We Need Better Models of Urban Success

After working on issues of urban development and cooperative housing for close to a decade in Boulder, I’ve gotten the sense that the organizational tools and public polices we are familiar with in the US are not up to the task of creating equitable, accessible, evolving, sustainable cities.  We don’t seem to have any model for what urban success is supposed to look like. Either that, or our model of success is horribly inequitable and exclusive, and we’re okay with that. By default, the financing, land use, transportation, and property rights policy regimes in the US turn any successful city into a socioeconomic sorting machine — poorer residents are expelled, as land prices are bid up and the city is socially and potentially physically transformed.

There have to be other, better ways for cities to succeed — for change to happen, and new residents to be accommodated without this kind of exclusion and erasure. But much of the urban development and housing discussion in the US seems to center on giving less wealthy residents the same powers of exclusion enjoyed by richer property owners. This might be more equitable, but it’s still a bad model of urban success. Cities are powerful economic engines, and also perhaps the best available platform and scale we have for creating an ecologically sustainable civilization. We need to allow more people into our thriving cities, and somehow use this demand to facilitate their transformation into places where a high quality of life can be had — by anyone — with very low energy and material resource requirements, without destroying the social and community structures that already exist.

Some of my (numerous) detractors found it ironic that I would come to even-more-expensive-Zürich while decrying the high cost of housing in Boulder. The problems of Boulder and Zürich (and the San Francisco Bay Area… among many others) are the problems we ought to want to have. They’re what happens when things go well! Without a vision for how to deal with these issues in an equitable, sustainable, and scalable way, we can’t have a positive vision of the future. So, I’m here because I want to understand other more constructive ways of responding to urban success. How can we best go about sharing our thriving cities?

I’m particularly interested in solutions that exist outside of, or alongside, the top-down state and speculative market frameworks — models of the city that are dynamic, distributed and autonomous, without catering specifically to wealth. These include cooperatives, land trusts, foundation-based ownership systems, house holding unions, and the public policies that enable them to thrive. The German speaking world seems to be filled with interesting examples at a variety of scales, and in many different kinds of urban contexts — depopulated post-industrial cities as well as booming modern metropoli. It’s not as if everything is figured out here — but there are people trying lots of different approaches, that I think we can learn from. That’s why I’m in Switzerland. Well… that and also the fact that I was fortunate enough to be able to arrange a couple of months of house sitting with some friends just outside of Zürich.

In 2016 UNESCO designated German cooperative ideals as an intangible cultural heritage treasure. Much moreso than the US, cooperatives (known as genossenschaften here) are a completely normal, everyday part of the economy. Some of them are small leftist citizens organizations, but they also encompass national networks of affordable housing providers, or grocery store chains and other retailers. Most distributed renewable energy facilities in Germany are also organized as cooperative entities.

This predilection to cooperative organizing seems to exist in German speaking Switzerland and Austria as well. In Zürich, 80% of all non-profit housing (and fully 20% of all housing) is organized as limited equity cooperatives. The city has voted to require 1/3 of all housing be non-profit by 2050, and the majority of this goal will likely be met by cooperatives.

So, how does it work? Why does it work? Are there policies that we could replicate in the US? How much of this success is because of different cultural norms, and how hard would it be to adapt those as well? What problems does the Germanic cooperative housing system have, or create? What are its limitations? I’m looking forward to learning more, and maybe even spending some time living in a cooperative community here next spring.

In the meantime, if you want to read along with me, keep an eye on my Twitter, and check out this list of resources I’m compiling.

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