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From and To Natural Resources

The main strength of Foster and Iaione’s Co-Cities is its offer of governance principles and processes for cities-- recognizing the rich complexity of cities’ comedy of the commons and preventing any tragedy of the anticommons. The book builds on the late Elinor Ostrom’s commons scholarship, both her earlier work on how homogeneous groups manage some common pool resource in a way that allows for individual usage without falling into a tragedy of the commons and her later observations on units ranging from police departments in metropolitan areas to groundwater management districts. Co-Cities makes clear that there are differences between the natural resources Ostrom’s scholarship looks at, like irrigation organizations in Southeast Spain, and the complexity of cities like New York or Rome present today.

The book takes Ostrom’s torch and moves it forward by adapting it to “the reality of urban environments that are often crowded, congested, socially diverse, economically complex, and heavily regulated.” (p.62) As the authors point out, many of Ostrom’s examples are in homogeneous communities who share social values and norms, with a small-scale resource from which the users subtract, and who operate in a nested government system. The urban commons, in contrast, is developed from urban infrastructure in very proprietary environments with heterogenous communities. The Co-Cities framework is selling itself short though: it fails to realize that current natural resources management needs are far from the particular cases analyzed by Ostrom and that the principles developed in Chapter 5 for cities could be transplantable back from concrete and urban parks to water basins or other natural resources management situations. The following scenarios seem particularly apt for the co-cities framework:

· Heterogeneity: The users of natural resources in many regions are far from being homogeneous. Water users may not just be small farmers belonging to the same community. Now family farms cohabit with agribusinesses, power plants, and suburban residents. The complexity is far from ending in that heterogeneity though. Water right holders, water users, and residents are not completely overlapping categories. For example, the interests of seasonal workers may not be easily captured by current water management. Agricultural workers protested the water transportation restrictions imposed to comply with the endangered species protections in California that reduced deliveries to the Central Valley. Similarly, indigenous groups understand natural resources as sacred and possess local knowledge about them. Natural resources, like cities, embody the tension between public property and private use rights and the market and the commons. The role that communities must have in resource management is still evolving. Several experiments suggest that mere participation runs short of achieving better management of the resource and capture of the multiplicity of goals targeted by water management. Recently, financial investors have purchased water rights in many basins in the West of the United States. Local communities have perceived this investment negatively and the question of whether the community should be able to exercise some right over resources even in the absence of a property right remains open. Co-governance (principle 1) is the way forward.

· Different scales and economies of scope: Several resources suffer from a problem of mismatch scales where the natural or scientific unit for management does not map the political divisions over it. A very clear example is a basin shared by multiple states. As a result, those political units need to reach an agreement. However, this misses that there may also be other units involved. Farmers in the area may not be divided by the border between two states but belong to a single community. Several irrigation organizations may be involved. Managing the basin requires the engagement of very different groups and governmental units with geographies that do not fully overlap. The shared, collaborative, and polycentric governance captured by “Principle 1: Co-Governance” could be implemented in this scenario. There is burgeoning literature on adaptive governance in a myriad of natural resources, and co-governance ideas can certainly complement it. As in a city, where the management of an urban park, a Business Improvement District, community-run previously vacant properties, and a digital access initiative overlap, natural resources must be managed together for a best result. We often note the concept of economies of scale, but ignore the concept of economies of scope. Economies of scope captures the idea that the co-production of several goods is more efficient than the production of those separately. However, those resources may not respond to the same scale or answer to the same communities. This concept is captured by the Integrated Water Resources Management Framework (IWRM), where water quality and quantity are managed together. This requires some degree of control over other resources, such as land, often not under the purview of the water management authority. For example, municipal authorities may be the ones deciding zoning, and public utilities may be the ones deciding on water systems privatization. One definition of IWRM from the United Nations Environment Programme is “a process which promotes the coordinated development and management of water, land and related resources, in order to maximize the resultant economic and social welfare in an equitable manner without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems.” Some successful examples of water management include collaboration between different levels of government, the community, and experts. The Lower Arkansas River was successful in enacting regulations on the water users’ rights in part because the users were involved and because models were built in collaboration with academic experts. Other examples build on bottom-up management initiatives. Co-Cities’ principles 2 and 3 referring to the state enabling these management frameworks and the pooling of resources and knowledge from different social institutions, certainly could illuminate these natural resources discussions.

· Experimentalism: Finally, natural resources management has exhibited a certain degree of experimentalism and adaptability that can benefit of the idea of “labs.”(These concepts are embodied in principle 4 “urban experimentalism” of the book). For a concrete example, take California’s groundwater. California struggled for decades to pass any groundwater regulation. In the dire scarcity crisis of 2010s, California’s legislature passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. To many it looked like a “kick the can down the road” moment because the Act was not substantively prescriptive. Instead, it opted for a system where new management authorities would be created between the different authorities and communities sharing an aquifer, and that new authority would approve a management plan for sustainable management. Embedded in this model is the idea that groundwater basin authorities can learn from others. One common challenge has been how to improve participation. The sustainable groundwater management agencies’ boards are dominated by agricultural groups and are not inclusive enough of disadvantaged communities. Some residents have barriers to participate because of time of meetings, location, technical language, etc. Many of the urban examples discussed in the book can serve as good models for these boards and beyond.

Cities are complex ecosystems. Foster and Iaione illustrate their complexity and propose a framework to enable just and self-sustaining communities. They build on Elinor Ostrom’s work analyzing the management of the natural resources commons by local groups in a nested governance system. Not only do they gain insights from Ostrom’s framework, but Foster and Iaione’s Co-Cities offers insights for current management of complex natural resources systems.


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