changing lifestyles, People Place Performance, Sharing economy

Image courtesy of Leila, Berlin.

ABC news Australia recently reported that 10 million people in the U.S. are unemployed.  Forty percent of these people have been unemployed for more than six months. Ten million is a huge number to grasp, until you think of it like this: Australia has a population of 23 million people. Imagine every other person being out of work. (In the U.S. it’s every 30th person.)

The story featured Janice, a former government worker, supporting two young children as well as her niece and nephew. Her kids wanted new toys and books, but the little money that was provided from welfare benefits and family support was spent on essentials like rent and food.

Which got me thinking: are shops that are not shops the future in our cities?

My favourite city is Berlin, and in my former neighbourhood, Prenzlauer Berg, there was Leila – a shop that was not a shop – divided into two parts: things that are free and things that you can borrow.

Project  initiator and not-shop-keeper Nikolai Wolfert once gave me a tour of the store. According to Nikolai the average western home has more than 10,000 items of stuff! Nikolai is passionate about sharing, trust, and creating good relationships in our communities. Ultimately he wants to help change our consumer behaviour. He is also a huge fan of Sydney’s Rachel Botsman, the leading advocate in collaborative consumption, whose book I recently borrowed from my friend Bronwyn’s friend Sam.

The free section of the shop is filled with things or stuff that people in the neighbourhood no longer need or don’t really have space for. Books, CDs, DVDs, china, cutlery, trinkets, clothes, shoes, bags, garden seeds and even welly boots adorn homemade shelves. You name it and it’s there! You basically go in and take it, but only if you really need it.

The second section is dedicated to borrowing. Two whole rooms of amazing stuff that you can use free of charge and then give back. People in the community have donated their things for other people to use. It’s the ultimate in creating a resilient community and being good neighbours. You can borrow almost anything: musical instruments, dining room chairs, camping equipment, gardening tools, outdoor furniture, yoga mats, skateboards, children’s toys, kid’s books, cookery books, suitcases, hairdryers, irons and ironing boards, cots, baby change tables, rice cookers, blenders, saucepans, blankets, children’s car seats, bikes, cycle helmets, BBQs, picnic baskets, car tools and DIY books. You can even borrow gardening overalls!

I’ll confess the day I first visited I felt a fraud. After several days trawling around the second hand stores and the flea market without success, I had had to go and buy a clothes airer from a department store. Whilst at first I felt a bit embarrassed and ashamed of my shiny, plastic-wrapped, new purchase, I left the not-shop feeling happy…because I’d agreed to donate my airer to Leila when I left Berlin.

Normalising borrowing is going to be a long journey. When Prince Charles talked of his environmentally friendly lifestyle – recycling old curtains into cushion covers – it was scoffed at by the media as penny pinching.

Most of us have spare rooms, garages, cupboards, and wardrobes full of stuff and junk we neither use nor want. We are addicted to stuff. I’ll be the first to admit that only yesterday another handbag, that I don’t need and I can’t afford, caught my eye! (Note: I didn’t buy it because I’m buying nothing new in 2014!)

But things really are changing. British chain Marks & Spencer offers customers discounts in exchange for unwanted clothes, which are then donated to Oxfam. Last year in Sydney, meanwhile, more than 7,500 sellers took part in the Garage Sale Trail, an event to promote community recycling of unwanted stuff…and yes, most people took part because they wanted to de-clutter their homes.

These stories, and what I’ve seen at Leila, show that sharing, borrowing, lending, making, and mending might just be the future of shopping in our cities in these times of global austerity. I reckon Janice and Mrs. Merkel would agree. What do you think?

Check out the Leila shop at


Rachel Smith

Rachel Smith is an internationally-recognized urban planner and commentator, and principal transport planner with AECOM’s Brisbane office. Connect with her on LinkedIn or Twitter, or follow her blog here.

Originally published Jan 17, 2014

Author: Rachel Smith