Dr Christopher Boyko considers whether the urban fabric of cities can encourage us to share more, and in doing so, create a more resilient society…
An intrinsic component of being human is our ability to interact with other human beings. Inherent in this interaction is that we share something. It could be a smile, information, a sandwich…, whatever. Cities create opportunities for this sort of sharing at a small scale all the time, but they also allow for sharing to occur at a much larger scale; see, for example, bike-sharing schemes and sharing governance. Through their built environment, cities have spaces to share, too, whether it is buildings, such as housing or offices, or the spaces between buildings, such as gardens or roads.
Many of the more successful sharing schemes in cities are intertwined with the sharing economy, where people and organisations make money from the assets and skills they possess. However, sharing at its most basic level has little to do with money and is more about giving without any expectation of receiving something in return.
Sharing is already an intrinsic part of people’s lives. At a recent workshop we ran with community groups from Lancaster, we discovered that a lot of non-monetary sharing already happens in the town, much of it around sharing of space (e.g. libraries, allotments, co-housing). Something these groups want is greater awareness of other groups’ sharing activities so they can make connections. They identified that this requires trust between groups and having “neutral players” to facilitate the relationships – without neutrality, some groups fear that their interests could be sidelined or hijacked by other groups.
So where does that leave cities? If they are to be resilient to whatever the future holds (e.g. temperature increases, wars, famines, increasing division between rich and poor), cities will need to be carefully balanced between top-down and bottom-up sharing that contains both for-profit and non-profit endeavours. To avoid disaster in times of economic downturns, though, cities will need to emphasise bottom-up, non-profit initiatives in innovative ways so that the roots of sharing are not forgotten.
Late last year, the UK Government put out a report called, Unlocking the sharing economy: An independent review. In it, new ways of doing business, centred around innovative sharing, were tabled. If the sharing economy is to become more than just a buzzword, it will be important to understand the role that the built environment can play in making cities more resilient: landowners, investors, developers and local authority decision-makers will need to push the boundaries of how their space is used; architects and designers will have to think more creatively about how space could be designed with sharing in mind; and everyone else will have to become more involved in the process of designing and building so that sharing becomes a part of the process, as much as it is a product, of our interaction.