Active Urbanism: Sharing Economy

Project: Active Urbanism – Spatial Consequences of the Sharing Economy
Date: Fall 2015
Professor: Antje Steinmuller
Class: Graduate Elective

In cooperation with the San Francisco Planning Department’s Pavement to Parks, and Professor Jungin Kim, Soongsil University, Seoul.

“The process of transformation usually begins long before a clear future state can be identified.”
(Kelvin Campbell, Massive Small Compendium)

The sharing economy – also referred to as the peer-to-peer, access, or collaborative economy – is increasingly supplementing, or even replacing, older models of production and consumption that rely on the top-down provision of goods and services, and on a primacy of ownership. The term refers the sharing or trading of human, physical, and spatial resources between like-minded individuals, generally with the help of an online platform or marketplace . This seminar is concerned with the sharing economy’s capacity to redistribute and maximize urban spatial resources through the staggering of uses and users in time. It is based on the premise that unseen ‘urban ecologies’ produced by the sharing economy have already impacted and altered the perception and use of urban space. The seminar will attempt to both visualize and radicalize the sharing economy’s effect on the contemporary city. It is based on the premise that collaborative consumption and production have created a de-emphasis of ‘actual ownership’ (in favor of temporal access and borrowing) coupled with the increased ‘sense of ownership’ that comes with this ease of access (Airbnb’s “Belong Anywhere” slogan). As a result, the increase in urban sharing produces new perceptions and possibilities of an urban commons . Social and economic factors have helped the sharing economy to create a generation of urban dwellers who prefer time-based renting over owning.

As part of the sharing economy, mobile technologies have enabled us to match supply with demand in close proximity of time and space in practically all aspects of urban life. When it comes to spatial resources, this paradigm shift has enabled or increased temporary access to formerly private territories – resulting in a redistribution of space that has had a range of consequences: a reprogramming of existing spaces (a private dining room becomes a restaurant for one night); new typologies of social or collective spaces (membership-based co-working spaces, or curb-side public parklets); and ultimately, new types of public spheres as sites of social exchange and debate. The practice of urban sharing, bartering, and collaboration has also affected government transparency (Oakland’s Open Budget Project), and the way citizens participate in the production of public space (Better Block initiatives, or San Francisco’s Living Alleys Program).

While broadly accessible online platforms form the basis of the the sharing economy, its fluid networks and transactions are played out against a highly local background of rigid city infrastructures and legal frameworks. While similar mechanisms of peer-to-peer sharing now exist in the areas of living, working, recreation, transportation, food production and public space in many cities, each instance of sharing is influenced by the exact nature of the resources, organization and physical form of the specific city. Not surprisingly, the expansion of both Airbnb and Uber into other countries has led to a range of legal issues (depending on the local licensing and unionization of taxi services) and long-term consequences (like the ‘hollowing-out’ of cities with high tourist volume, where intermediaries buy up real estate solely for Airbnb rentals and decrease housing availability for locals ). The sharing economy has also been widely critiqued for prioritizing the economic gain of the larger enterprise while for “invoking a fantasy of community in an atomized population” .
This seminar will apply a critical lens to the effects of the sharing economy on our own city, San Francisco. Departing from different typologies of urban space and program, the seminar will take on residential, working, transportation and recreational spaces of the city and interrogate current sharing platforms that serve to optimize their use. The investigation will begin with uncovering, visualizing and analyzing San Francisco’s hidden “ecologies” that link spaces, people, social interactions, mediating mechanism, activities and spaces. The analysis will take into account three scales pertinent to sharing: the individual space/interface, territories of interaction with others, as well as the neighborhood or urban networks produced. Weekly diagramming and mapping assignments document the research conducted in small teams, adding up to a comparative visual analysis of the different sharing ‘ecologies’ in San Francisco.

In the second part of the semester, students will be challenged to identify opportunities and potentials for proactive application of sharing principles to the use and configuration of urban space as the basis of a final project (in graphic and written form). Taking into account its utopian potentials and dystopian scenarios, students will seek to apply its mechanisms proactively, rather than reactively in response to an existing crisis . Can current mechanisms for sharing urban space be radicalized, and how might we speculate on the consequences (both positively and negatively)? What are potential scenarios for San Francisco’s underused spaces in a time when population growth exerts pressure on spatial resources across all types of city spaces: from housing, to restaurants, to transportation? If we consider that the sharing of goods has led to higher demand for more durable products with longer life-cycles , what might be an equivalent consequence for how we think about urban space? A specific neighborhood of San Francisco, the Dogpatch – and area with a strong maker-identity, a mix of urban space in transition, and a lack of neighborhood social/collective space – will serve as a test site for locating the proposals.

This course is a Graduate Elective open to students from the Architecture, DMBA, Curatorial Practice, Design, and MFA programs. Accompanied by regular reading/discussion sessions, the seminar will look at contemporary advocacy and critique on the sharing economy against the backdrop of pertinent writings of Lefevre, Harvey, Latour a.o.. The class will be supported by guest lectures and workshops including speakers from pertinent sharing industry platforms, from the City of San Francisco (Robin Abad, project lead of the Pavement to Parks Parklet program), as well as a visiting faculty from South Korea (Prof. Jung-In Kim) who has been conducting parallel research into contemporary informal urban ecologies in Seoul and cities across Europe.

Title image: Forbes.com