By Katie Sperry
Sharing and cooperation are evolved, sociocultural traits that have played an integral part in human social and cultural evolution (Nowak, 2011). In modern societies, private interests have been prioritized at the cost of shared interests. This is particularly prevalent in contemporary urban areas, where sociocultural or informal sharing still occurs, but has declined, largely due to the commercialization of the public realm and the increasing pace of economic and technological change (McLaren & Agyeman, 2015). In China, rapid urbanization and industrialization has caused severe environmental impacts. Major resource consumption, environmental degradation, and the resulting public frustration, has lead the administration to develop a strategy emphasizing green growth and low carbon emissions, including a national strategy for a circular economy (Geng et al. 2013). Unlike standard linear economic models, circular economies recycle byproducts that are produced during the manufacturing phase and products at the end of their life-cycle back into closed-loop systems, reducing pollution and resource consumption. Complementary to the circular economy is the sharing economy, where multiple people share products and other resources, allowing existing goods and services to be used more fully (Fergusan, 2016). The combination of increasing population densities and the proliferation of new digital technologies is helping people recognize the value of sharing in cities – particularly in novel (inter)mediated forms (McLaren & Agyeman, 2015). Cities in China have not been immune to this phenomenon.
Today, many people associate the sharing economy, and the “collaborative consumption” that it facilitates, with multibillion-dollar corporations like Uber and Airbnb. In China, key examples include Didi Chuxing (a major ride-sharing company providing transportation services to almost 400 million users in more than 400 cities across China) and Tujia (an accommodation platform similar to Airbnb). This aspect of the sharing economy has attracted a great deal of critical attention (Scholz, 2016; Slee, 2015). Some people contend that applying ‘sharing’ in these cases is a misnomer, and point out that turning more people into micro-entrepreneurs mostly propagates the values of neoliberalism, not sharing. Thinking more hopefully about the prospect of sharing as a persistent societal value, McLaren & Agyeman (2016) understand commercialized sharing models like these as holding potential to influence norms and values in ways that ultimately deliver political support for a just and equitable sharing paradigm. Additionally, Botsman and Rogers (2010) notice that collaborative consumption may also result in unintended positive environmental side effects. For example, whether it is an individual’s intention or not, living in a cohousing space can help reduce their ecological footprint; sharing resources is an integral part of cohousing, which helps decrease resource consumption. Also, since the common area is essentially an extension of each household’s private living space, private living spaces are smaller than average, saving on building material and land.
China is rich with possibilities for the sharing economy – when surveyed, 94 percent of people in China said they are willing to participate in the sharing economy, compared with only 43 percent of North Americans. There are also many new consumers entering the middle class for the first time who could depend more on the sharing economy for goods and services, essentially ‘leapfrogging’ the traditional ownership-based consumption model (Turnbull, 2016). The high density of most Chinese cities also helps, because this means there are more potential willing sharers and sharees within the same radius. This number will continue to rise, as China is in the midst of the largest rural to urban migration in human history. The financial and human capital of the sharing economy in China is staggering: In 2015, it was valued at US $299 billion. By 2020, the sharing economy will be worth 10 percent of China’s GDP, and it is projected to reach $335 billion by 2025 (Clifford, 2016). This rapid projected growth represents a 40% annual growth rate in economic value to the Chinese economy (Nan, 2017). During the past year, 600 million people were involved in China’s sharing economy, increasing by 100 million from 2015. Among them, the number of service providers reached 60 million (10 million more than the previous year), and sharing economy platforms created 5.85 million jobs, up 850,000 from the year before (Nan, 2017). Reports have suggested that China could be one of the first countries to establish consistent and appropriate tax codes for the sharing economy, in addition to creating legislation for tracking and punishing abuses related to consumer safety and fraud (Turnbull, 2016).
Within the realm of housing, the sharing economy features two key models: peer-to-peer (P2P) accommodation and cohousing. P2P accommodation typically uses a third party platform and is short-term, while cohousing is a more permanent form of collaborative consumption. Cohousing originated in Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands and has spread to other countries including Australia, the US, Canada, Germany and France. Standard cohousing complexes consist of individual apartments, which are fully autonomous but slightly smaller than average housing units, combined with shared space and facilities such as community rooms and kitchens, guest rooms, craft rooms, and gardens (Huber, 2017).
Formally named by Robert Gilman in the early 1990s, a relatively recent form of cohousing is the ecovillage. The term refers to the combination of ecological and community-building design. As the prefix “eco” implies, ecovillages are designed and inhabited with an intent toward sustainable living. For example, they may use green building techniques and incorporate green space for gardening (Gilman, 1991; Kirby, 2004). In China, Shan-Shui urbanism could be an important source of inspiration for combining cohousing models with sustainable design principles. Instead of employing socialist urban design that has dominated Chinese cities for the past half a century, Shan-Shui urbanism helps integrate nature into urban space while also preserving traditional Chinese culture (Yang & Hu, 2016).
While the ecourban neighbourhood potential of the Shan-Shui city is perhaps the most direct connection between the study on this blogsite of ecourban neighbourhoods around the world, in the second part of this post, I will look more closely at a new and unique model of shared housing in Chinese cities. The most popular cohousing chain in China, branded as You+, strives to achieve goals of building new models of home and workplace at this critical time in Chinese urbanism. This model presents both opportunities and challenges to the sharing economy in general, and the prospects for a more sustainable Chinese urbanism.
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