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for people who care about the West

The shareable city: building a better legal foundation for urban sustainability

A conversation with a sharing economy guru.

 

After exiting the elevator on the fourth floor of downtown Berkeley's David Brower Center, I double-checked my notebook. My destination was a local nonprofit, but I seemed to have wandered mistakenly into the airy interior of a hip new East Bay café.

Small groups of smartly dressed young people ringed compact tables, pecking at laptops or chatting over coffee and tea on this November day. This place – called "The Hub" – doubles as an office for The Sustainable Economies Law Center, which conducts research and advocates for new laws promoting sustainability and resilience. It's also an excellent example of the shared spaces – from workplaces to living quarters – the nonprofit is pushing for.

Yassi Eskandari-Qajar, the group's city policies program director, guides me to a corner table to talk about the "sharing economy." Just a few years ago, as a University of California undergraduate, she helped found the Berkeley Student Food Collective, the school's first. The 23-year-old also co-authored the law center's recent report, Policies for Shareable Cities: A Policy Primer for Urban Leaders.

High Country News We hear these words "resilient" and "sustainable" a lot. They've become buzzwords. How does your group define them?

Yassi Eskandari-Qajar "Resiliency" describes the ability of an ecosystem to adapt to, or recover from, change. (For) social structures and economies, the same ideas apply. People tend to use the word "sustainable" for anything and everything good. It's also often used for greenwashing. Even though the word "sustainability" is in our name, we don't use it in our mission or vision statements. We think the work we do explains what it means.

Our group aims to build systems and organizations that function within our current economy and institutions, but that can move us toward a different future, one that is more economically, socially and environmentally just and sustainable.

The root of some of the most serious environmental issues we're facing with energy, water and food is our tendency to see ourselves as separate from our surroundings and natural processes. If we understand this basic premise, we can create smart solutions – we can become resilient.

HCN How does sharing fit in?

E-Q As we define it, the sharing economy creates local production and community ownership with the end goal of creating natural and economic abundance. It can also emphasize access above ownership, thus reducing waste through more efficient use of resources. In a sharing economy, projects emerge such as community gardens, co-housing, eco-villages, time banks, barter and local currencies, worker cooperatives, energy cooperatives.

These enterprises blur the lines between community benefits and personal benefits, residential use and commercial use. Relationships change, too. A worker cooperative, for example, blurs the lines between employer and employee. A housing cooperative blurs the lines between developer and homebuyer.

HCN What are some of the barriers to such projects?

E-Q Many stem from the way our cities are zoned to separate areas by use, such as commercial, agricultural, residential or industrial. Other barriers emerge from rigid legal distinctions between personal, commercial and charitable activities – limiting innovative organizational structures and business models.

HCN How does your group help communities overcome these hurdles?

E-Q One of our most targeted programs is called the Resilient Communities Legal café. Once a week, we go into various communities – Richmond, Oakland, Berkeley – and offer free legal advice.

Many people who come have great ideas but don't have the capital to get started, let alone hire an attorney. So our volunteer attorneys assist groups and individuals with efforts to create, say, housing cooperatives, urban farms, community healthcare collectives, you name it.

We call it "pay it forward" legal advice. You don't have to pay, but if you do want to support our work, you can contribute U.S. dollars, time dollars through the Bay Area time bank, or other complementary currencies. Or you can simply join the time bank and help someone else in the community.

One Oakland client wanted to know if there were any laws preventing him from growing and selling produce from home. Because Oakland had passed an urban agriculture law in 2011 that permits the cultivation and sale of produce as a home business in all residential zones, we were able to give him a green light.

Another client in Berkeley was a passionate cook but couldn't take on the risk or costs of starting a restaurant. So she wanted to throw dinner parties in her home for guests who would chip in money to cover costs. Unfortunately, there are a host of legal gray areas there, namely operation of a home-based business that might not comply with zoning rules in residential areas. There could also be employment law issues around the status of her helpers – are they volunteers or are they non-resident employees? Because the city does not have precise definitions regarding this type of microenterprise, we advised her that her idea would likely prove problematic.

HCN You mention access to capital as another serious hurdle. Are you undertaking any initiatives to surmount this?

E-Q Crowdfunding is an important tool we've identified to help community startups get money from supporters. One exciting example is a direct public offering, or DPO, which allows you to raise money from unaccredited investors, meaning they have a net worth of under $1 million. It's a key step to allowing an organization to access capital from nontraditional sources.

In West Oakland, for instance, there's currently a DPO for a grocery store called The People's Community Market. They originally set out to raise about $1 million, and the director pitched the idea to venture capitalists for several years without luck. So he said, "To hell with it," and used crowdfunding instead. Last time I checked, they'd raised over $900,000.

Direct public offerings are powerful because they give people more say in what happens in their communities. Community benefit is not a factor considered on Wall Street, but those who invest in local enterprises value both purpose and profit. When the individuals directly affected by a venture are the shareholders, they will have an interest in a profit model that works for them.

HCN Your report suggests that cities are key to resilience. How so?

E-Q We hit a milestone a few years ago, when over half of the world's population became urbanized. That percentage is only going to grow.

We advocate for smart increases in urban density so that we don't keep encroaching on wildlife or agriculture.             Creating higher density communities with smaller dwellings and shared resources would allow us to live more closely and efficiently.

One of the ways is through cohousing. The idea is that you have shared spaces that can be used communally. Sure, you have your own unit, usually smaller than your typical apartment. But there can be a huge shared garden, a play center for children, a laundry center and a shared kitchen, usually industrial-sized, that allows you to cook and share meals. So you eliminate the need to own one of everything.

HCN Should we also grow more food within cities?

E-Q I'm from Santa Barbara, where over 90 percent of the food we grow in the county is exported, and over 90 percent of the food that we consume is imported. That is nuts.

The idea is to localize production with the goal of reducing food miles and diversifying food sources, which can make our food systems more stable and resistant to disaster. Food grown close by not only requires less energy – it tastes better, is more nutritious and is often cheaper.

It's also about creating access. West Oakland is a "food desert." There is literally not a grocery store in that neighborhood with fresh produce. Instead, you have only corner markets. That pushes up prices and the food that they do sell is often highly processed.

We have so much wasted space in our cities, lots lying vacant. The amount of unused land in Oakland adds up to the size of Golden Gate Park.

Why not use it for agriculture to feed people? There are initiatives right now, for example, to take unused public land or public parks to grow food. You can produce a tremendous amount of food on small plots, especially with vertical and rooftop gardening.

HCN What are some ways to participate in the sharing economy?

E-Q There are things you can do in your neighborhood, like share a vacuum cleaner, garden space or rides. On a larger scale, you could transition your current workplace to a cooperative. None of these arrangements need new laws.

But we still need to change many laws to remove barriers to the sharing economy. For example, last year, the law center introduced and helped pass the California Homemade Food Act, which legalizes cottage food production in the state. It's allowing people to produce and sell certain kinds of non-potentially hazardous foods, like homemade jams and baked goods, for supplementary income. There are 32 other states that already have a cottage food law. This isn't groundbreaking stuff. But still there was resistance from those who feared change.

Next on our food policy agenda is a new bill called the California Neighborhood Food Act, which would allow people to grow and sell food from their home gardens.

People know it's time for a shift. We have depleted our resources. People have jobs that aren't providing them with a living wage. The sharing economy helps us find new ways of relating to each other and the economy.

High Country News contributing editor Jeremy Miller writes from Richmond, California.