This month on the Sustainable City show, we explore a new model of city governance, mapping the route to more equitable, sustainable management of urban infrastructure and services.
By: William Shutkin & Andy Bush
Welcome to The Sustainable City Podcast. This month, we talk to Sheila Foster, a professor of urban law and policy at Georgetown University and co-director of LabGov, an international applied research project that has pioneered a new model of urban governance and a path toward more equitable management of a city’s infrastructure and services.
In her new book, “Co-Cities: Innovative Transitions toward Just and Self-Sustaining Communities,” and in the discussion that follows, Foster describes the practices, laws, and policies that are fostering urban innovation, from providing urban services like transit and parks, to spurring collaborative economies, to promoting inclusive and equitable redevelopment of blighted city lots. As Sheila and her co-author Christian Iaione explain, the majority of the world’s population live in cities, but despite the wealth cities have created, their most vulnerable residents still live without adequate housing, safe water, healthy food, or other essentials. Nonetheless, Foster argues, cities can still remedy the inequalities they create. These are co-cities.
William Shutkin: Welcome to The Sustainable City Show, a new podcast where we discuss bold ideas and innovations for green, equitable, and climate-friendly cities with the people making them happen.
In her new book, “Co-Cities: Innovative Transitions toward Just and Self-Sustaining Communities,” our guest, Sheila Foster, describes the practices, laws, and policies that are fostering urban innovation, from providing urban services like transit and parks to spurring collaborative economies to promoting inclusive and equitable redevelopment of blighted city lots.
As Sheila and her co-author, Christian Iaione, explain, the majority of the world’s population lives in cities, but despite the wealth cities have created, their most vulnerable residents still live without adequate housing, safe water, healthy food, or other essentials. Nonetheless, Sheila and Christian argue, cities can still remedy the inequalities they create. These are co-cities.
Sheila is the Scott K. Ginsburg Professor of Urban Law and Policy at Georgetown University. She holds a joint appointment with the Law Center and the McCourt School of Public Policy. During the 2021-22 academic year, she served as the inaugural Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for the Law Center. She also co-directs LabGov, an international applied research project that has pioneered a new model of urban governance and a path toward more equitable management of a city’s infrastructure and services. From 2017 to 2020, she served as the chair of the advisory committee for the Global Parliament of Mayors and is currently co-chair of the Equity Work Group of the New York City Mayor’s panel on Climate Change.
Sheila Foster: Thank you. It’s great to be here. I feel quite honored to have been asked.
Andy Bush: Sheila, thank you very much for being here. You’ve been involved at the intersection of cities, th environment, urban planning, and law for decades. Give us just some background before we get into the book and LabGov. Really tell us how you came to be here today.
Sheila Foster: Sure. I started my career, at least in academia, which was after a short stint as a practicing lawyer at a law firm, looking at the intersection of civil rights and environmental issues in a field called environmental justice. We know that now we recognize that as a field. At the time, most people did not really know what that was. When I started this work in my academic career, shortly after I met Luke Cole, my co-author on one of my first books called “From the Ground Up: Environmental Racism and the Rise of the Environmental Justice Movement,” I began to try to understand why it is that certain communities bore a disproportionate burden of bad things — poor air quality, lack of access to potable water, lived near freeways — and suffered from higher rates of respiratory and other illnesses that were arguably linked to their exposure to toxins and other pollutants. And so that’s how I started out.
And I spent many years working, not only on the legal issues that fell at this intersection of civil rights, environmental law, and land use really, but also working with communities, working with government agencies, working with foundations on how to address the problem. So that’s where I started really.
William Shutkin: And Sheila, was it that experience, looking at civil rights, environmental issues, looking at cities, and for that matter, other rural communities — what was it about your early experience that eventually led you to really focus laser-like on issues of governance? You and I have known each other now for almost 30 years, and over that time you’ve really come to become not only an expert, but I think one of our most insightful thinkers about the role that management and governance plays in actually managing, affecting environmental outcomes among the hardest hit or most vulnerable communities. What’s the governance side of this for you?
Sheila Foster: Right. So that’s a great question. I think after 10 or 15 years working with communities and trying to work with, like I said, agencies and other policymakers, cities, I became very frustrated and really quite dejected because even after lots of really good policymakers, including President Clinton, who signed the first executive order on environmental justice, and President Obama, who appointed the first Black head of the Environmental Protection Agency, there was just not enough movement on solving these issues.
And the reason that became clear to me for why there wasn’t enough movement was this question of governance. Who decides? Who makes decisions about access to goods and services and the qualities of those goods and services from housing to roads to parks to what gets put in one’s neighborhood? How do those decisions get made?
Because in working with and in communities, for me, that became the crux of the issue. If they had no power to affect those decisions, sometimes they were made at the local level, sometimes they were made at the national level, sometimes at the statement. If they really didn’t have any power, then the efforts we were putting into pushing back, showing up at hearings, protesting, bringing lawsuits, seemed quite futile to me.
So that led me to want to take a step back and look at the larger, let’s call it infrastructure, of governance that really determines how sustainable and how healthy and how just communities can be. And that’s when I began to pivot away from strictly looking at environmental justice. Environmental and climate justice are now part of what I do, but within the context of rethinking how decisions get made and what are the levers for changing those decision-making processes and how we can decentralize them away from — let’s call them power brokers or monopoly actors — that make decisions that don’t take full account of the cost of those decisions on our most vulnerable communities.
Andy Bush: And Sheila, what do you see when you think about that? What are the most significant changes either that you’ve been involved in or that we have to make to kind of pull some of that away from the power brokers that have traditionally made those decisions?
Sheila Foster: Well, that really comes to the work that I’ve done with LabGov, and the co-cities framework that we’ve spent about a decade or so developing, both through our own work in various cities, starting in European cities and then moving to American cities and also working with a host of other countries and regions and cities in Latin America, Asia, and Africa as well.
But that work really began in starting with the decision-makers. And in this case it’s with local governments because local governments in most parts of the world, but particularly here in the U.S., they have the most power over their infrastructure, over the things that determine how we live, what our communities look like, and what kind of goods and services we get. And so the most effective levers that we found over time is, as my colleague Christian Iaione would say, redesigning city hall, redesigning how the decision-making structure works in the places where people live.
So for instance, how do agencies or mayors or other public officials work with interests outside of the government? We know that they work with private interests all the time. They partner in these public-private partnerships. But we also have seen, and what we’ve worked on is that they can have public-public partnerships and public-public knowledge or public-private knowledge partnerships to create, co-create the kinds of goods and services from parks to affordable housing to entrepreneurial spaces that are affordable to not just fortify communities, but share the resources and the infrastructure of a city, of a local government, to share those with communities mostly to create new goods and services. Those could be a broadband network. It could be an energy community. It could be affordable housing and a community land trust. So we’ve worked on all of these, and we’ve done it through this lens of kind of redesigning a governance framework that puts those communities on an equal footing with other partners, including with the local government. But that requires that local government rethink and even redesign how it functions.
William Shutkin: Fascinating, Sheila. We recently spoke with our colleague Sarah Bronin, who, like you, tends to focus at the community level. As you know, her focus is really regulatory and policy level, specifically zoning, a kind of infrastructure in its own. And she makes a very strong case that zoning is so essential to the quality of life of residents in cities and towns, but is often overlooked.
You are making a similar claim, again, focused largely at the local level. I love this idea of sort of redesigning city hall with a specific focus on real infrastructure, physical infrastructure, social infrastructure. Can you give us an example from the book and/or from your experience over the last decade of what it actually looks like to redesign city hall and to co-create, as you put it, with other publics, more access, better shared infrastructure in cities for overall benefit?
Sheila Foster: Sure. So I’m going to start in Europe, which is where we started, and then I’ll move to the United States. I’ll give you three examples.
The first, the city of Bologna, Italy. That’s where we started our largest project, redesigning, so to speak, the governance structure of the city of Bologna, working there with the mayor’s office and the deputy mayor in particular at the time. My colleague Christian helped to draft, and I came in at some point, a new regulation called Care and Regeneration of the Urban Commons in Bologna. And what the city did is it rethought, it went through a process of rethinking how it works with communities around the portici in Bologna that you walk under when you want to avoid being in the sun or rain, plazas or parks or a housing structure, an affordable housing structure for migrants in a periphery neighborhood.
And the way that they began to rethink that was to say that we’re going to really decentralize how we reconstruct these things and improve these things. And we’re going into what are called pacts of collaboration, with communities or nonprofits and universities. And we’re going to do so first through creating neighborhood laboratories where we get out of city hall, and we experiment with this redesigning process, this co-creation process in the places where it happens to make that more accessible.
And then we, the city, will transfer resources. It could be physical resources. It could be a building and idle school. It could be money. It could be a number of other things. And Bologna put this policy in place and signed, I think to date it’s over 500 pacts of collaboration. We have since gone in and evaluated those pacts according to what we thought the city was trying to do. And some of them lived up to the promise, and some didn’t. But I’ll set that aside.
Another piece of the Bologna project is that my colleague Christian helped them to design an office of civic imagination. So again, this is right to redesigning, and that is to create an office that really is designed toward reimagining governance across the city, and that would work in a decentralized way. And that office was not in city hall, but outside in a neighborhood. My colleague worked with other Italian cities, Reggio Emilia right now, in creating citizen science offices where again, the city is rethinking how it works with knowledge partners and communities to create new goods and services according to the most innovative social and other science around, in that case, climate and energy. So that’s an example.
William Shutkin: Sheila, just to be clear and back up… So what you’re saying, and what sounds like the starting point for co-cities is A) literally city hall, city governance going extramural, going outside of its physical walls into the various neighborhoods, parts of the city, and engaging local residents in real hands-on civic projects. And B) these pacts, P-A-C-T, or covenants where the city and those neighborhoods agree to certain action steps to improve certain key parts or priority parts of city life. Is that a fair —
Sheila Foster: Yes, as well as resource transfer. I would say that there are two parts. One is that governance part, which you’ve framed very well. But the second, importantly, is the sharing of the city itself. So Christian and I wrote an article called The City as a Commons, and the idea is that if we think about the infrastructure of the city as a shared resource, then the local officials, the decision-makers who are holding and governing that resource should be able, not just to co-govern it with us, but to share the resource. And by sharing, we mean through sharing, again physical infrastructure. It could be transportation or communication networks, which will bring me to my second example.
My second example is when I brought — after we had a convening at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Institute of a lot of different cities that were interested from America and Europe in putting this into place, and we workshopped it a bit with a number of different cities. I began to think about how it could apply in the U.S. context, which is a very different context than Europe for lots and lots of reasons that I won’t go into now.
So I work with a number of partners from Fordham, from a nonprofit, a community-based organization I should say, in Harlem called Silicon Harlem with the city of New York, and ultimately with a private company to donate servers to co-create a shared community high-speed broadband network using innovative Edge Cloud technology. And a number of university partners and engineers from UVA and Arizona State were involved.
And the co-city, part of that was two things. One, again, comes back to this question of governance and sharing infrastructure. New York City is a smart city, and if you’ve been to New York recently, you know that there is a portal on many corners where you can connect to the internet for free. So New York City’s heavily wired, yet one in three households in many parts of New York City do not have access to broadband in their home. That means that kids cannot do their homework at home. They have to go to a public library or stand in front of Starbucks and catch a signal. People can’t search for jobs, etc. So we were trying to bridge the digital divide through a co-constructed common resource, a community broadband network.
And that involved bringing together as partners what we call the Quintuple Helix of Innovation. If you get public-private knowledge institutions, civic organizations, or what I call anchor institutions and community, and you put them on an equal footing, you can create something. And we did create something. Microsoft donated dozens of servers for the Edge Cloud network over a number of years. And this proof of concept was funded by the NSF. We did participatory trials. We went into NYCHA housing, the public housing authority. We talked to residents there. We convened a lot of different stakeholders and put this in place. And we’re still working on the governance structure about how you co-govern a Edge Cloud, pretty innovative network there. So that’s example two.
William Shutkin: Wow, Sheila. Hey Sheila, just a quick question about that. How many years did it take to stand it up, to convene all the partners and to begin to actually implement a plan?
Sheila Foster: Well, to put it in places of proof of concept, it was a project that was funded and completed as a proof of concept in three years. And by that, I mean to not just hold, so the community partner, Silicon Harlem was the major convener. They could convene hundreds, if not thousands, of people at a time. They had access to public housing, to the small businesses. So we were able to talk to all stakeholders, and other partners came on board.
One of our design principles is to put the communities at the center. So if you bring them first, and you figure out what folks need and the resources that we can co-create, and then the public actors get involved, then you can begin to bring other partners to the table. So it took about three years to convene, to figure out how this was going to work, to test in a participatory way and to create what we call a CAB, a community advisory board, to start to work on the governance structure. So that’s example two.
Example three is Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The Redevelopment Authority, which is an arm of the local government, called us in actually to bring the co-city approach to a four-mile area of Baton Rouge, which is a spatially, economically and racially, heavily stratified city. And this four-mile part was an old commercial Black or African American part of the city that really had lots of vacant properties, which the Redevelopment Authority held in a land bank, or holds in a land bank, and lots of potential for development. And they had gotten funding to run a new transportation line that would connect to parts of the city. But we knew once that happened, this community would likely be displaced.
So what we were going to do was again, bring together various partners with the community at the middle to figure out a way to create stewards, local stewards in the community that would help to steward that revitalization in a way that kept the community in place largely intact, as we knew gentrification was going to arrive with the new transit line that was funded by the federal government.
And so we helped them co-design an Echo Park with some of the vacant land that would both provide green space in the community with none, but also provided a way to reduce the flooding in the area. We helped them co-design a combined community land bank and land trust in which a lot of the vacant properties that were held by the Redevelopment Authority would be put into a combined trust with a tripartite governance structure with the people that would eventually occupy whatever was built on that trust, be it affordable housing or affordable commercial spaces, a third of private sector and experts and a third of local government officials.
And so we helped them set up that entity, and as a precursor to the Redevelopment Authority transferring vacant lots and properties into that entity, and now they’re raising money from various other partners to start to redevelop all of that land in that community, again, with the community on the board of that organization, with an additional community advisory board and a way to, again, revitalize in a way that is not centralized but is decentralized. And that puts communities in the center and as stewards of long term vitalization.
That project is still ongoing. We were funded as part of a collaborative that received $5 million from the Chase Foundation’s Advancing Cities Grant. So again, that’s a project that’s still in process.
Andy Bush: So Sheila, tell us a little bit about your co-author, how things got started at Bologna, and ultimately how it turned into the book, and tell us more about the book itself.
Sheila Foster: Sure. So this is actually a funny story, and it’s every academic’s dream, I have to say. I get a call one day from Christian Iaione, who is Italian, but who received his Masters in law from NYU. And he was in New York one day, and he called me or wrote me an email asking to meet to say he had been reading my work on the Urban Commons. I had been writing about rethinking how parks and gardens and streets in cities are collectively managed using Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel Prize-winning work as inspiration.
And he said, I’ve been reading your work, and I’m drafting this piece of legislation for the city of Bologna using your work, and so I’d love for you to come and help me out in Italy. And I was like, first of all, who wouldn’t want to go to Italy? But second of all, what an honor. So that was really the beginning of a wonderful, wonderful relationship, an academic journey, really an intellectual journey, but also, I think really, really innovative experiments.
Not only did we begin working in cities, but one of the things we did is we had a conference in Bologna in 2015, I believe, where we invited the International Association for the Study of the Commons, which was Elinor Ostrom’s legacy and group, and now it’s scholars from all over the world who studied the Commons. So we put on their first Urban Commons conference in Bologna, and we got over 200 researchers from around the world.
Out of that conference, we were so inspired by how people all over the world were thinking about the commons in cities that we decided to launch an empirical project. And that’s also the basis of the book, which is that we surveyed over 500 projects in over 200 cities around the world that involve kind of co-production and co-governance of shared urban assets, just to get an idea of how this can work in different contexts, what it looks like.
And then much like Ostrom did, walking in her footsteps — in part what we’re doing is a lot different than what she did, but walking in her methodological footsteps at least — we then decided to extract, as she did, what we call design principles for a co-city. Because the idea is it’s not prescriptive. We’re not saying here’s how you create a co-city. It’s not always going to be a piece of regulation. In fact, there was no regulation in New York or Baton Rouge. It’s not always going to look the same, but there are certain principles that are at the core of what we call a co-city, based both on our own theoretical work on the commons, our own experiments on the ground, and then this larger empirical survey. And the book really is a report out on that.
William Shutkin: Well said. Andy, I’m just now thinking sort of, I don’t know if it’s irony — but one of Andy’s premier projects is called Boulder Commons, arguably the first aspiring net-zero multi-tenant commercial building in Colorado, if not the broader West. But it’s called Boulder Commons. Andy, in that same sort of spirit, correct?
Andy Bush: I mean, for me, we wanted to create a place where people could gather, where people were included. And so it was not only kind of the idea of building the buildings and development around an outdoor common space, but also building a gallery on the inside that was meant for events and shows. And so for me, I was thinking of the commons of the old Northeastern cities in Vermont and places that I’d been and that people hadn’t really developed. They were all these exclusive buildings and developments, not built for people to come in and be part of. So that was kind of our gesture as part of it.
William Shutkin: Well, it’s an interesting play too, Andy, as I think about it, the sort of hybridization of public-private space. Our colleague, Gerald Caiden, as you know, has written a lot about the privatization of public space in places like New York City. I think Andy was trying to, in many ways, successfully invert that equation, private space becoming very public.
Sheila, as you’ve described the book — and I’ll just put in a plug for MIT Press and the Urban and Industrial Environment series of which you and I are both authors — it is reminding me a lot of the strategy and spirit of so much of the early environmental justice work that you and I and so many others were involved in where, yeah, there was a lawsuit, there was advocacy for policy change, but it was really, in so many ways, as you know so well, about engaging affected communities, ex-ante versus ex-post.
And how do we engage and co-create strategies and plans for environmental improvements in a way that involves and invests that local knowledge, but also brings in other perspectives, resources, and voices, so as to avoid so many of the problems historically of pollution taking the path of least political resistance. So I really see this powerful sort of lineage between the work you were doing back in the 80s and 90s, and now this framework, which as you say, is sort of subject matter agnostic. It can be broadband. It can be parks. It can be water and sewer, any key urban services that communities need to thrive, this model, as you put it, can help develop and sustain. Do you see that same lineage? I mean, what’s the through line there for you?
Sheila Foster: Absolutely. Right, so we’ve come full circle, and you’ve done it wonderfully. I would add that I might frame it a little differently, not just ex-ante versus ex-post, because there is a famous ladder of public participation by Arnstein, and what we are really talking about is scaling that ladder. And in my environmental justice work, consultation, inclusion, participatory collaboration, we did all of that.
But you don’t really get to the top of the ladder until you start to shift relationships of power. So what I would say is that these communities lack power, even the most inclusive collaborative processes around zoning land use, it could be, and I agree with Sarah Bronin that it all comes back to not just zoning but land use rules. But you have to have the power to be able to reshape those, to reshape, and simply showing up at a community board meeting or a permit hearing by the state environmental agency that’s about to put something else in a neighborhood of color and yelling at the top of your lungs or working with lawyers to craft very thoughtful testimony, doesn’t move the ball. What moves the ball is that you’re part of the real decision-making, not that you’re just giving input, but that you’re a real partner. And I don’t if you use the word stakeholder because I think it’s partnership…
William Shutkin: So is that then part of the pact, Sheila? So when you describe the Bologna case, I mean, it sounds like speaking as a lawyer, real sort of covenant contract where city hall and the neighborhood are sort of bound to each other, and there’s a document that spells out exactly what their obligations or responsibilities are. In the Baton Rouge and New York examples, what kind of contractual or other sort of binding tools have you implemented so that there really is that transfer or sharing of power versus something that sounds really nice but in five years could disappear without anybody knowing or being held accountable?
Sheila Foster: So I don’t want to valorize a contract or a pact because you can… So one example of those community benefit agreements in the United States where community signed agreements with developers to, for certain benefits that accompany a development, sometimes those are met. Sometimes not. So I think that’s a good tool. I think contracts, pacts are a tool.
What happened in Italy is that after Bologna, a lot of Italian cities and other European cities just literally cut and pasted that regulation but didn’t do the work that we’re suggesting you do to create a co-city. I don’t think the bologna pact is the model. I think it’s for Bologna, at that time, was innovative and forward looking. But again, we’ve gone back, and we’ve assessed those pacts, and some of them achieve the design principles, but some don’t. Many don’t because they’re all scale interventions, or they’re just with one private partner or one other organization that is not really shifting decision-making power to the most vulnerable communities that need the most in terms of goods and services that can be co-created from the infrastructure of the city. That’s why it looks different in every city. That’s exactly why it’s not prescriptive.
But before I end here for a minute, I just want to say that law is everywhere in the background. So to the extent that your question is saying, how do we make this stick? Yes, in many places you have to change laws, sometimes zoning, sometimes land use laws, sometimes to get access, sometimes to maintain access. That looks very different in every project. So I think that’s the point.
Andy Bush: Well, and that’s just been part of what we’re able to witness. I was judging for Urban Land Institute Americas Awards for Excellence, and there were a number in Chicago. And the two that stood out were in the west and the south side. And I had the ability to spend a little time with Maurice Cox, who’s the new planning commissioner in Chicago, and he was in Detroit. He’s been a number of different places, just a wonderful human being. But in Chicago, it was a change in focus. And he is planning commissioner, with the support politically, and said that the north side and downtown has got its fair share of infrastructure and resources. And even on his website and his description, he’ll say, as planning commissioner, my focus is on the west and the south side. And they put their energy into that. He’s put his focus on that. He’s made sure that there are resources shared and allocated as a result of that. And to me, this kind of commitment and focus is as important as just making, as you say, a pact or a statement.
William Shutkin: Andy, if I could just — Sheila, and I want to obviously hear your response — but I’m thinking, well, two things. One, it would be great to connect Sheila and Maurice if they aren’t already connected, bring the co-cities framework to Chicago. Because what happens when Maurice leaves and his priorities or that of the administration shift or change and suddenly it’s the north side of downtown again versus west and south? So Sheila, is that part of the point of your framework is it survives people and change —
Andy Bush: Talk about the institutionalization of this.
Sheila Foster: Well, that’s right. So this concept of stewardship is really key right here — putting the people who are going to benefit the most and who have historically, I think, been on the losing side of redevelopment projects and a lot of well-meaning focused redevelopment in neighborhoods or in cities, but that hasn’t turned out the way that it was designed to turn out or that the investment was supposed to really catalyze. But by putting folks at the center of that, by creating stewards, they’re along… So first of all, you institutionalize stewards, and there are a lot of ways to do that. You could do it through pacts. Community land trust is a way. There are lots of developing innovations around that.
But creating long-term stewards, so it doesn’t depend upon who is mayor or deputy mayor or commissioner at the time, because in all of these cities we’ve seen changeover. So the question is, how do you create institutions that can help these communities be self-sustaining in their revitalization redevelopment activities?
I mean, I was born in Detroit, and all my family’s there. I was raised partly there and in Miami, I mean, so Detroit is a really good example, I think, of how really good investment to a city that clearly needs it gets kind of — and notwithstanding some amazing people that have been in the mayor’s office in Detroit that have been doing this work in Detroit, foundations. You go to Detroit, and I’ve been a couple times in the last year because one of my family members passed away. It is a shocking, shocking disparity between where the investment has gone, downtown and midtown around the universities, and the rest of Detroit, which are neighborhoods and predominantly…
And so now with saying the fact that again, you’ve had focus, you’ve had good intention, you’ve had a great plan for the city, and you’ve got a lot of money flowing into it. But this is the kind of example that I think motivates me, and that I’ve seen time and time again in my environmental justice work and in my work in cities and my work with mayors. It’s like, how do we change that from happening? How do we discipline all of the investment and all of the infrastructure work to actually benefit the people that we say we want it to benefit, that we know need goods and services and that have enough resources, not money necessarily, but their own infrastructure to help provide those services?
William Shutkin: Sheila, I’m thinking, what a heavy lift. I mean it’s both such an important topic to be focused on. And alongside that, of course, we’ve had, what, 20+ years of people like Bob Putnam and other scholars noting the decline of civic engagement, civic institutions. And yet here you and Christian are saying, hey, this is the time for devolving power and empowering neighborhoods and people and institutions on the ground and in the trenches.
What makes you think, at this point in the 21st century, that there’s an appetite, that there’s even capacity to engage in the way that your framework sort of requires? It’s one thing for city hall to say, we’re going to go beyond the walls and reach out and engage. It’s another to say, well, we’ve really got willing partners who are not cynical, who are not so disaffected that they are willing to show up and commit lots of time, and indeed, even perhaps a legacy to this work. Are you sanguine and hopeful? Or is this really the heavy lift that it strikes me it would be in many cases, whether here in the U.S. or perhaps abroad?
Sheila Foster: I’m going to answer that question by answering in the context of the U.S. because I do think the answer to that question is very different abroad because in Europe, where we first began to work, in particularly Italy, the one thing I noticed is the lack of — and Putnam wrote about Italy — the lack of strong neighborhoods, civic-based organizations, at least the robustness that I found we have in the U.S. And I know this from my environmental justice work. So when people say, oh, these folks are poor, they don’t have the time to show up to hearings, they’re not going to get engaged, time and time again, I saw that they’re willing to engage and to partner and to put in the work if they thought it would pay off. But no, they’re not going to show up if it’s just another announce and defend meeting. We’re going to announce what we’re doing as a city. We’re going to ask for your input, and then we’re going to defend what we’re doing, which was the original plan in the beginning.
So what I’ve seen, and it’s been proven in all of these projects, is that we have communities, many of them are isolated and economically and/or racially stratified, but within them there’s a lot of what Putnam would call bonding community — I mean a bonding capital, social capital — even if there’s a lack of that bridging capital, that is to say, to bridge different classes with others to allow them upward mobility. So there’s a lot in, if you talk about African American communities, it’s sometimes the church, but other times it’s other institutions. So do people have an appetite? I think people have an appetite to put a lot of thought and physical and mental labor into partnering with their local government if they thought it would pay off. I’ve seen that time and time… So I’ve never bought the narrative because it’s gone against the empirical reality that I’ve seen in these. I’ve never bought the narrative that people aren’t willing or able to engage. They are.
William Shutkin: And I think you’re so right. I share that experience. When there’s, as you say, that sort of positive feedback loop, when folks really know and are able to experience, in a relatively short period of time, feedback that suggests their inputs of labor and time can and will pay off in real tangible ways.
Sheila Foster: And I think the question is how do you set the table for that to happen? I think that’s the hard work.
William Shutkin: And is that not what co-cities is?
Sheila Foster: Yes.
William Shutkin: I mean, in the sense you’re creating that framework.
Sheila Foster: Yes. Well, and more than that, we have a cycle that we talked about, the co-city cycle where it starts from what Elinor Ostrom called cheap talk. How do you get people together to have a low stakes conversation about what it is we want and what’s possible and who should be at the table to kind of mapping assets to then experimenting on a small scale to build trust to then prototyping something you want to put in place, whether it’s a policy or an institution, to then experimenting with that over time and then coming back, evaluating it, and then revising what you’ve done. That was the Bologna process.
So I said, we came back and we looked at the pacts to see are they doing what we originally thought at step zero and what they were supposed to be doing. Some do. Some don’t. And then, can you tweak it? Now we’re not involved in Bologna anymore, but that knowledge is out there. That’s published by my colleagues, LabGov, for anyone to see. If you want to look at the Bologna experiment and use it as a model, also look at the results and what we learned after five or seven years of collaboration pacts.
Andy Bush: Yeah, I love the idea of the pacts, just conceptually, forgetting even the agreement in the sense that as an urban planner, I worked for decades, and you could always get lots of people out to be opposed to something it seemed like. And the hard part about getting people excited about something was, as you said, giving them a sense of what’s possible, prototyping it so they believe it can really happen. And then I forget how many pacts you said there were in Bologna, but this idea of a hundred small moves adding up to something versus trying to scale them out and all at one time.
Sheila Foster: That’s exactly right. And I hope you see, just to finish that point, that if you’ve got a hundred or so, then by definition you’re changing the way the city functions, the way governance happens.
Andy Bush: And some can fail. It’s okay for some to fail.
Sheila Foster: Right. But you have it, and so one of our design principles is experimentation. So first of all, we need what we call an enabling state. We need the government to want to do this, to want to enable co-creation and to set the conditions. We also need a culture of experimentation where you can have something like this and see what works and what doesn’t. And then again, that’s part of our cycle that you want to be prototyping and putting in place.
But even before the prototyping, there’s a step I don’t want to miss, and that is building trust. So we always have small scale, in Baton Rouge, for instance, it was a food truck park fair that they had because food is really important to the culture. People would come out and make food and sell it, and it was a way of bringing people together and doing something on a micro level that would begin to get different kind of folks together to build the trust to then start to say, well, what do we want? What can be prototyped? And that was after again, the cheap talk and the mapping phases. So again, none of these are prescriptive. You don’t have to do it in that order. But the idea is that there is a cadence to this if you really want to change the way the city functions with regard to development and creating and co-producing, and co-managing, co-governing essential goods and services in the city in an innovative way.
William Shutkin: Great. Hey, Sheila, we’re going to wind down. Andy, some final thoughts from you for Sheila?
Andy Bush: Yeah, I mean for me, it’s kind of a strange place to go in a final thought, but I’ve had a lot of conversations with people lately about what we’ve done during Covid, specifically with outdoor dining and how some cities experimented in ways that most cities would never even consider. And they did things quickly, and innovatively. Some of them worked. Some of them were abysmal failures. But how do we continue and not lose that sense of experimentation that we had for a couple of years? One of the gifts of Covid was experimentation by city government. How do we not lose that?
Sheila Foster: That’s a really good point. I’m writing a piece about that right now, actually, thinking through it. And the way that you put it is so, I think, on point and wonderful, and that is to say that often local governments and government in general is described as ossified or hardened, hard to get things done. The permitting process takes too long. Zoning prevents us from building more housing. What cities showed during Covid is their nimbleness in not just kind of opening up public space and sharing that space, but sharing the infrastructure of the city, including housing for homeless, taking out of resources and repurposing them. I think what we lack and what we need going forward is — coming back to the governance point — that how do you think about this not as a one-off, as a response to an exogenous shock? I mean, this is nothing new for cities. If there’s a huge hurricane, cities are used to repurposing their infrastructure to shelter people. So it’s not new. What happened is really not new. It’s just the scale on which it happened.
Andy Bush: And we need to inculcate it somehow in our process.
Sheila Foster: But on that scale, not just, I’m going to use a stadium after a hurricane.
But how do we do this across cities, and how do we do it so that it really is across cities and neighborhoods? So I think the way we continue it is that you do need some framework. We have smart cities, and we write about this in the book. We have creative cities, cities that are capable of taking frameworks and saying that’s how we want to run our city. We want to pivot and be more adaptive and more experimental in how we use our infrastructure. And I think outside of the pandemic, we begin to see that, whether it’s the 15-minute city or whether it’s New York and other places before the pandemic beginning to give money to communities to design and create land trusts, and then transferring idle infrastructure to them and then giving them money to plan for that. New York City has done that. Other cities have done that. Seattle transferred a fire station and other buildings to the Africa Community Land Trust there. So I think that what we’re trying to capture, hence the empirical part, is that we know around the world this has been happening, and partly we’re trying to bring attention to it and how it can be scaled up.
William Shutkin: Well especially, Sheila, with Covid and climate. And Andy, I think you bring up a great point with the experimentation that Covid not only allowed, but sort of required. I guess I see, Sheila, after talking to you and listening to you the last hour, that the co-city framework is sort of a really powerful collective action framework for resilient communities going forward. So that, in fact, we can see more of a collaborative and widespread response at, say, the municipal scale, when the next disaster hits, be it public health or so-called natural.
And unlike, say, a smart city framework, where technology really is the sort of end all and be all. It’s about how people, as you say, make decisions and do so from positions of equal power, which I think is such an important point. Sheila, thank you so much for spending an hour with us to talk about your work and your book. It is so timely and topical. Sheila, the book comes out toward the end of the year, is that correct?
Sheila Foster: Yes, in hardcover, I believe toward the end of the year, but it’s also going to be open access on MIT’s website. That will probably happen before December, hopefully.
William Shutkin: Great. Excellent. So we’ll be sure to promote that. And Sheila, thanks for all the great work you’re doing and for being such a great collaborator yourself.
Andy Bush: Well, Sheila, thank you so much for being part of this. It was just a wonderful conversation.
Sheila Foster: Thank you for your questions and for getting what I’m doing.