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Co-Cities: Reconceiving the City, the Commons, and New Governance Theory

Co-Cities by Sheila Foster and Christian Iaione is a tour de force. They provide a rigorous

empirical analysis of more than 200 global cities, and over 500 case studies within those

metropolises, to reconceptualize “the city” for the contemporary age. (p. 24) While many

scholars theorize or hypothesize “the city,” Foster and Iaione use surveys, qualitative interviews, detailed case studies, fieldwork, and geo mapping to derive a new and informed urban governance theory. Co-Cities evidences the value of a law and society approach to urban studies.

Foster and Iaione’s open-source publishing and sharing the data on the web platform,, is equity-in-action. Co-Cities also provides a roadmap for successful

collaborative governance that can lead to distributive justice.

I highlight three unique contributions Co-Cities makes to our conception of the city, the

commons, and new governance theory. I conclude by identifying a few areas that may serve as the basis for future research. First, Co-Cities redefines “the city” as a site for constructive collaboration rather than contestation. It is “a shared common resource that is capable of being generative through the collective action of various urban actors who can construct new goods from this infrastructure to meet the social and economic needs of urban populations.” (p. 27) The co-city is not merely a descriptive moniker; it has a normative dimension—urban experimentation for sustainable and inclusive governance that more equitably distributes social and economic wealth. (p. 105) Second, Co-Cities updates commons theory for the contemporary urban context. Finally, Co-Cities articulates the necessary conditions for stakeholder participation in new governance to be redistributive, rather than exploitative.

Co-Cities applies commons theory to the contemporary city. Garrett Hardin’s commons as a source of tragedy was predicated upon a rural “pasture open to all.” (p. 42) Hypothesizing about a few homogeneous herdsmen, Hardin concluded that self-interest would always lead to the inefficient destruction of property without state enforcement of private property rights to exclude. (p. 42) His theory cemented the public ownership versus private ownership binary. Noble Prize-winner Elinor Ostrom demonstrated that “self-organized resource governance regimes” could successfully manage natural resources, and some urban commons, with limited state intervention. (p. 42) Foster and Iaione expand on Ostrom’s work with a constructed urban commons concept. Small vacant lots, neighborhood parks, or wireless networks; as well as larger urban villages, larger urban parks, or a large broadband network are commons in which multiple stakeholders can “construct new resources and services for disadvantaged populations and communities.” (p. 48) All require “some form of enabling or support from the local

government or state and, in most cases, cooperation with other urban actors and sectors.” (p. 72)

Foster and Iaione also reconceive cities themselves as shared commons. This re-framing can be a “powerful tool to fight inequality in cities” (p. 105) Co-Cities’ enabling role for the state revisits the efficacy of the shift from government to governance. (p. 107) I was an early critic of new governance theory’s account of stakeholder participation. (Alexander 2009 p. 121) New governance scholars chided top-down command and control regulation and public reform litigation originating in the New Deal. They asserted that the public-private partnerships, resulting from the deregulation, decentralization, devolution, and privatization of neoliberalism, created opportunities for marginalized stakeholders to more meaningfully participate in public reform. (Alexander 2009 p. 117) My micro-study of Chicago’s HOPE VI public housing reform experiment revealed “empowered stakeholder participation is difficult to achieve under conditions of social conflict in the absence of traditional rights-based protections.” (Alexander 2009 p. 118) I proposed a balance between “hard law” and “soft law” to ensure that marginalized stakeholders benefit from public-private collaborations. (Alexander 2009 p. 118)

Foster and Iaione successfully “heed the lessons of failed collaborative urban governance practices.” (p.105) Their concept of urban collaborative governance moves beyond limited sham participation, and “redistributes decision-making power and influence away from the center towards an engaged public” (p.107) They identify five design principles necessary for collaborations to lead to distributive justice: (1) collective governance; (2) enabling state; (3) social and economic pooling; (4) experimentalism; and (5) tech justice. Local governments are not the sole architects of this design, rather “a wide range of actors” collaborate to vindicate these principles of urban governance and successfully solve urban problems. (p. 105)

Foster and Iaione identify two types of urban co-governance regimes that address the proper roles of the state and law in contemporary collaborations. Declaratory policies or laws embrace “a bottom-up” mode of facilitation whereas constitutive policies or laws reflect a more “top-down” style of governance. Naples, Barcelona, and Amsterdam evidence the declaratory approach because they grant city inhabitants the right to self-organize to govern critical urban services and infrastructure without a “hard-law” “regulatory or policy framework to do so.” (p. 132) The policies merely recognize a preexisting right of communities to collaborate in the general interest. (p. 134) Bologna, Seoul, and Madrid demonstrate the constitutive approach because they develop more “hard law” legal entitlements, legal resolutions, and collaboration pacts to facilitate collaboration. (pp.132-149) The City of Turin blends the two approaches. (pp. 144-147)

Foster and Iaione contend neither approach will be successful unless at least five key

stakeholders (5P)—public-private-science-social-community-partnerships—are integral to the co-governing process. 5P refers to new legal and economic pooling arrangements where: (1) communities are the main partners and stewards of urban ecosystems; (2) civil society organizations and science or knowledge institutions “support and coalesce with local communities to negotiate on an equal footing with public and private actors” (p. 160), and (3) the social, science, and community actors are shareholders, rather than mere stakeholders. (p. 160) Foster and Iaione assert that this polycentric governance approach enables the most traditionally marginalized stakeholders to reach higher and more meaningful levels of citizen participation.(p. 173)

While the book is a triumph, their focus on primarily Western first world countries may skew the data to present successful collaboration in places where access to information is easier, knowledge institutions are richer, civil society is stronger, and the legal framework is more solid. (p. 236) Counterfactuals where collaborations were thwarted by social fissures along racial, ethnic, religious, gender and sexual orientation, and socio-economic lines would bolster their data. New governance theory’s primary weakness was its failure to analyze how power operates “on the ground” in the face of social conflict. (Alexander 2009 p.134) Earlycommons analysis also underemphasized heterogeneity. While Foster and Iaione do not fully repeat these mistakes, their future research should more fully explore this terrain.


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