Editorial: Space-Sharing Practices in the City

About this issue

Issue number
Volume 46 – Number 1


As the editors explain in their introduction, the papers in this issue can be divided into two parts. The first part (three articles) provides a conceptual foundation for understanding space-sharing practice in the city, while the six papers of the second part are empirical studies of emerging space-sharing practices, each investigating a specific form of sharing space and/or type of shared space.

Throughout history, the city has been quintessentially a shared space. But today, with the increasing urban population density and the ubiquity of the Internet of Things (IoT), the city has become an even more conducive site for complex sharing activities (Cohen and Munoz, 2016). One such complex activity is what we term space-sharing practice: an emerging urban phenomenon that has so far accreted in new forms of sharing spatial resources, the creation of new shared spaces, and the production of new socio-spatial sharing relations (Chan and Zhang, 2018). Central to space-sharing practice is the recognition that the physical space can be designed and configured into a shareable resource, and that there are certain resources that would be more effectively shared in actual and spatial environment (see Katrini, 2018; Piccinno, 2018). Following this, it may be possible to specify further space-sharing practice through a threefold distinction: the space of sharing (i.e. the different ways of sharing spaces and the different typologies of shared space), space in sharing (i.e. the different roles that space plays in facilitating or enabling sharing activities and practices), and finally, space for sharing (i.e. how environmental design can create affordance for sharing and enable social transformations).

Nevertheless, our understanding of this phenomenon remains nascent, uneven and incomplete. Existing literature mostly centres around the Sharing Economy, which focuses on the social, business, political, organizational and regulatory dimensions of this form of economy (e.g. Botsman and Rogers, 2010; Schor, 2016; Frenken and Schor, 2017; Slee, 2015; Schor and Attwood-Charles, 2017), at the exclusion of acknowledging space, let alone the systematic investigation of space of sharing, space in sharing and space for sharing. In the views espoused by the Sharing Economy, sharing activities are often narrowly understood or primarily framed on the basis of economic transactions, and space is merely presumed as the background reality that accommodates such transactions. As a result, the spatial dimension of sharing has yet to be recognized as an essential variable in elucidating the phenomenon of sharing. Clearly, this also means that the important examination of emerging space-sharing practices in contemporary cities has so far remained elusive.

This knowledge gap is salient, and especially urgent, for the following reasons. First, space is both integral and constitutive to sharing in the city, especially to new space-sharing practices. Many of these activities – for instance, car sharing, bike sharing, office sharing, and many more – are essentially place-based (Cohen and Munoz, 2016). This means that not only are the spatial attributes of these places likely to condition the possibilities and processes of sharing, but sharing activities are also anticipated to impact the ambience, constitution and usage patterns of these places (Chan and Zhang, 2018). For instance, physical spaces can be purposefully configured to heighten the proximity effect (Chan, 2019) and to make serendipitous encounters more likely (Olma, 2016) which, in turn, may lead to the formation of new collaborative networks that are likely to further modify and adapt these spaces for their specific needs. This can be found in the case of flat sharing, where spatial proximity engenders the proximity effect. When this is amicable it can lead to flatmates engaging in more communal living and sharing more spaces, consequently transforming the shared space that can facilitate, as well as reflect, their enhanced relations.

Second, the impact of many space-sharing practices is either inherently spatial or manifested spatially. Taking the case of dockless bikeshare programmes for instance, the benefit of this sharing practice – that is, the freedom and convenience to park and pick up bicycles anywhere in the city – is often achieved at the cost of inconveniencing others who share the same urban space as the riders. In other words, the innovative way of sharing space itself turns out to be the cause of the problems encountered in this shared space. More often, impacts of space-sharing practices are registered through the ‘ripple effects’ of the sharing economy (Schor, 2016). In this case, space may not be immediately or directly affected by sharing practice, but as a stage in this sharing practice, it will be ineluctably implicated in its subsequent impacts and influences. In many cities, for example, the rapid consumption of otherwise more valuable urban space for new commercial properties and the associated problems of congestion, parking and pollution are closely linked to the dramatic growth and prevalence of Airbnb (Gurran and Phibbs, 2017).

Furthermore, space is more than a shareable resource (Benkler, 2004); it is often a generative reality where societies and cultures unfold and evolve (McLaren and Agyeman, 2015). Today, as a result of space-sharing practices, an increasing number of new typologies of shared space have been created. These new spatial typologies in turn enhance the sharing activities that take place within them and, in this process, foster the formation of new social and economic relations. Most notable among them are coworking spaces (Spinuzzi, 2012; Gandini, 2015; Merkel, 2017) and hackerspaces (Williams and Hall, 2015; Davies, 2017) which not only accommodate and facilitate an emerging work culture and a new lifestyle, but also cultivate and spur mutual learning (Merkel, 2017), collaboration and socialization (Davies, 2017). Anticipating a new horizon for transforming social relationships, space-sharing practices are also, arguably, laying the ground for urban commons (Harvey, 2012). While the production and maintenance of urban commons certainly require much more than sharing (Kip et al., 2015), spaces, and specifically space-sharing practices, are nonetheless the key precursor to urban commons in many cases. For example, cases of cooperative housing (or co-housing) and community gardens all point to a common origin of some forms of space-sharing practices. This aspect of urban commons has been largely neglected in the present discourse, of which a majority tends to focus mainly on the commoning process to the exclusion of discussing the precondition of space and the spatial relations that prefigure this process.

In order to bridge this knowledge gap, this special issue brings together a set of contributions from different disciplinary perspectives that provide new insights into emerging space-sharing practices in the city. Specifically, all the articles can be seen as a concerted effort that attempts to respond to the issues discussed above, and address primarily, but not limited to, the following questions: 

  1. What are the spatial attributes of different space-sharing practices, and the associated economics, policies, governance, and organizations for sharing?
  2. How does the spatial environment of the city condition space-sharing practices, and conversely how do they shape and transform existing, and produce new, urban spaces?
  3. What are the impacts of space-sharing practices on urban spaces?
  4. What new socio-spatial relations are produced by space-sharing practices? And finally,
  5. How can we encourage meaningful space-sharing practices, amplifying the positive and mitigating the negative impacts, through purposeful design and interventions?

While these questions can hardly represent the full set of inquiries pertaining to the spatial dimension of sharing, it is hoped that they can, nonetheless, serve as a starting point for developing a fuller agenda for systematic study of space-sharing practice.

This issue can be read in two parts. The first three articles, which form the first part, together provide a conceptual foundation for understanding space-sharing practice in the city. It begins with an empirical study from John (2020), examining how the very concept of sharing is perceived and used by people from different positions of the sharing economy. A particular focus is devoted to whether the presence of money is a counterindication for sharing. By questioning fixed definitions of sharing and revealing the controversies revolving around this concept, John’s work calls for a contextualized and dynamic understanding of sharing. In this way, it brings out the crucial question of where, or what should be the starting point for, investigating space-sharing practices.

This is followed by Frenken and Pelzer’s (2020) work that highlights the importance of an appropriate policy and institutional framework for sharing practice. This study provides a critique of the innovation logic, deemed as ‘reverse technology assessment’ that allows many platforms of the sharing economy to be launched without any ex ante assessment, resulting in various negative impacts and externalities upon urban spaces. Following this, the authors examine the potential of an alternative policy framework, regarded as the ‘right to challenge’ and emphasize the need to develop localized cooperative sharing platforms in order to safeguard public interests and enable public participation in the sharing process.

While the first two articles throw new light on the wider environment of space-sharing practice, the third article from Widlok (2020) charts the spatial attributes of sharing, which can be summarized as the spatial condition for creating co-presence as one of the main strategies for demanding a share and enabling sharing. Mirrored in both the ethnographic cases of primitive hunter-gatherer settlements and present sharing activities, the relation between space and sharing, as the author highlights, is inherently complex and nuanced; that is, while features of the built environment such as bodily proximity and high permeability are proven to affect the occurrence of sharing, it is nonetheless almost impossible to formularize the link between space and sharing, because sharing as a social practice, both in history and today, is characterized by special mutuality, temporality and sequentiality. For Widlok, therefore, learning from vernacular social forms and processes that involve the ordering of the built environment in relation to sharing practices is possibly a rigorous approach to understanding and unpacking space-sharing practice.

The articles in the second part are empirical studies of emerging space-sharing practices, each investigating a specific form of sharing space and/or type of shared space. What is common among these papers is that space-sharing practice is not merely analysed and discussed as an emerging phenomenon in itself; rather that it can serve as a prism through which new insights on urban processes can be gained and new urban opportunities envisioned. Huang et al. (2020) present a study that examines coworking space in Beijing. It reveals that the recent boom of coworking spaces in the city is not only associated with the fast-growing creative industry catering for the newly emerging work culture, but is also an efficient mechanism for revitalizing many low-value areas and dilapidated properties across the city. Nevertheless, this impact, deemed positive in this article, is on the one hand dependent on the quality of public facilities in the wider urban environment such as public transport network and education institutions, and on the other, strongly conditioned by the goals of the profit-driven market economy.

Following this, Long and Zhao (2020) develop a Mobike Riding Index to study the dockless bikeshare programme in China, using a large set of Mobike riding data covering almost 300 cities across the country. The index quantifies numerous spatial characteristics of the physical urban environment related to cycling and is shown to be a powerful new tool to understand bike sharing and to support relevant decision-making in urban planning and design. The paper reveals the potential of leveraging crowdsourced data to study new space-sharing activities and, more generally, it suggests an alternative for empirical research on sharing that has been acutely impeded by the lack of access to privately-owned datasets (Frenken and Schor, 2017).

Moving from China to Singapore, the next article by Seah and Teo (2020) presents a new typology of architecture – the integrated community hub – that is deliberately designed for agglomerating various sharing activities and generating new social interactions within and beyond a local community. Premised on the concept of Whole-Of-Government, the integrated community hub is not merely conceived as a large-scale, multi-functional shared space but more than this, as a spatial device that enables public engagement during planning, which then fosters a broader sharing of government resources and public services. This study opens a new horizon for creating spatial typologies of sharing that can function as, to use the authors’ words, ‘social condensers’ for the production of new social relationship networks and enhanced community building.

The complementary relation between space-sharing practice and community building is further unpacked in the next two papers, which focus on the empirical study of how individuals and communities share urban spaces. Both illustrate how community engagement can be catalysts in creating and sustaining shared spaces in the city and verse visa. Cho and Kriznik (2020) present an ethnographic study of appropriating alleys as collectively created shared spaces to foster communal life in two local neighbourhoods of Seoul. In this study, community engagement is understood as an instrumental process through which local residents’ awareness of alleys as shareable spatial resources is awakened and shared alleys are then constituted and maintained as a result of their collective action and collaboration. The shared alleys in turn also contribute to strengthening social relationship networks and help to sustain the communal life and shared identities of the neighbourhoods.

Gopalakrishnan and Chong (2020), bring the focus back to Singapore and examine community gardens as shared urban green spaces. Community engagement in this case is discussed as a participatory process of place-keeping, the step after place-making that is often neglected in urban planning and design. This study argues that actively engaging residents in place-keeping can add a new layer to space-sharing practice even beyond production of new socio-spatial relations – that is, encouraging shared responsibility and maintaining a collective effort towards transitioning a public space into a commons. Critical to this community-led place-keeping approach, as the authors point out, is the development and implementation of an innovative participatory governance system with a conscious balance in power and relations between municipal authorities and residents. Common to the above two articles, and especially evident in the second one, is that space-sharing practice seems to be presumed as a pre-condition that anticipates the birth of new urban commons from within the community.

The last article by Stavrides (2020) tackles the connection between space-sharing practice and urban commons. It argues that collectively creating and sharing spaces is an effective means of reclaiming commons in contemporary cities that are increasingly characterized by segregation, enclosure and inequality. Based on cases of housing movements experienced by the marginalized populations in three Latin American countries, this study highlights the transformative potential of commoning with respect to urban spaces. As the author highlights, it is the commoning process that unleashes the power of collective creativity and collaboration, which in turn transforms the physical urban environment into shared places of habitation and produces new forms of social relations. Also, it is in the commoning process that space-sharing practice plays the dual role as both a shaping factor of power negotiation and a mechanism of social bond creation, catalysing new political mobilization and organization.

Taken together, the contributions to this issue can be viewed as a wide range of case studies and examples of space-sharing practices from diverse cultural and geographical contexts. In addition to offering a global perspective, it is also hoped that these studies open up an opportunity that allows readers to identify commonalities of vision, approach, impact, and ethics – among many other parameters – that together form a preliminary framework for understanding space-sharing practice in cities. It is noteworthy that half the articles examine emerging sharing practices in East and Southeast Asian cities. From this point of view, this issue also contributes by starting to address the severe lack of systematic studies and documentation of sharing activities in these geographical regions.

Besides the cross-geographical coverage, these papers also present, from multiple disciplinary angles, different approaches to studying space-sharing practice. As indicated above, while linguistic pragmatics, policy analysis and ethnography are employed to establish the conceptual foundations, classical qualitative methods as well as big data analytics have also been applied to the empirical investigations. Especially notable is the contribution by two architects – Seah and Teo (2020) – who, in contrast to academic writers, offer an elaborate example of design research, where design variables, social factors and architectural processes are richly intertwined to create a detailed account of a new typology of shared space.

Read in a sequence, the articles can be seen to be strengthening the narrative that space-sharing practice should not be understood just as a transactional activity or as a category of the sharing economy. Rather it should be seen as a new urban phenomenon that sheds light on the spatial dimension of sharing: space can be shared in innovative ways and shaped into new shared typologies; space can play different roles in facilitating and enabling sharing activities; and space can be specifically designed to open up new opportunities for sharing, which then lead to the formation of new socio-spatial relations and more significantly, the potential production of the urban commons. Pushing the knowledge boundary in this direction, these studies also prompt further research questions – for instance, to what extent, and in what ways, can space-sharing practice catalyse the formation of the urban commons? And conversely, whether, and if so, how can the institutional framework of urban commons contribute to enabling more equitable and democratic space-sharing practices?

This issue owes an immense debt of gratitude to all the contributors who responded to our invitation to contribute and who shared their work and insights generously with little reservation. Special thanks are also due to the reviewers who not only gave their time and expertise to perform a careful and critical reading of the manuscripts but also subsequently, offered constructive and inspiring feedback to the contributors. The collective efforts of this special group of scholars and practitioners clearly embody the spirit of sharing.


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This special issue is part of the project, NUS-Tsinghua Design Research Initiative sponsored by Ng Teng Fong Charitable Foundation (Hong Kong). Project website: www.nt-drisc.org.