Cities, Inequality and the Common Good

On his first visit to the United States, Pope Francis curiously chose to spend his time in three of our largest cities--New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. As a Pope deeply concerned with social and economic inequality, perhaps this was no coincidence.
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On his first visit to the United States, Pope Francis curiously chose to spend his time in three of our largest cities--New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. As a Pope deeply concerned with social and economic inequality, perhaps this was no coincidence. The most populous cities in the United States have the highest levels of income inequality in the country and this inequality will only get worse as more and more of the population move into cities, as is the current trend. In fact, according to a report released earlier this month by the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, the three cities visited by the Pope are among those with the highest level of wage inequality.

The fact that cities are host to so much glaring inequality has significant ramifications for how we think about cities and the governance and distribution of their resources. In his encyclical, Laudato Si': On the Care of our Common Home, Pope Francis stressed that the natural environment is a "collective good," shared by all, and warned that the disproportionate use of natural resources by northern countries has deprived developing countries of resources needed to survive and thrive.

The city is also a collective or common good, in that urban residents share a number of its resources -- from the parks and opens spaces to streets and buildings, and even a city's culture. Much like the natural environment, the urban environment too is subject to the disproportionate consumption by the wealthy, through economic and cultural domination of its resources, depriving the less well-off of many goods necessary to survive and thrive in cities.

This is why, all over the world, city residents are utilizing, and sometimes occupying, vacant land, abandoned or underutilized buildings, foreclosed houses, and endangered local cultural institutions. They do so to protect these goods from being sold to profit-driven private interests. As investors move to buy up foreclosed homes and so-called "vacant lots" on which community gardens sit, to displace many longstanding businesses and cultural institutions, local residents and activists propose instead to take some of these properties out of the real estate market altogether. To do so, they are creating limited-equity cooperative housing, real estate investment cooperatives, and other mechanisms to stabilize neighborhoods and to preserve long-term affordable residential, commercial and artistic spaces.

The claiming of land, buildings, homes, and other urban infrastructure as essentially a "common good" is a direct response to the displacement of long term tenants, small businesses, community gardens, and significant cultural and social institutions brought about by the confluence of the economic downturn and profit-maximizing development decisions. The growing global movement for the urban commons begs the following questions. How do we maintain the dynamism of cities, allow them to grow and change, while not degrading or destroying those goods and resources vital to the ability of different classes and types of people to live and thrive in cities? How do we allocate the finite resources of cities so that a variety of users and uses have access to them and can share them?

Cities already have many tools available to them to work with residents to preserve the tangible and intangible assets of their communities and to create a better balance between market-oriented development and what Pope Francis in his encyclical calls "authentic development." For example, the power of cities to "take" or claim property for public use, or the common good, can be utilized to preserve the assets and resources of socially and economically vulnerable communities. States, and by extension cities, have the power to assemble underutilized land for affordable housing in center cities. Cities can also transfer titles, acquired through tax liens, of underutilized buildings or vacant lots to community land trusts for the creation of community assets like affordable housing, urban gardens and affordable co-sharing or co-working spaces that help to stabilize vulnerable communities.

The urban commons framework offers another alternative, the collaborative city, which we see emerging in places like Bologna, Italy. Last year, Bologna adopted and implemented a law which empowers residents, and others, to collaborate with the local government to undertake the "care and regeneration" of the urban commons across the city. The "urban commons" covered by the regulation includes public spaces, green spaces and abandoned or underutilized buildings and other infrastructure. The central regulatory tool is a "collaboration pact" which allows the city to enter into agreements with any group of residents, and other actors, for the long-term care and regeneration of a common resource, or for a single or short term use of the resource. The regulation also provides for the transfer of technical and monetary support for the collaboration.

If cities are the places where most of the world's population will be living in the next century, as is predicted, then we will need a different framework for developing cities that are both revitalized and inclusive. The urban commons framework recognizes that there are resources in cities in which residents have a common stake and that decisions about those resources should not be left solely in the hands of local governments, whose tendency is to accommodate the preferences of powerful economic interests in development decisions. This is not just about claiming and protecting common goods, but about securing our common future in a rapidly urbanizing world.

Sheila Foster is a Professor at Fordham University Law School and a co-organizer of the forthcoming international conference on The City as a Commons: Rethinking Urban Space, Common Goods and City Governance

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