Co-cities and the enabling state

This great piece by Sheila Foster, From Vacancy to Decommodification: Co-Cities and the Enabling State, was part of a symposium on decommodifying urban property, held by the LPE Project (Law and Political Economy). In it, Foster shows how the commodification of property can be replaced by a community-oriented vision, and how homes and shared resources can be managed in land trusts, instead of as private property dealt on the speculative market.

The mothers in Los Angeles and Philadelphia were pushing for these properties to be returned to communities and taken off of the speculative market, to be held for instance by a community land trust. They were calling into question the state’s posture of allowing idle vacant and available land and structures while so many residents lacked basic goods and necessities, including housing

It’s not directly mentioned as such in the article, but this can be seen as a strong example of how much capitalism has become the de facto way of handling everything, even for public entities like states and cities. Why do cities create institutions that manage public land and buildings just like companies do? Why have cities largely forgotten that public property can be managed as a shared resource?

The occupations demonstrate the tension that often exists between members of the surrounding community, who want to be able to utilize these resources for housing, green amenities, and healthy food production (e.g., urban farms or gardens)—and the local government, which may be hoping to sell abandoned property to private developers or investors.

Foster’s forthcoming book, Co-Cities, written with Christian Iaione, identifies the emergence of state-enabling efforts to “de-commodify properties—specifically under-utilized land and structures in the public domain—by creating a stewardship relationship between these resources and marginal and underserved urban populations.”

The local policies and practices we identify, from cities around the world, support the co-production and co-governance of affordable housing, land for growing food, green or recreational space, shared entrepreneur and workspaces, and new forms of broadband connectivity and energy provision.

We’re reminded of the concept of the Public-Private Partnership, where public institutions partner on projects with public companies. Here the enabling state would instead partner with civil society, with groups of citizens.

The enabling-state principle reflects the view that the state can and should play a catalytic role in directing change by helping to form new institutional structures, transform communities, and create or shape new economies that are more just and non-extractive

As cities grow in importance because of their demographic weight and their front-line position in the climate crisis, it’s a very intriguing concept. As they (re)build capacity and reclaim their own powers and governance, cities could do so internally, but also through this vision of the enabling state.

Image: Breno Assis on Unsplash.