulation of the “sharing-economy” and direct support and facilitation of communal, civic and charitable sharing activities. Unconstrained commercial models threaten to force workers into casual contracts, privatise public services, and drive up rents, deepening social and spatial inequalities and injustice. Some of them should be rejected: it’s no coincidence that Seoul has banned Uber. Others just need a firm hand: Amsterdam limits Airbnb rentals to 60 days per year to protect the long-term rental stock, while enabling home-owners and tenants to use the platform to help offset high housing costs. More generally, sharing practices need well designed co-produced regulation,4 for instance, using tax system to allow a sensible level of tax-free earnings from sharing; or as Blablacar does in ridesharing, allowing expenses but not payment, ensuring that ridesharing does not generate new polluting journeys.

More generally, city leaders need to support and emphasise 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.


Featured image courtesy of: Natalie Ortiz | flickr


About the Author

urlDuncan McLaren (@mclaren_erc) is an independent researcher and consultant.



img_2220-1024x683Julian Agyeman (@JulianAgyeman) is Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University. Their book Sharing Cities: A Case for Truly Smart and Sustainable Cities is published by MIT Press.



1. Lucie Ozanne and Paul Ballantine, 2010. Sharing as a form of anti-consumption? An examination of toy library users. Journal of Consumer Behaviour 9(6)
2. Benjamin Edelman and Michael Luca, 2014. Digital discrimination: the case of Harvard Business School NOM Unit Working Paper 14-054.
3. Jeremy Rifkin, 2014. The Zero Marginal Cost Society. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
4. Arun Sundararajan, 2016. The Sharing Economy. Cambridge MA: MIT Press


The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.