• Grace Taylor Rae

Cooperative Municipal Circularity as Local Regenerative Exchange

Updated: Mar 29, 2019

Our most valuable currencies are attention, imagination and creative insight to build systems that support life on Earth. By localizing consciousness in our most proximal and human-scale environments —  our cities, our neighborhoods, and our homes  — we both meet human needs and facilitate ecological balance. Municipalities can begin by amplifying access to a local cooperative exchange that makes use of a closed-loop function.


We can bolster and enhance cooperative models across most necessary markets — food, energy, clothing, tools, home goods, vehicles, housing, internet, and even recycling and production. The following frameworks are circular because they build toward zero waste in a closed-loop system. They are cooperative because their ownership, stewardship, and sponsorship are decentralized and collective; their structures and resources are diverse and adaptable across local environments and geographies.


COOPERATIVE MODELS BY INDUSTRY


Organic Food


Prolific in urban areas, food cooperatives are instructive models for cooperative exchange in a specific and necessary market that is already circular by design. We always will eat. We always will grow food. That food will vary by season and region. Seeds, scraps, and waste can grow more food.


Suburban communities can expand cooperative food models through networks of gardeners who repurpose lawn space to grow food. Beginning with a handful of growers within a radius, neighborhood garden networks can welcome new members who agree to provide either (1) their lawn, (2) work hours or (3) monetary investment — in exchange for harvest access to produce on edible lawns within their area.


In cities or localities with less land, existing food cooperatives can partner with building tenants and property owners who agree to steward or sponsor a rooftop garden or other available growing area as an extension to the cooperative and member-owner responsibilities. The cooperative store and the gardening members can share the harvest, and further incentivize regenerative land use.


Clean Energy


Similarly, residents in rural, suburban or urban regions can capture, store and use clean energy with solar panels. A community solar program model can adapt to a countywide or hyperlocal neighborhood scale. Municipalities and individual car owners can outfit transit vehicles with solar panels and batteries, allowing storage and distribution of energy while on a route. Especially through technology including 3D printing and solar roadways, clean energy infrastructure is increasingly more available and affordable.


Clothing and Textiles


Clothing cooperatives can address the vast wastefulness that recent decades of fast fashion have normalized. An estimated 85 percent of unwanted textiles in North America are sent to landfills each year. By stemming the tide of (1) incoming fast-fashion from transnational or extractive corporations and (2) outgoing clothing to landfill, local communities can recapture their textile resources and reduce their need to buy first-hand retail or shop online for clothing.


Flexible infrastructure, such as clearly marked receptacles for collection, and accessible community space for redistribution, would support local textile circulation and reuse, as well as money-saving among residents. Urban municipalities especially can optimize their use of functional clothing on a neighborhood basis. A cooperative model repurposes large networks and common spaces including schools, churches, libraries, community centers, gyms, and recreational facilities as distribution centers, where ample storage and group activity room exists.


Through a cooperative clothing exchange, neighbors could even access for free items that would otherwise cost money. Local clothing swaps on given weekends or evenings could allow a majority of families to meet their clothing needs as children grow and seasons change. Members would gain “shopping” access in exchange for (1) gathering textiles from drop-off locations within a local grid or radius and transporting them to a distribution center, (2) sorting and organizing textiles by function, (3) staffing open hours for a community store or (4) paying a recurring membership fee that allows the cooperative to hire marginalized community members to find meaningful work above a living wage.


Tools and Home Goods


Common spaces are functional as distribution centers and popup cooperative storefronts for tools and home goods as well. Because items like bicycles, spare kitchenware, books, and garden supplies are often used less frequently and less intimately than clothing, cooperatives can utilize a library model for some items, segmenting tools and home goods into “buy” and “borrow” categories. Of course, very common items — perhaps magazines or notebook paper — might be offered for free.


Vehicles


As with certain tools, individually-owned vehicles including bicycles and cars are more often out of use than in use. By relating cooperative vehicle sharing to an existing network of people within a concrete occupancy, such as an apartment building or a cluster of homes on a block, members maximize use for ownership. A 16-unit building might have an 8-bike fleet or a 20-bike one, depending on how many individuals join the network and what space is available to store the bicycles in the building’s basement or vestibule.


Members can join by a lending a bicycle, providing repairs or contributing a recurring donation to support the work of the repair team. The original bicycle owners continue to use them when convenient, trading in their off-peak hours for others to make use, and benefiting from free repairs and replacement parts. Bicycle enthusiasts can donate to the cooperative functional parts or bikes in need of repair, and the cooperative can make use of these resources as well. Physically marking or tagging bicycles that belong to the cooperative communicates their availability.


Car owners who live proximally can pool resources in a similar way, with some members contributing vehicles for use and others funding or facilitating the repair and refueling of those vehicles. Thus, vehicle access expands and costs are distributed, relieving the fuel-and-repair burden of the original car owners, and allowing more people car access through a stewardship-sponsorship model.


Housing


Especially in large urban apartment buildings, rent prices are disproportionately higher than costs related to managing the rented space on a regular basis. Consolidation of property and gentrification of housing markets has driven both cost of living and tenant return-on-investment out of balance.


Fractional ownership can bolster ethical multi-unit housing by shifting traditional owner-renter dynamics toward increasingly cooperative models. Many people can each own a percentage of the building they occupy, earning membership based on time lived in the location or their labor or upkeep contributed to the building. Members of a fractional ownership housing cooperative would pay “rent” as dues to a cooperative of which they owned a fractional share. Thus, members could choose either (1) a lower rent payment each month, cashing in their “ownership” as they live in the space or (2) a payout upon moving, from the cooperative (similar to a security deposit) in the amount related to their portion of member-ownership when they “sell” it back to the cooperative.


Share-based and fractional ownership models already exist across luxury markets for condominiums, yachts, timeshares, and aircraft, as well as in urban housing cooperatives. While existing housing coops look like and function as corporations (the corporation owns the home, the occupants live there through a proprietary lease), the fractional directive is to disperse ownership among shareholders, rather than consolidate wealth among one rent-collecting entity. While landlords or real estate companies continue to own a fraction of a building that generates a living and profitable wage, these more distributed contracts, which stipulate ownership-per-unit occupied, can mitigate wealth consolidation among developers or property holders looking to monetize scarcity and vacancy.


Fractional ownership re-centers the purpose of property on occupancy and human-scale use, rather than on abstract investment as a token of wealth consolidation. Housing units built as abstractions and not for use are ultimately not valuable. In a regenerative, circular exchange, value is derived from functional use. This cooperative design is especially foundational for the food and energy models outlined above, which make collective use of multi-unit residential or commercial space.


Blockchain technology is an effective tool for implementing fractional-ownership-by-unit housing models on a municipal level. The distributed, decentralized digital ledger that blockchain provides can securely and transparently track and record the inner workings of a balanced, cooperative ownership model in real-time as contracts develop and transactions occur.


Internet


Municipal broadband can deliver efficient internet access to local communities in rural, urban and suburban areas where telecommunications corporations have been reluctant to expand. Local internet infrastructure is cheaper and more effective to maintain than the centralization-into-mass-distribution model that telecommunications giants have perpetuated in recent decades of internet proliferation. Maintaining a locally targeted, cooperative, cost-saving internet infrastructure facilitates increased access for underserved populations.


Local Production and Recycling


Building upon and supporting the models outlined above, municipalities can localize processing and recirculation of post-consumer materials including glass, metal, plastic, paper and organic waste. By cooperatively containing and sustaining local supply chains, municipalities cut shipping costs, provide local jobs and limit their reliance on single-use products and extractive economic practices that siphon community wealth into corporate consolidation. By repurposing abandoned or vacant buildings, industrial centers, and warehouses, communities can regenerate local production and rehabilitate local industries.


This larger-scale cooperative model fosters a partnership between municipally-owned manufacturing and recycling centers, and businesses that make and package their products locally. Excess or used fabric can be recycled for textile use by local or regional designers and artisans. Plastics and metal can be transformed into reusable, portable containers for food and beverages, and distributed to restaurants and residents alike for circular use. Food and garden cooperatives can make use of the organic matter generated by restaurants’ and residents’ kitchen scraps. While a processing center could facilitate and expedite the process of making ready-to-use compost, inter-neighborhood programs for compost collection and distribution may be a more efficient, targeted means of stewardship that maintains proximity to local gardens.


PILLARS OF COLLECTIVE SUPPORT


Decentralized, Consistent Infrastructure


For a cooperative economy to proliferate on the municipal level, the necessary infrastructure must be decentralized and consistent. This infrastructure is comprised of (1) clearly-marked collection receptacles interspersed throughout a given neighborhood and (2) community outposts for all materials that a community may use or generate, including cans, bottles, plastic, paper, clothing, home goods, tools, and organic matter. Bins for plastic, clothing or food scraps can be a simple drop-off, while tools and household goods may require more detailed design-thinking, such as a large metal locker with built-in shelves or cubbies for storing more fragile items. The physical infrastructure itself may look different from neighborhood to neighborhood, but its function remains the same: collect excess and deliver supplies locally where they meet need.


Repurposed Common, Commercial and Private Space


A cooperative circular economy grows in the cracks and shadows of a failing capitalist framework. Buildings, institutions, and our commons need not have sole purposes. The intention of cooperative circular exchange is to maximize collective use and minimize waste. Multi-purpose building use achieves this goal. Municipalities that are enthusiastic to utilize public space boldly will succeed in their regenerative efforts. Similarly, city governments can encourage and incentivize individuals’ and businesses’ contributions of “private” space — homes, storefronts, fitness centers — to use as pop-up lending libraries or neighborhood access points for cooperatively circulated goods. Finally, and perhaps most pivotally, every store that sells goods firsthand must provide recollection for these items, offering both on-site secondhand sale and donation to neighborhood access points.


Stewardship, Sponsorship and Sliding Scale


Critical-mass participation and restructured civic-economic-governmental relationships are essential to cooperative networks’ success. In tandem, citizens’ on-the-ground cooperative work and representatives’ steadfast prioritization of local economy nurtures circular exchange. It is important that cooperative membership be flexible, opening access through channels of both stewardship and sponsorship. Some members can more readily give work hours, others can lend land or supplies, and others can give money. All are important: Regular volunteer labor and resources are necessary to the function of the system overall, and recurring financial contributions can both procure supplies and fund paid labor by individuals in need.


Our imperative for cooperative networks foregrounds the need to evolve tax policy toward an increasingly progressive, flexible and sliding-scale framework. Direct sponsorship and stewardship of cooperatives can function as a tax credit, deduction or payment in its own right, as cooperative networks merge with, sprout from and undergird the municipal civic structure. Finally, as tax codes mature toward regenerative models, municipalities must limit corporate and individual private property holding and investment into extractive, pollutive projects such as factory farming, unsustainable building practices and mass production of goods that are saturating both first and secondhand consumer markets. Such policy bravely calls out the unnecessary excesses of both wealth hoarding and overconsumption, while requiring from the wealthiest individuals responsible, regenerative action.


Trust builds peace. We can trust the reality that we have more than enough when we use resources mindfully and heartfully. From this awareness, we can work within our most proximal surroundings to create healthy, balanced systems that effectively meet our needs. When we start with stillness, move with meditation and believe in our capacity to make compassionate choices, we invite closer to manifestation our most abundant iteration. Now is the time to imagine our best selves. When we trust ourselves as individuals, we can trust our neighbors across the street and across the planet. Through localizing heart-based design thinking, we can align our creative strategy with a regenerative future.