If cities were designed for the bad old days that, mercifully, seem to mostly be on the wane, then what should they look like next? That’s certainly a topic of conversation among venture capitalists as they consider funding the burgeoning “sharing economy.”
But the San Francisco-based Sustainable Economies Law Center, along with the non-profit Shareable, want the people who make policies on behalf of cities to think about it, too. The duo has assembled a new 40-page report called “Policies for Shareable Cities: A Sharing Economy Policy Primer for Urban Leaders.” (You can grab a copy on Shareable.net, though you’ll have to hand over your email address and sign up for the Shareable newsletter. A birdie tells me that a copy will be freely available on the SELC website in about a month.)
Cities are in an ideal place when it comes to sharing. Urban life, after all, is largely predicated on the notion that good things happen when people live in close quarters — whether that’s an upswing in creativity or the shared efficiencies of everyone tapping into the same plumbing system. And it’s especially true as Americans lose faith in existing institutions. Every time a Washington Mutual fails, it starts to make the local credit union on the corner look like an intriguing option. Every food scare from China makes you more inclined to look your tomato’s grower in the eye down at the farmers’ market on Sunday.
And if humans are to be sustainable as a species, the thinking goes, we might want to start paying attention to how we can design cities that actually encourage economic sharing, rather than fight it. Shareable and SELC have spent the last four years or so trying to build a legal framework for the 21st century that provides a bit more security for such a future.
For a long time, cities had good reasons to discourage shared life. The story of modern urban zoning is one of separation. Industry was pushed to the margins because it was dirty and dangerous. It made sense to professionalize food service in the days when accountability was Upton Sinclair sneaking into the meat factory and reporting the horrors he saw in The Jungle.
But in part because we’ve learned to live cleaner, less dangerous lives, those lines are starting to blur. The economy’s collapse might have sparked the creation of the “slash” job title — one is now a farmer/event planner/photographer/home chef — but that also has to do with the fact that some of those jobs don’t require the same public health risk that once made them a thing apart.
Today, the report argues, cities have an interest in encouraging smart, safe sharing. People driving alone, to pick one example, leads to more traffic congestion and more parking spaces, among other ills. Cities once designed to keep people apart can now endeavor to nudge them together.
The report recommends, for instance, that cities require new buildings to have parking spaces specifically for cars shared by the community, as San Francisco’s new planning code does. Municipal governments can also let people lease out their own driveways as car sharing spots. Or, they could provide a boost to the “slugging” practice found in places like Washington, D.C., Houston and Seattle by creating formal safe zones from which people can informally hitch rides from one another.
While the report doesn’t delve into it much, technology makes embracing the modern melting pot easier. Where programs like Washington, D.C.’s Capital Bikeshare and New York City’s Citi Bike gain ground — and where past efforts have failed — is cheap tech. Riders can easily use cell phones to find available bikes. Cities might not love to talk about it, but inexpensive GPS units help make sure that they get their bikes back.
And as more city living can happen safely and pleasurably outside, you need less room inside. Cities are encouraged in the policy primer to roll back the minimum size of allowable housing, as San Francisco recently did by dropping its minimum floor space from 290 to 220 square feet. (The authors also recommend that “cities streamline permitting processes for clustered villages of yurts or tiny houses.”)
There is, in addition, which might be called the Airbnb principle: Cities are encouraged to allow for short-term property rentals. As a check on abuses, such micro-lessors can be capped on either the number of nights they’re allowed to rent their places out or the amount of housing costs they can cover, to “recognize that the purpose of sharing is not necessarily to profit, but, rather, to offset the cost of housing.”
Cities that are more livable for humans are also more hospitable to plants and animals. So there’s a push to allow people to grow more consumable food products within city limits. Last year, Philadelphia adopted a new zoning code that loosens restrictions on where and how urban agriculture can take place. Another idea in the report is to give tax credits for the use of even very small lots as community gardens.
It’s not a particularly new idea. The authors write that they wish to revive the idea of “Put the Slacker Lands to Work,” pushed by the National War Commission during World War I. But the goal here is to create a more complete urban food ecosystem. Tax-incentivized community garden produce can be cooked up in the kitchen incubators that the authors also want subsidized.
Shareable and SELC are aiming their report at people who make public policy for a living. That’s a deliberate choice, because not everyone who has an interest in the “sharing economy” has an interest in making it work for cities as wholes. City-based sharing is coming, though, and quickly. Google Ventures didn’t put $258 million into Uber because it believes that the future of urban transportation is the privately owned car. But the aim here is to nudge cities to think of themselves not as lab rats in these experiments, but as scientists.
Nancy Scola is a Washington, DC-based journalist whose work tends to focus on the intersections of technology, politics, and public policy. Shortly after returning from Havana she started as a tech reporter at POLITICO.