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

A conversation with a sharing economy guru.

  • Yassi Eskandari-Qajar at a Sustainable Economies Law Center legal happy hour.


Page 2

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.