The Co-City Methodology

“City as a platform for sharing and collaboration, participatory decision-making and peer-to-peer production, supported by open data and guided by principles of distributive justice.”

[Foster and Iaione, 2016]
Generic city landscape with smog and fog and very little color

The City as Commons

One of the foundational assumptions underlying the LabGov Georgetown project is that the City should be conceived of as a “commons.”

More and more, urban inhabitants, scholars and commentators are asking the question “to whom does the city belong?”  One of the foundational assumptions underlying LabGov’s approach is to suggest that the city belongs to all its residents, its community. In other words, the City should be conceived as a “commons,” an open access shared resource.  

Among the many challenges of our so-called “urban age” is to figure out how to make room in our cities and metropolitan regions for the different kinds and classes of urban inhabitants. While cities are, by their nature, open to all kinds of newcomers, at the same time the most successful of them are intensely rivalrous and subject to high levels of competition for their resources.  In addition to concerns about competition and congestion, the openness and complexity of cities also raises questions of distribution. Many contestations of city space and resources revolve around how best to share the finite resources of the city among a variety of uses and users.

Writers and commentators from many disciplines—economics, sociology, history, architecture, and political science, among others—have long wrestled with the problem of open access, shared resources of various kinds in the face of this rivalry. Commons, or common pool resources, are often highly complex resources that require some form of management or governance regime to carefully sustain them and, importantly, to ensure that the broad class of users that have access to those resources don’t harm or deplete them.  From a variety of perspectives and academic disciplines, the “commons” has become an important conceptual framework for examining questions of resource access, sharing, distribution, and governance.

A group of people putting their hands together to form a team, in black and white

LabGov conceptualizes the city as a “commons” in order to help reclaim for city inhabitants more power in shaping urban space, in deciding how cities should grow and develop, and as a means of promoting greater access to a host of urban resources and goods by a broader class of city inhabitants. The commons has the potential to highlight the question of how cities govern or manage resources to which city inhabitants can lay claim to as common or shared goods, without having to depend entirely on privatization, which tends to allow economic elites to dominate, or complete government control, which can lead to other negative consequences for communities, not the least of which, includes detering community involvement and buy-in.

For more Information

For more on this, read Professors Sheila Foster and Christian Iaione’s forthcoming article “Ostrom in the City: Design Principles and Practices for the Urban Commons” in the Routledge Handbook of the Study of the Commons (Dan Cole, Blake Hudson, Jonathan Rosenbloom eds.).

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Or read Foster and Iaione’s blog post on the key design principles that support an urban commons

For more about the City as a Commons concept, read this interview with Professor Christian Iaione

Or review this blog post by Foster on the Co-City concept.

The Three Pillars of  the Co-City Methodology

A modern city along the river

 The Co-City methodology embraces the idea that sustainable co-shared governance projects are typically created and maintained by at least five actors (“the Quituple Helix”), created according to a predictable cycle (“the Co-City Cycle”), and operate according to five key principles (“the Co-City Design Principles”). These three elements comprise the three pillars of the Co-City Methodology.

(1) The Quintuple Helix

The Quintuple Helix consists of five key actors: (1) Social innovators: the individuals and groups responsible for authoring or inspiring the creative ideas that underlie urban co-governance projects; (2) Public authorities, which typtically include elected and appointed local and state government officials;  (3) Knowledge Institutions, notably including schools and universities, which often provide the forums and expertise necessary to conduct the experimentation, testing, and analysis essential to LabGov’s mission;  (4) Businesses, typically local businees, which are often essential to the funding and public advocacy of new co-governance projects; and (5) Civil Society Organizations, which are often crucial to the creation, running and ongoing maintenance of these types of projects. 

Co-City cycle

(2) The Co-City Cycle

The Co-City Cycle is designed to first identify and define the kinds of urban resources that can be collectively governed to meet the economic and social needs of urban communities. Once identified, the cycle then helps to create the most favorable environment for experimentation of the collectively governed urban resources.  In effect, the co-city cycle treats the city, or some aspect of the city, as a laboratory by creating the legal and political ecosystem for shared, collaborative, polycentric urban governance projects to be tested and tried.

The Co-City Cycle

The Co-City Cycle’s 6 steps

A sketch of a lightbulb with different colors of paint smeared around it

Step 1: Cheap Talk

Step 2: Mapping

Step 3: Practicing

Step 4: Prototyping

Step 5: Modeling

Step 6: Testing

This cycle is designed to create the most favorable environment for experimentation using the design principles to innovate urban policies and institutional frameworks. The key is to transform cities/neighborhoods into laboratories for commons-based governance solutions.

For more on the Co-City Cycle, see this blog post by Christian Iaione.

(3) The Co-City Design Principles

The idea of the “Co-City” is based on five basic design principles, or dimensions, extracted from our practice in the field and the cases that we identified as sharing similar approaches, values and methodologies. While they were inspired by Elinor Ostrom’s principles for governing common pool resources, they have been adapted and altered to reflect the unique needs and realities present in an urban context. 

*Sketch compliments of artist Becca Barad(@BeccaB_Rad)

The Five C0-City Principles

Principle 1: Collective governance (or co-governance) refers to the presence of a multi-stakeholder governance scheme whereby the community emerges as an actor and partners (through sharing, collaboration, cooperation, and coordination) with four other possible categories of urban actors in a loosely coupled system;

Principle 2: Enabling State expresses the role of the State (usually local public authorities) in facilitating the creation of urban commons and supporting collective governance arrangements for the management and sustainability of the urban commons;

Principle 3: Social and Economic Pooling refers to the presence of autonomous institutions (e.g., civic, financial, social, economic, etc.) that are open, participatory, and managed or owned by local communities operating within non-mainstream economic systems (e.g. cooperative, social and solidarity, circular, cultural, or collaborative economies, etc.) that pool resources and stakeholders often resulting in the creation of new opportunities (e.g. jobs, skills, education, etc.) and services (e.g. housing, care, utilities, etc.) in underserved areas of the city or for vulnerable inhabitants;

Principle 4: Experimentalism is the presence of an adaptive, place-based and iterative approach to design legal and policy innovations that enable the urban commons; and

Principle 5: Tech Justice highlights access, participation, co-management and/or co-ownership of technological and digital urban infrastructure and data as an enabling driver of cooperation and co-creation of urban commons.

Other Defining Features of a Co-City

New York Landscape seen from above in sephia coloring

A Co-City is based on some form of co-governance arrangement, which means that its resources, which can be tangible or intangible, are shared, collaboratively managed, and overseen by a polycentric group of local actors, or rather, a group of actors with overlapping responsibilities.  As such, the three core features that define a Co-City’s Co-Governance regime can be summarized by three descriptive terms: shared, collaborative, and polycentric.

For More Information….

black and white picure of a generic city

For a deeper dive into the Co-City Methodology read this article published by Sheila Foster & Christian Iaione in the Yale Law & Policy Review, or review Foster and Iaione’s many publications.

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For additional and updated details on the Co-City Methodology follow the Co-Cities Blog.


Read about the Co-Cities Project to see the Co-City Methodology in action.