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.


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.

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