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.

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Germanic Cooperative Housing Resources

I’ve started to lose track of all the things I’ve been reading about housing cooperatives (mostly) in the German speaking world, so I thought I would make a little catalog of resources. Note that many of the articles and organizational websites are in German, but Google Translate is good enough!

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Ownership vs. Stewardship, Companies vs. Co-ops

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After more than two decades of growth and success, Fort Collins based New Belgium Brewing became 100% employee owned three years ago, with the employee stock ownership plan buying out the 59% of the company previously held by its founders.  Today it sounds like they might be putting themselves on the auction block. With around 500 employees, and a potential valuation of a billion dollars, it’s not too hard to understand the temptation.  That’s $2 million worth of company value per employee.

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Buy Yourself Out

Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need, to impress people we don’t like.
— Tyler Durden (Fight Club)

A slave: someone over 40 who makes more than $100,000 but still has a boss.
— Nassim Taleb

A couple of weeks ago I ran a workshop on retirement investing for some other co-op folks.  I’ve run this workshop before, but lately I’ve been thinking about it differently.  Turns out calling it “retirement” investing can be a turn-off when you’re talking to a bunch of mission driven people who are working on things they love, and think they’ll never want to “retire.” The word can have a connotation of hedonism or idleness.  The permanent worthless vacation.  Or just sitting around waiting to die.  “Early retirement” serves no purpose when the work you do is done primarily because you believe in it.  There’s also a sense with “retirement investing” that you can’t touch the money until you’re old.  Which is a long-ass time if you’re in your early twenties.

So I’ve started thinking about it as “autonomy investing” instead — becoming financially autonomous quickly, so that you can do the work you’re compelled to do. Without having to worry about whether your political activism will put your job at risk.  Without caring if your mission is compatible with the Nonprofit Industrial Complex and their funding metrics.  Without having to work a soul-sucking day job that leaves you too fried to spend your evenings and weekends on civic engagement and organizing. Or alternatively… without having to beg investors to pay your living expenses while you work on the early stages of your startup idea.

This is, essentially, the project of buying yourself out of corporate servitude.

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