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Does Urban Co-Governance Change the Urban Co-Governors?

In their new book Co-Cities, Sheila Foster and Christian Iaione offer a compelling, sophisticated, and empirically grounded vision of the transformation that can flow when eclectic stakeholders work together to create and steward urban resources as a “commons.” Surveying a wide array of theoretical debates and drawing on years of thoughtful real-world experimentation, Foster and Iaione’s co-city framework forcefully moves the discourse on urban space—and urban governance more generally—beyond stale public/private, market/state dichotomies.

As I read the book, a thread looming in the background kept tugging at me, or rather I kept hoping Foster and Iaione would have tugged on it a bit more. for reasons I’ll explain. That thread involves what Foster and Iaione can tell us not only about the theory of the commons and the important regulatory structures necessary to foster the models they document, but also what the experience of co-governance has actually meant for the ordinary people drawn into its collaborative model. They tantalizingly note that through commons-based approaches, “engaged citizens become problem solvers and resource managers, able to cooperate and make strategic decisions about common assets with other urban stakeholders.” [p.149]

Implicit—and at times quite explicit—in the discourse on cities has long been a similar set of assumptions about the transformative potential of local governance for the ordinary people drawn into its participatory process. One can trace a version of this idea all the way back to the Aristotelian conception of the essential role of the polis in cultivating virtue and the good life (however broad a swath of a city’s residents—women, slaves, and others—Aristotle would have excluded from his understanding of the space for collective local politics). More pragmatically, Alexis de Tocqueville, in his account of the early nineteenth-century New England town meeting in Democracy in America famously described local governance as a schoolhouse for democracy, partially in the sense that the experience of working together on local problems tends to make people more public minded. As he argued, “[a]t first it is of necessity that men attend to the public interest, afterward by choice. What had been calculation becomes instinct. By dint of working for the good of his fellow citizens, he in the end acquires a habit and taste for serving them.” And building on Iris Marion Young’s moral argument for urban life as a space for difference, Jerry Frug (as Foster and Iaione mention) likewise laid out a strong normative vision of how the city could bring diverse people together in ways that were individually transformative. As Frug argued in City Making, empowered local governance “can become a vehicle for facilitating the ability of different kinds of people—of strangers who share only the fact that they live in the same geographic area—to learn to live with, even to collaborate with, each other.”

This history of looking to shared local governance as a (perhaps idealized?) space for individual transformation came to mind in the glimpses that Foster and Iaione’s allude to of ordinary people at the center of their experiments. As Foster and Iaione note, many of the paradigmatic cases that Elinor Ostrom examined, as she argued for an alternative to private property and regulation as solutions to common-pool resources, involved communities that were already bound together in some way, where norms were understood and could be implicitly enforced. Cities rarely offer those shared ties, hence the importance of the formal governance structures—the compacts and the like—that Foster and Iaione highlight.

I was left, then, with the question whether the experience of developing, engaging, and then managing shared urban resources in the co-city changes the people learning to “common” together, and how? Taking the blogger’s prerogative, I want to offer a gentle plea to these brilliant collaborators to tell us more about what being involved in the experiments they document has meant for the ordinary people that have been empowered through them. As this important work continues, conceptually and as a set of living experiments around the world, I want to encourage Foster and Iaione to lift up more explicitly the voices the people involved on the ground, working on community gardens and transforming abandoned buildings and all of the other remarkably generative innovation flowering in the urban commons. Has the experience changed them? Left them more engaged with their cities and their neighbors, despite their differences? Or has it left them exhausted from the obligation to care for some shared urban resource, on top of the myriad challenges they no doubt face in the ordinary hustle and bustle, jostling and navigation of any city life? Or something else entirely?

A blog post that is mainly a plea for more attests, I hope, to the richness of what Foster and Iaione have brought us in Co-Cities. I’m sure the last thing they want to hear is “so, when is the sequel coming out?,” but here’s hoping…

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