Welcome to our CO-Cities book blog, readers.
This post features a one-on-one conversation with Professor Sheila Foster, co-author of the Co-Cities book and co-director of LabGov, a scientific and applied research laboratory in multiple cities.
Let’s get started.
- What inspired you to write this book about co-cities?
Foster stated that the inspiration to write Co-cities arose from working with Professor Christian Iaione, co-director of LabGov, as they investigated the idea of the city as a “shared infrastructure” or a commons. She stated: “Working with LabGov in Bologna, seeing how they regulated and developed the city, inspired me. We then went on to host a gathering in Bologna and later in Bellagio at the Rockefeller Foundation. In Bellagio, we invited various representatives from cities across America and Europe to workshop the co-city framework. Clearly, this framework could be effectively used to motivate other cities. I then was inspired to bring it to the U.S.”
- How do you balance being a mother, a mentor, a researcher, and a writer?
When asked how she copes and balances her life being a lecturer, a mother, a researcher, a writer, a community builder, and a mentor to many, she smiled and happily responded that service is something that she enjoys doing. She also explained that she is currently involved in applying the co-city framework in Baton Rouge, Louisiana:
“As part of a co-city project in Baton Rouge in the U.S. South, I’m usually not on the ground but meet with the local actors on Zoom. We have a project manager that travels to Baton Rouge and is on the ground. I make time for travel, conferences, research, papers, articles, and writing during breaks because we do not teach all year round. As well as being a member of the New York City Mayor panel on Climate Change, I also advise and support grassroots community groups.” She stresses that the co-city model is highly practical and poses the question of how to assist vulnerable communities with becoming net-zero and making a successful transition. This framework provides a pathway towards climate neutrality, sustainability, and just transitions, as well as reducing energy costs. She says that no institution alone can make this happen, yet it is possible by implementing larger policies from higher levels of government. For example, the US’s Inflation Reduction Act means incentives are available at an individual and household level, as well as at the community, local, and state government levels. It is necessary to consider how to facilitate these funds reaching those who need them most – through solar panel installation, creative community solar projects, or networked microgrids.
- How does the co-city paradigm differ from traditional conceptions of cities (give me an example)?
Urban theorists have come up with various models and frameworks to guide cities in the desired direction. The Co-city book discusses “Creative Cities”, “Smart Cities”, and “Right to the City” approaches, among others. Foster elaborates on Richard Florida’s model wherein cities should be a hub for educated and innovative minds in the tech, knowledge, and healthcare domains; an idea that is similar to what former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said, “capital follows talent”. Urban Agglomeration is one result of people’s movement into cities as per economic theory which entails the concentration of knowledge actors learning from each other. The book also discusses the Smart City concept which sees the city as a platform for the greatest technologies meant to improve every area of city functioning. The Co-city paradigm takes it further by focusing on “The Right to the City” idea – redirecting these innovations to help disadvantaged regions/communities become empowered.
The co-city concept is also rooted more in the “right to the city” and Owen Hatherley’s “Rebel City”. These concepts have grown in popularity in Latin America and Europe. In this framework, everyone has a right to physically participate in the governance of their city—especially those who are usually left out. The difference between the two stages of the conceptualization is that the “right to the city” has been challenged in its implementation in Latin America, in particular, due to rising land prices. The co-city, on the contrary, offers responsive prototypes and tools like community land trusts, limited equity cooperatives, and wireless energy networks that can create an environment allowing residents to co-govern their neighborhoods while attending to rising land values. It is this practicality that distinguishes it from other conceptualizations.
- Can you give me some examples of co-cities in action?
Foster mentioned Baton Rouge as the second largest metropolitan area in the state of Louisiana- a racially and economically stratified city populated by blacks, Latinos, and many living in poverty. The area of the city LabGov is working in is predominantly black and poor and is an “infrastructure desert”, lacking good sidewalks, traffic lights, green space, adequate housing, and small businesses. It is filled with vacant lots. At the same time, it is near “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana, a stretch of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge with a heavy concentration of petrochemical facilities. Foster was invited into Baton Rouge to apply the co-city model to bring together, and pool resources, from a wide network of stakeholders such as local redevelopment authorities, local innovators and entrepreneurs, civic groups, private industries, foundations, both local and national, and others. “Co-City Baton Rouge” (CCBR) is focused on a 4-mile area of the city which, as described above, is in dire need of innovative approaches to urban revitalization. JPMorgan Chase Bank has provided funding to CCBR, which is part of a larger collaborative working in the area, including the local redevelopment agency, community and civic organizations, and community development financial institutions. CCBR has co-designed and is implementing prototypes that will provide goods and services—such as entrepreneurial spaces, high-speed internet, green space, and housing— tailored specifically for that community. A notable prototype is an eco-park that could address flooding issues while providing green space. It was co-designed with local authorities, residents, and a design studio at a local university. The park, using vacant lots, will provide residents with safe spaces to recreate, a place to put a new bus stop, and offers a green infrastructure to ensure climate resiliency. The eco-park will be managed and paid for by the city’s park agency but will be held by the Community Land Bank and Trust (CLBT) which Foster created for the project and which will hold properties until they are redeveloped. Eventually, the CLBT will contain a food incubator cooperative helping people from food trucks create sustainable businesses as well. A number of other projects have been launched in other parts of the world, including Hong Kong, Sao Paolo, and Costa Rica. Understanding the context is crucial if the co-city framework is to function in a city, as it isn’t a cut-and-paste operation, and what worked in one city might not work in the other due to a variety of factors including location, culture, and governance model.
- What can be done to adapt co-city models to different cultures and contexts?
In her opinion, the co-city model must be tailored to the place, the politics, and the culture of the area. The principles of the co-cities have been designed to allow actors to come together, map out resources, and prototype. Only democratic cultures and governance systems may be able to implement the co-city model, which is experimental and adaptive.
- Which lessons can be learned from successful cases or examples around the world?
In an answer to this question, Foster proposed that much can be learned from specific applications of the co-city approach. These examples require local residents, officials, and different sectors to contemplate how the approach can be rooted in a specific place and context. One of the things that Foster and LabGov researchers and practitioners are exploring now is whether the co-city approach can help promote energy democracy, energy justice, or even climate justice in places like the U.S., Sub-Saharan Africa, or Latin America. Further research needs to be conducted to determine its suitability for various cities. It will be a great advantage if some cities begin employing the co-city governance model ensuring consistency. This can act as a learning experience and enable experimental-based exploration by everyone involved.
- What elements of the Co-cities book did you think received more attention for you to win the Prose 2023 award?
Foster believes that the Co-cities book’s nomination for the 2023 Prose Award was a result of its combination of theoretical background, practical illustrations, and empirical research. She revealed that it took 550 examples from 200 cities to create their co-city survey, believing that it is a novel approach within academic literature. Another aspect contributing to its practicality was the collaborations and dialogues of various players involved. She expressed great joy with the number of positive reactions she has been receiving, highlighting how the process was a long yet affectionate endeavour.
Author: Benedicta Quarcoo