What key principles underpin a Co-city model of urban governance, and how can they be applied to promote more collaborative and inclusive approaches to urban planning and development?

Following our previous discussion which introduced the book, this session brings us to comprehend the first chapter. Entitled “Rethinking the City”, the chapter capitalizes on Polycentrism and the Quintuple Helix Approach for approaching governance issues (public, community, civic, knowledge, and private). It sets the stage for the book’s exploration of how cities can become more collaborative and inclusive in their governance structures. In response, the writers advocate for a new model of urban governance that is more participatory, bottom-up, and collaborative.

First off, the chapter outlines immersion and provides examples of the various synergies by residents of communities, emphasizing the efforts and challenges they put into co-create, co-produce, and co-share a common good or resource. This is done by the application of innovative, skillful techniques and mechanisms leading to a total transformation of the common good. The created resource is not left as a stand-alone project but then each member who contributed towards it, one way or the other feels a sense of belonging. This is where the concept of stewardship is introduced “Resident transformation of previously vacant lots into community gardens represents a form of local environmental stewardship” (pg.34). Building on the concept of environmental stewardship as provided by the Aarhus Convention, the section explains local environmental stewardship as a course of action taken by individuals, groups, or networks of actors, with various motivations, to protect, care for, or responsibly use valuable or scarce resources in pursuit of environmental and/or social outcomes. This brings to light one benefit of stewardship, that it strengthens collective capacity and resilience for urbanization.

Then, the chapter proceeds with six sections: “Who owns the city”, “The city as a Commons”, “Constructing Urban Commons”, “Urban Pooling Economies” and “Enabling a polycentric system of Urban Co-governance”.

The first one is introduced by a provocative question: “Who owns the city”? Answering is difficult, considering the numerous characters living within a city and the circumstances or occurrences of a city’s past and present. These do not make room for a definite answer but this part of the book highlights that a city is also owned by its inhabitants. A definite answer cannot be given to the above question posed due to factors such as decisions made by public authorities regarding resources, their allocation, and distribution.  Another factor is the issue of capture agglomeration benefits, security, and trust.

“The city as a Commons”, the second section, presents the opportunities for shared stewardship of cities assets by urban communities. In this case, the well-renowned theories by the scholar Elinor Ostrom are recalled as a starting point. She advanced criticism of the powerful account of the tragedy of commons given by Garett Hardin. The dominant view of the “tragedy of the commons” emphasizes that free use of open-access resources that are unregulated by private property mechanisms will result in its destruction. Ostrom opposed this saying that “the choice between central government regulation and private property rights does not capture the full range of approaches to managing or governing the commons” (pg.42). The Co-cities book builds on Ostrom’s urban commons insights and methodology, but it is more adapted to urban environments. It is based on progressive observations of the authors, Sheila Foster and Christian Iaione, on the dynamics and challenges specific to those environments. The section further gives examples of the “city as a commons” in existence such as Neighborhood commons, place-based institutions, and many more.

“Constructing Urban Commons” emanates from the concept “Comedy of the Commons” which involves granting access to resources that the community values and that increases the solidarity between urban residents. Carol Rose (1986) first brought up this concept and stated that the more people come together to do something, the merrier and better, especially in the construction of the Urban Commons. There is collective action and stewardship as people interact, communicate, and integrate. Therefore, the definition of constructing the urban commons came up and is defined as “a result from a process of bringing together a spectrum of actors that work together to co-design and co-produce shared, common goods and services at different scales from existing shared urban infrastructure”. An example of constructed urban commons is community land trusts (CLTs). These are flourishing worldwide as a vehicle to allow community control of land toward stabilizing communities vulnerable to being displaced by market forces. CLTs come with numerous benefits such as a form of stewardship for preserving to promote growth without displacing people and to keep housing and other land uses as inexpensive and accessible for future generations. It is also utilized to acquire and develop existing urban land and buildings to provide underdeveloped urban areas with affordable housing, commercial space, and green and recreational amenities, just to mention a few. Other examples of constructed urban commons include wireless mesh or broadband networks, energy microgrids, and other essential social infrastructure as well as community-created and user-managed mesh networks.

The last but one section framed as “Urban pooling economies” focuses on diverse means, strategies, and mechanisms to pool and gather resources (financial, human, knowledge) to scale initiatives across a city and improve collective control of shared urban resources. Relying solely on State funds to finance development activities has proven futile and weak in most cases due to corruption and lack of resources (pg.53). Iaione & De Nictolis 2017 delineate that “pooling economies” are a vital feature of a networked economy and of urban commons. The process is known by other scholars and writers as “solidarity economy” or “collective economy”. The concept is used to capture how new economies and assets are being collectively created in the city, that are unique from a sharing economy point of view, which too frequently relies on the commodification of shared goods. In fact, local authorities, private sector institutions, regulatory bodies, and other urban stakeholders have various roles to play. Pooling economies are usually done through the central government’s effort by reducing costs of cooperation and relevant actors to leverage their efforts to achieve high economic and social payoffs from their collective action. Other means to pool resources are through incentivization, increasing the capacity of communities and other stakeholders by the local government as well as the transfer of financing or physical resources to community land trusts, notably, to engage in co-design activities and co-governance projects.

The final section, “Enabling a Polycentric system of urban co-governance”, elucidates the concept of “polycentrism”, which is a response to the criticism of top-down or command and control public governance approaches that exercise monopolies on power and decision-making in complex resource contexts. In many instances, this top-down method of governance has been seen to be less effective and democratic since it limits the “opportunity for ordinary residents to join in local problem-solving.” (pg. 57). Therefore, polycentrism comes up where co-cities are not only more effective at addressing complex urban challenges but reveals that the idea of the state as a facilitator of pooling economies and collective resource stewardship is part of the move from a centralized system of government to a system of urban governance that redistributes decision-making power and influence away from the center and toward independent and autonomous self-organized units of resource management.  Also, a more democratic and inclusive system is viewed by involving a range of stakeholders in the decision-making process. In an ideal model of a Co-city, decision-making is shared among citizens, community groups, and local businesses. This can lead to more equitable outcomes and a stronger sense of community ownership over urban projects and allows for a more diverse range of perspectives which is essential in decision-making, leading to more innovative and effective solutions. For instance, in a study of local school districts in Chicago, the local participants in education-related polycentric governance, “devised the specific means for cooperation and the details of implementation (. . .), the state at the higher city level provided support, monitoring, and sanctioning for defection” as well as “information sharing across the several local sites” (pg. 56).

If readers grasp a hold of this and indeed get a bird’s eye view of the new City, they have re-thought and re-imagined, then the second chapter will expose them to the theories of urban co-governance.

Benedicta Quarcoo



  1. Carol Rose, 1986 (Comedy of the commons)
  2. Mansbridge 2014, (The role of the State in governing the commons)
  3. Lee Anne Fennell, 2011 (Ostrom’s Law: Property Rights in the Commons)
  4. Garett Hardin, 1968 (Tragedy of the commons)