The Return of Sharing Cities

Understanding the notion of ownership is crucial when trying to grasp the specific nature of sharing in Central-Eastern European cities

It’s one of the earliest lessons we are all taught, it guides many of our moral consciences throughout our lives, and although the practise of sharing is as old as the hills, it cannot be said to have a uniform configuration. It has been part of the natural behaviour of collective living where inhabitants have engaged in the practice both in formal and informal ways, on purpose and by accident. While in some regions sharing is essential and happens automatically, in others it is a trend that needs to be constantly promoted and practices maintained. Because of their complexity, density and human diversity, cities are playing a particularly important role in the development of the sharing economy because they depend so heavily on the communal distribution of space, goods, services and ideas. Today, cities are facing such problems as a lack of basic resources and an increase of economic inequality on the one hand, and the overflow of garbage and general waste on the other. Therefore, the idea of sharing has become crucial to meet these challenges.

The popularity of initiatives focused on implementing different ways of sharing is growing. Some cities such as Amsterdam, Seoul and London have introduced action plans to popularize the practice. Others, such as Portland, Barcelona and Melbourne are supporting more bottom-up initiatives based on the building of efficient policies.

Above all, communication technologies have allowed sharing to work on much larger scales than previously possible. Through online platforms, you can share anything from household items to your car not only with your neighbours but also with someone living further afield in the city or even elsewhere in the world. People are engaged with this philosophy because they are assuming that there are others willing to share and pay it back. Hence, we see the growth of people offering their space in their homes or in their cars (e.g. the Polish based BlaBlaCar, a long-distance carpooling service connecting drivers with empty seats to people travelling the same way).

People are also sharing their time, skills and passions as can be observed on Meetup which lets people join and create groups of people who share your interests. There doesn’t seem to be an end in sight as people can now share goods like on a Dutch based website Peerby which is enabling the renting and borrowing of “things” from others living nearby, or one can even share food, for example, via MealSharing which allows people to try home cooked meals in over 450 cities worldwide for a gift or small amount of money.

This practise is affecting the global as well as local economies because it is transforming the traditional provider and recipient model for the resource exchange circle. So-called collaborative consumption has become a reality. It is based on a peer-to-peer model of access to goods and services, and there are many enterprises that have built their business success on that same model such as Uber and Airbnb. One could argue that it undermines the idea of sharing by adding an intermediary – a firm serving as a platform for the transactions. Allowing for this criticism, it still confirms the significance of sharing, and no longer can this be written off as a niche phenomenon. This important trend has been spreading across the world over the last few decades, and that includes a number of cities in Central-Eastern Europe (CEE).

Spaces for co-working, community gardens, shared allotments, garage sales, flea markets, cooperatives, city bikes and shared meals with neighbours all point to the fact that not only is this burgeoning economy a reality in CEE, but it’s a natural fit. There is a green colony of small rural wooden houses in Warsaw called Open Jazdów, which exemplifies the nature of this movement. It is a community managed area shared by different groups and institutions such as NGOs, music groups and urban gardeners. So too, there is Leila in Berlin, a shop where residents can borrow anything from electric drills to wine glasses. There is Magistrála road, a highway in the middle of Prague that is partly transformed into friendly space of fun, relaxation and a meeting spot where cars, pedestrians, cyclists and public transport can coexist.

We can take part in this global movement even if our perspectives and traditions are different. Our history with communism and experiencing the transformation to a free market economy has influenced our approach to sharing. This happened not only by the weakening of social capital and level of trust in our societies, but also by (re-)shaping our relationship and understanding with possession. Obviously, the way we share is strictly connected to the how we conceive ownership; for instance, before sharing something, people must be sure they own it. Only then will they be ready to distribute it. Understanding the notion of ownership is crucial when trying to grasp the specific nature of sharing in Central-Eastern European cities.

fot. Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe

Common means no one’s

In his seminal 1976 work, To have or to Be?, Erich Fromm criticized Western society for being extremely materialistic and preferring „having” to „being”. By that time, private property had been stigmatised in the Eastern Bloc for more than three decades. Yet, the communist regime had not abolished private property entirely; it made it practically inaccessible and thus heavily desired. State property was considered the highest ideal for which other forms of ownership stood in direct opposition, and so the possibility of purchasing or selling private property was drastically limited.

Theoretically, communism was based on the idea that all property should be common and people should share most of the things they have with whomever in need, as the propaganda from this period proves. The reality of this practice was born out of economic necessity as access to basic goods such as flats but also food and even toilet paper was restricted. Food stamps were used in some periods of the communist era for rationing products and controlling prices. So, to make ends meet in everyday life, inhabitants had to exchange, reuse, transform and share things with other members of the community. There was often one television set for the block of flats so neighbours were meeting to watch a football match together. There were usually only a few cars for the quarter so people were borrowing them for special occasions or in cases of emergency. But the truth is that while practising different models of sharing, people dreamt of their own washing machine, television or car. What is more, sharing was happening mainly between people who knew each other – family members, neighbours or friends. Strangers – anyone of the general unknown – were perceived as competitors in getting access to the limited goods on offer.

Today, we can still see the consequences of this communist perception of common property. As a rule, public property was considered to be property of the state, not of the society or the people; “state” meant “ownerless”. Public spaces in cities, as an example, were strongly dominated by the authorities. It was a place where people were expected to demonstrate their support towards the government. This was exemplified on May Day parades held in every town and city of the Eastern Bloc; they usually included a military display and the presence of party leaders greeting applauding crowds. It was a space of control and had nothing to do with the feeling of freedom or safety. However it might have been attached to communism, this idea did not automatically begin to change after the turn towards democracy; in fact, this concept of commonality still exists in the cities of our region. Discovering how and why it has survived the period of transformation elucidates many fundamental tenets of the Central European perspective.

Fulfilling dreams

When considering a broad-stroke comparison to communism, the free-market oriented economies found individual property to be morally superior to common property. This was reflected in the way individual property was granted strong legal protection. The post-communist property transformation was based on a battle for the primacy of the private over the public and common. It was easily adapted in Central-Eastern European cities where the association with common property had been perceived with disdain.

The notion of ownership was central in this time. The fact that people were gaining their status on the basis of possession of goods caused a permanent compulsion to buy new things. And there were more and more things that people could afford; essentially, the dreams of everyman came true. Why should I share a car or TV with my neighbours when I am finally able to have my own? Owning was an end in itself for many people. “I am what I have” became the existential statement defining many in Central Europe and became the basis for success during the transformation in some countries of Eastern Bloc. The free market was the definitive sign that something new had happened, and this possibility of ownership was just the change the societies were waiting for. We could finally stop sharing and reusing. Wasn’t this freedom? For many, it felt like it was.

Yet this shift took a toll on the cities. The dream of owning a piece of land and the aspirations of having a better standard of life resulted in dramatic (sub)urban sprawl. For instance, retail space in Sofia increased 250% between 1990 and 1995. In the same period, Budapest added 500,000 square metres of new retail space.

In a similar way, individual safety and comfort became a perceived opposition to the welfare of the society1. Thus, gated communities sprang up in many cities of the former Soviet Bloc. For example, the research from 2008 identified 183 gated communities in Budapest alone, with a total of 31.200 people residing therein2. But perhaps this isn’t too surprising, the focus on consumption had turned cities’ spaces into commercial properties, and these were organised mainly by private, individual interests.   

fot. Z. Siemaszko, Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe

Access over possession

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and after the first years of economic transition, inhabitants of Central Eastern Europe got to know the taste of capitalism. Thanks to reforms, economic growth spread across the region and most of the countries witnessed the emergence of a middle class, which was inevitably accompanied by the rise of social stratification and wealth inequalities. For many people the necessity of sharing with each other again became clear. People had still good habits of sharing and were perfectly used to coordinating it with their everyday life. The difference, of course, is that sharing became more and more popular among those who were not forced to do it. Many millennials – those roughly born in the early-1980s to mid-1990s – are enthusiastic about the idea of sharing. For some, it is a practical solution as it is easier to use things temporarily without having to find space and store them in their apartments. For others, this is an ideological choice to consume in different ways, trying to take into consideration the limited resources of the planet.

Meanwhile, this still youthful generation has turned back to ideas, well-known by their parents, which were abandoned in the 90s. People grow vegetables together with our neighbours and take care of parcel gardens. They are proud of eating homemade food and sharing meals with friends and strangers during picnics. Neighbours organize swap meets to exchange personal items and have installed clothing racks in public spaces so those in need can make use of what is available. These kinds of practices have begun to flourish in Central Eastern European cities, but it is still far from the mainstream.

Indeed, the shift in consumer values from ownership to access is very difficult. How we can truly believe that we don’t have to own things to build our position in society when we had been assured that this was the “modern” barometer of success for such a long time? At very least, we are asking some important questions such as: In what cases can we share things without losing them? Would it be possible to share something when we do not possess it? How can we keep our traditional forms of sharing in our cities today?

Rethinking sharing

What we need to do now is reinvent what sharing is and means to our cities. We can do this through changing the idea of ownership. We need to own and co-own rather than possess, and, most importantly, we need to understand the difference between these notions. To possess is to have something; to own is to have ownership of something. For instance, you might own a bike and share it with your neighbour. When your neighbour is riding this bike, you still own it but you do not currently possess it. Furthermore, you can share things you do not own such as public spaces, green areas and the air. There is a great concept we should learn to attach with and refresh the idea of sharing: “enjoyment”. In English, it means not simply a pleasure but rather the possession, use or occupancy of anything with satisfaction or pleasure. It is not a state of full control over something. Presumably this kind of enthusiastic approach could be a better starting point for sharing in societies of Central Eastern Europe. In essence, we really know how to share, our habits of sharing in our communities is well-established. What we need to do now is to learn its importance and value. Looking more deeply into our traditions and their unique examples of sharing will be crucial in making the practice more widespread. This is the reason for us to focus in this magazine’s issue on the origins and different aspects of sharing in our region. We shouldn’t wait to slowly build up sharing in cities or for “better times” because the creative momentum necessary for change is here today.

1 S. Schmidt, S. Fina, S. Siedentop, Post-socialist Sprawl: A Cross-Country Comparison, European Planning Studies 23(7):1-26, December 2014.

2 A. Rochovska, M. Miláčková, Gated Communities: A New Form of Residential Areas in a Post-Socialist City, 2012, available: www.researchgate.net.


This article was published in Magazyn Miasta / Cities Magazine # 1/17  – our special international issue released as a part of Shared Cities: Creative Momentum (SCCM) project. You can read more about the project here. You can download PDF version of the issue for free here.


Main photo: G. Rutkowska, Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe