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Co-Cities: A Journey Through Urban Time and Space

As an academic, one reads a fair amount of texts. Very few of them give you sheer pleasure throughout the process of reading, while at the same time causing you to rethink and reimagine themes and concepts that you have been otherwise engaged with for years. Co-Cities by Sheila Foster and Christian Iaione is one of these rare gems. Sheila and Christian, two dear friends and colleagues, brilliant scholars, and truly engaged citizens of cities and the world, have written an incredible book that offers a new vision, alongside practical design tools, for cities all across the globe. Beyond providing all of us - the global community of academics, policy makers, and civic groups dealing with urban governance - with a new theoretical, conceptual, and practical toolkit, reading Co-Cities means so much more. It took me on a personal journey through urban time and space, from the early days of my own academic career to my current civic life (more on this below).

The co-city is a new urban governance model, one that “imagines the city as an infrastructure in which a variety of urban actors cooperate and collaborate to govern and steward built, environmental, cultural, and digital goods” (p. 191). It is embedded in the idea of “polycentric governance, which allows for the co-production and co-governance of a variety of shared resources in multiple but mutually supportive institutional arrangements throughout a city” (id).

To substantiate this innovative framework, Foster and Iaione lay out the current landscape of collectively shared and collaboratively stewarded urban resources, by mapping over 200 cities around the world and over 500 case studies within them - and constructing a first-of-its-kind data set, published on the web platform, and summarized in the appendix to Co-Cities. They divide these cases into two broad categories. Declaratory policies or laws - such as those in action in Naples, Barcelona, and Amsterdam - validate existing bottom-up initiatives, by recognizing “the emergence of urban communities willing to self-organize in order to utilize and manage city assets and infrastructure to produce common goods and services, instead of providing them first with a regulatory or policy framework to do so” (p. 132). Constitutive policies or laws offer a more top-down approach, by which city policies “embrace a regulatory tool - collaboration pacts or their equivalents - as a vehicle for collective action by local citizens to engage in shared use and management of urban resources” (p. 111). This approach is exemplified by the groundbreaking 2014 regulation promulgated by the city of Bologna (pp. 115-126). Between these two models, some cities offer a blended approach, such as the Co-City Turin project (pp. 144-147).

In Chapter 5, moving beyond the evaluation of current case studies, Foster and Iaione identify five key principles that should guide the future trajectory of co-cities: (1) collective governance; (2) enabling state; (3) social and economic pooling; (4) experimentalism; and (5) tech justice. It is here that the normative and policy-oriented ingenuity of Co-Cities unveils its full potential. Effective governance of physical and digital assets need not be at odds with the need to ensure socioeconomic justice and to serve underprivileged residents. Co-cities can and should aim at an efficient provision and maintenance of urban resources, while empowering various groups of city residents, including minorities and vulnerable communities. Such an empowerment - alongside the pooling together of human capital, social capital, and financial capital, as well as individual and collective accountability - is a two-way street. It serves everybody in pursuing the urban common good: individuals, communities, knowledge institutions, corporations, and government itself.

But co-cities go even beyond that. Their vision is not only about the co-governance of physical and digital assets in the urban space, but it is also about the promotion of shared values in otherwise heterogenous societies: an open dialogue, mutual respect, tolerance, pluralism, and democracy. And it is exactly along those lines that Co-Cities took me on a personal journey through urban time and space. In the fall of 2000, I was in the early stages of writing my doctoral dissertation at Yale Law School, and I was doing field work on informal property regimes that emerge in government owned resources. I remember sitting on a bench at a small playground located in McCarren Park in Brooklyn with Susie Monagan, the founder of an informal Park Moms group. Susie was motivated into action when her eldest child demanded playing space outside their rented apartment. At the time, the playground was badly neglected. Together with two neighbors she had met at the local maternity center, Susie started to establish an informal network of neighbors, most of them young parents who lacked sufficient home playing space. The group later moved to collaborate with the Parks Council, a non-profit advocacy group, in order to receive donations and grants using the Council’s nonprofit status, and with other groups involved with McCarren Park.

A few weeks later, at Prospect Park in Brooklyn, I attended the meeting of ComCom (the Community Committee) - a body formed by the Prospect Park Alliance, a public-private partnership that manages the park. ComCom brings together representatives of a few dozen groups of park users - from runners to dog owners - to share knowledge and advise the Alliance. Before the meeting, I approached the chair of the meeting and introduced myself. A few minutes later, when the chair started the order of the day, he pointed at me with a smile and told the attendees: “You see this young man over there? He is writing his doctorate about urban parks, and he is going to make us famous.” I really don’t think that they needed me. This incredible group of civic minded urbanites was already doing very well, and it became a key partner in the success of Prospect Park.

Fast forward to 2023. My country is currently in the midst of an unprecedented constitutional crisis. Together with hundreds of thousands of fellow citizens, we have been flocking to the streets week after week, and I have seen my home city of Tel Aviv, as well as other cities across the country, joining hands with us in the struggle to protect our liberal democracy. A few days ago, I received in my (physical) mailbox a booklet by the Tel Aviv Municipality, which portrays the state of the city and its vision for the future. I thought it might be appropriate to conclude this tribute to Sheila and Christian by adding here the booklet’s last page and translating it to English:

Democracy, Pluralism, Equality, and Freedom of Speech

The Values of Tel-Aviv-Yafo Constitute a Comprehensive City Policy

Pluralism, democracy, equality, and freedom of speech are at the basis of the values of Tel-Aviv- Yafo, alongside the belief that a city’s strength is measured by a reciprocal guarantee among all of its residents. Tel-Aviv-Yafo is not only a business and economic hub, and a capital of culture and entertainment - it is a city that serves as a moral beacon in the State of Israel.

We insist on preserving jealously the values of democracy and equality, pluralism and tolerance, the rule of law and active civic participation. These values are not an empty gesture, but a way of life - which ensures the existence of a free discourse, the exchange of ideas, freedom of expression, and creativity, a co-existence of all forms of life, all opinions, all identities, and all religions. The municipality and the city run themselves by responsible leadership and social responsibility, by rational thought, science, and research, by entrepreneurship and innovation.

Tel-Aviv-Yafo is a kind of miracle - a city where under one roof all ends and opposites live together - and surprisingly enough, everybody lives together peacefully. This city is a city for everyone thanks to its open-minded and hugging nature, its spirit, its values, and its paths. Diversity - and not uniformity - allows everyone to live in it together. Our city is home to every person and every minority, and at the same time, it is a global city in conversation with the world.

Photo caption: A copy of the Scroll of Independence hung on the wall of City Hall. Photo credit: Ilan Sapira.


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