Co-operative cities

I have been in Edinburgh this week, looking at the results so far of their five year programme to become a co-operative capital city. Efforts like this are at the cutting edge of new partnerships between the state and the social economy, both sectors motivated by human progress rather than financial return.

And the results are encouraging: new service models, new thinking and the start of a new culture, all at a tough time for local government in Scotland and across the UK.

As John Restakis has expressed it, in work for Vancouver as a co-operative city, cities are a product of co-operation. Their character, how they function, and the quality of life they offer is a telling expression of a society’s capacity to connect personal goals and individual interests into a common life, a sense of community that in turn gives meaning and depth to individual experience.


Edinburgh is governed by an unusual partnership between Labour and SNP. That may change in elections in May 2017, but those involved have all laid the groundwork for consensus on co-operation, which is how it should be. The city is now aiming to develop a vision for its own future in 2050.

The co-operative sector has a vital role to play in realizing such a vision for the city – with examples close by such as:

Edinburgh Student Housing Co-op is a successful new co-op with 106 bedrooms and looking to expand into other properties. They’re also involved with students who want to start co-ops in Edinburgh and with Students for Co-operation who want to support other student co-ops across the UK.

Harlaw Hydro was one of the first of the new energy co-ops in Scotland funded by a community shares issue (£403,000) in 2013. Now generating energy and income!

Graphics Co-op is a worker co-op, founded in 1989, that has been able to adapt to the substantial technological changes in the design and print industry and continues to provide high quality employment.

How then do you join these up, into the infrastructures required for a sustainable city? What is needed is new systems models of transport, housing, energy, food, communication and care. And smart models of money, the facilitator of economic exchange and of land, which is the underpinning, connecting space in cities.

One approach that sets a blueprint is by Nicholas Falk at Urbed, the urban design and master planning co-op in Manchester, which won the £250,000 Wolfson prize two years ago for best design of a new garden city. These ideas draw in part on the Dutch urban land situation where in many cities the council leases all the land including the commercial space to capture the rent so that cities can become resilient.

In one session in the beautiful Edinburgh City Chambers, I also pointed to cities across the water in the USA. The original Co-op City is in New York, and despite challenges, there is wonderful work going on there at a large scale to retrofit and green the housing there in the Bronx.

Close by in New York City is the Co-operative Economics Alliance. New York’s City Council committed $1.2 million of their budget two years ago and now $2.1 million to support worker cooperative development. As in the ‘Chantier‘ system in Quebec, co-operative practitioners and their support networks own the programme vision, working alongside their government partners.

Co-operation Jackson in Mississippi is drawing together a network of interconnected yet independent institutions as an economic renewal strategy in the capital city of the poorest state in the USA. They in turn are inspired by the extraordinarily story of community economic development that has emerged in Cleveland.

As Pat Conaty, Associate of Co-operatives UK and co-author of The Resilience Imperative, describes it, the strategy of Evergreen Co-operatives in Cleveland links up three co-operative economic development tools.

First, worker co-operative model create good local jobs including equity development for worker owners and profit sharing.

Second, a Community Development Finance Institution owned by the Evergreen Co-op network serves to invest and recycle low-cost capital (as subordinated debt at a rate of 1%) to create enterprise and jobs.

Thirdly a Community Land Trust works to develop the space and sites for food growing and for developing affordable housing. They have raised over $200 million of low-cost capital for Evergreen Co-operative Development Fund, their CDFI, and the annual procurement power of their ‘anchor institutions’, primarily state bodies committed to local economic development, is $3 billion.

The approach has stimulated similar plans to do the same in other US cities including Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee and Washington DC.

Elsewhere in the UK, a partnership of agencies including Co-operatives UK, New Economics Foundation, Responsible Finance, Locality and the Centre for Local Economic Strategies, is supporting fledgling community economic development plans across England, supported by the Department for Communities and Local Government. The Co-operative Councils Innovation Network is also acting as a peer learning network for local authorities

In Preston, there are active plans underway for a Cleveland style programme, with input from the Basque co-operative network Mondragón. On Monday, the University of Central Lancashire and of Mondragón will present on the next steps, following a survey of the base of co-operative activity in the city and region.

These partnerships take time to develop, and for many it is still early days and in the fluid context of ongoing devolution, but it is encouraging even so that the concept of the co-operative city is now inspiring action across such diverse settings.

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