7 Cities That Have Their Own Currencies

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Will there ever be a unified global currency? Bitcoins—a digital monetary exchange medium that’s been steadily rising in popularity—looked poised to become one. But after roughly $500 million’s worth vanished without a trace last week, many have questioned the virtual cash’s stability.

But some communities go to the opposite extreme by issuing their very own brand of money. From Detroit’s “Cheers” to Espinal’s “Tumin,” there are a handful of currencies around the world that you can only spend in a single town or city. Here are seven of the best-known examples.

1. Bristol, England

What’s the use of having dough that’s completely worthless in the next town over? According to proponents, localized currency is a great way to stimulate the local economy. “Of all the money spent in [Bristol], most of it leaves the city almost as soon as it’s spent. It goes up to the financial institutions and gets lost” says social entrepreneur Chris Sunderland. “What people can be sure of with Bristol pounds is that they’re circulating in the city and that’s where they’ll stay.”

A longtime denizen of the English city, Sunderland currently directs the Bristol Pound Community Interest Company. In 2012, his group began releasing specialized notes that could only be exchanged in the greater metropolitan area. Today, over 12,000 residents have set up their very own Bristol pound bank accounts. And should the whole system collapse, Suderland claims that its users won’t lose a penny. “[Early on,] we committed ourselves to backing every paper Bristol Pound with a pound sterling, which would be locked away in a trust account so that even if we went bankrupt, people’s money would still be safe.” 

2. Calgary, Alberta

Wikimedia Commons/ Imagine Calgary

One thousand vendors, restaurants, and other businesses accept these multicolored bills, of which there are over $80,000-worth floating about Alberta’s largest city. They’ve been in circulation since 1995. 

3. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

You have to go out and help the city of brotherly love to get your hands on some “Equality Dollars.” Thanks to the Resources for Human Development (RHD) nonprofit program, which started the project in 1995, Philadelphians can volunteer at a few designated venues for which they’ll receive 25 of these unusual dollars per hour. Such earnings can then be spent at the 150 local businesses and RHD-run shops which accept the currency. “We have pegged it to the U.S. dollar at 80 cents on the dollar,” asserts CEO Bob Fishman. 

4. Espinal, Mexico

In 2010, a group of college students created the “tumin,” a local currency available exclusively in the Mexican municipality of Espinal. Considering it an unconstitutional act of “monetary rebellion,” the Bank of Mexico has attempted to sue the movement’s founders, though this ambiguous case doesn’t appear to be heading towards a definitive resolution anytime soon. 

5. Detroit, Michigan

Wikimedia Commons

Printed in $3 denominations which feature the beloved “Spirit of Detroit” monument, "Cheers" are the fiscal brainchild of motor city business owners John Linardos, Tim Tharp, and Jerry Belanger. 

6. Volos, Greece

Facing a staggering 21 percent unemployment rate, the people of this seaside urban center decided to fight back by rallying behind the “TEMs system.” Unlike most of the other entries on this list, however, “Local Alternative Units” (known as ‘‘TEMs’’ in Greek) exist only in their digital form. Approximately equivalent to one euro apiece, each unit represents a good or service an individual can exchange rather than a physical lump of cash. Transactions are electronically recorded and, as the initiative’s web operator Christos Pappionannou explains, no one is permitted to gather more than 1200 TEMs or owe in excess of 300 to prevent “hoarding” and “debt,” respectively. 

7. Ithaca, New York

Since 1991, the home of Cornell University has sported another claim to fame that’s frequently made national headlines. That year saw the conception of “Ithaca Hours,” a regional currency that’s presently accepted at over 900 locations across the city. As an added plus, the vibrant bills are marked with everything from steam boats to spotted salamanders to liven up users’ wallets (and to prevent anyone from mistaking them for conventional dollars). 

BONUS: The Berkshires (Massachusetts)

“BerkShares” began as a “great economic experiment” in 2006. Nearly eight years later, this unique form of legal tender is still being utilized throughout the historic Berkshire region of western Massachusetts (and nowhere else), with the branch offices of five regional banks acting as official exchange centers. For those interested, one BerkShare is worth ninety-five “typical” American cents. 

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March 6, 2014 - 11:00am
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