urban informal

Some communities have no choice but to build their own homes, roads and other structures. According to Mark Purcell, a professor in the Department of Urban Design & Planning at the University of Washington, it can be interesting to observe what happens in the absence of state-led urban planning.

For Professor Purcell, our liberal-democratic model of governance in modern Western societies, where people are elected to represent the views of a collective, is not real democracy.

This is a “corruption of what democracy means”, he says. Instead, true democracy is a political community where “we manage our affairs for ourselves”.

Unsurprisingly, Professor Purcell’s views on democracy resonate with anarchists.

“Anarchism, of course, is a very diverse political tradition with many different variants. But I think it is fair to say that a broad swathe of anarchists share the conviction that the state is necessarily a relation of domination, and that people should, as much as possible, seek to manage their affairs for themselves,” he wrote in an academic journal article.

“Anarchism, understood that way, resonates almost entirely with what I call democracy. In that sense, I am simultaneously a democrat and an anarchist.”

Professor Purcell believes we should be on an “active search” for a society that puts individuals closer to the decision-making – one that is not reliant on elected officials who regularly fail to meet the promises that got them into office in the first place.

Speaking to The Fifth Estate after his presentation at the launch of the new “urban informality” research hub (InfUr) at the University of Melbourne, Professor Purcell explained what his stance on democracy means in the context of urban planning.

His presentation included a reference to Thomas Hobbes and how people are separated people from power, and how democracy gives them power.

“In the context of the city it’s about urban inhabitants and managing the space of the city for themselves,” he said.

The role of the informal in cities

The new InfUr research hub is about exploring the role of urban informality –which is urbanisation that occurs in the absence of formal frameworks – in the development of cities.

Professor Purcell agrees that there is value in investigating what goes on in informal settlements, common in developing countries where people have the opportunity (and burden) of designing their own houses and streets.

He believes one of the key takeaways is the realisation that other ways of planning exist, and that bottom-up urbanism is possible. He also said the urban informality practice shows us that there are “wrong ways” of doing urbanism.

Photo by sergio souza on Unsplash

You can still build infrastructure

“…it’s easy for us to think that we could never have sewers or transport systems without [formal urban planning]. But there are all sorts of other ways to do this, we don’t have to limit ourselves just because our system does it a certain way,” he said.

“In general, my interest in this is we are much more capable than we think. We are good at doing democracy. We put a lot of limits on ourselves.

“The classic thing is transportation. The idea is for us to try to un-think the assumption [that we can’t do it ourselves] and insert instead ‘I bet we could’.”

“And instead of just experimenting in the dark, we can look at the successes that have been had already.”

He says there are places in Africa, for example, where the state isn’t present and “life has to go on and people have to find a way to manage”.

“These are places [to] look to.”

The idea that maybe property does not have to be organised by private ownership

Professor Purcell says the way we organise property is ripe for rethinking.

“An example is property. It is so constricted and unnecessary and does not have to be governed by private ownership,” he said.

“Plenty of places don’t have this. We don’t have to have property systems like this.”

He says we should consider the merits of different ways of organising space that don’t require private ownership.

“Thinking about property as land rather than as a resource”, for instance.

Playing the long game

Professor Purcell said it will be a long time until his brand of democracy becomes embedded in the way cities are built and designed. This is largely because of the many “forces and interests that are vested in the built environment”.

“I think of this in a long-term sense. We can’t hope [it will occur] in the next five years.”

We need to start thinking differently to avoid getting “stuck” in our current system, he said.

“We do practise self-management all the time but it’s taking it that next step to grow and spread to this being the predominant way we do urban.”

But surely the size of our communities is a problem?

Professor Purcell said the current large scale and size of nation-states make it difficult for citizens to actively participate in their governance.

A return to smaller communities is a possible solution.

The ancient Greeks, for instance, might offer an archetype for a genuinely participative democracy. While not perfect – only wealthy males were included as citizens – those who were citizens were expected to participate equally in the governing of the city.

“Everyone shows up to decide on the types of policies.”

Will technology help or hinder the cause?

Technology can be a useful tool for participative democracy but it can also be “dangerous and insidious”, Professor Purcell said.

Twitter, he said, is “doing what they do” simply to maximise its profits and is not genuinely facilitating democracy.

“[It’s about] how the tech itself can be democratised.”

He pointed to the emergence of decentralised alternatives to corporate-owned social media platforms.

“…some people are thinking about a [version of] Facebook [that is hosted] on servers everywhere [that are not a state-owned corporation] and not packing the data and selling it.”

This movement will bring capitalism down, peacefully

What Professor Purcell is essentially advocating for is the steady decline of capitalism through bottom-up action rather than relying on a rapid, ideas-driven revolution.

“The idea is not to get rid of capitalism and then live how we live. I think we live how we want to live and then roll with it,” he said.

“I think the left has thought about it this way for ages. The left needs to cancel out what we don’t want, then proceed, instead of thinking [about] what we want to be…”

“…I sound like a raving lunatic left winger but we [shouldn’t be aiming to] smash capitalism. [It’s] better to wither it by getting busy with the projects that we want to do now,” he said.

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  1. democracy is miles away from what it was originally intended. My understanding was that democracy was actually about having an informed society so they could make the best/correct decisions. Now we have a misinformed society, one where knowledge is kept from the masses, where the poor are hindered from education and libraries etc, where E-news is seen as more vital than politics,where councils keep everything in-confidence etc.

    People are poorly informed and therefore locked out of democracy because they cannot make an informed objective view or decision that goes beyond their own personal gain or loss.

    In regards to property, I love Chomsky when he criticizes neo-lib government. – “the role of government is to protect property from the majority”

    right, back to my manic st preachers cd’s.

  2. Tina, the alternative is in fact a network of locally organised communities, the future will be distributed rather than centralised..an internet of cities..(actually village scale where participation by all is possible). Each node in the network will be powered by an energy microgrid, circulating a water microgrid, which, in turn, is irrigating a food system. This is not about self-sufficiency but about maximising the local, managing the local environment to provide an abundance of basic needs; food, water, energy and spaces to live and work. The efficient provision of these basic needs will act as a platform from which people can then pursue their individual aspirations…creative, art, innovation, rest, relationships etc. This scale makes car-sharing of electric vehicles possible. Online platforms will continue to enable the sharing of rarer skills and the satisfaction of many of the more complex needs.

    1. This sounds just fantastic Steven! I love the solutions where it’s a blend of one thing and the other. Always the best I reckon. Have your cake and eat it too. It’s just that the answer to how this can happen is not always easy or apparent. At Tomorrowland, I loved Chris Wade from the CEFC who had the same sentiment about investing in sustainability. It makes money AND saves the planet. It’s not always an “either or” solution. That’s just the existing paradigm. Yes there are people who don’t want us to try and take a chance to change the structures that we are all used to. They will try to hoodwink us into thinking the choices are this centralised proven success model OR failure-prone distributed communities. They might point to the hippies and say look, all the communes failed, you will fail. Wrong. I love your ideas where you take from both worlds and choose how you will use the various elements to fit. Bring it on indeed!

  3. Whatever the word democracy originally meant (Stephen Larios above) today it means governance by an identified corporation with a four or five yearly beauty contest or performance review.

    The last redoubt of the dictator is the plebisite or referendum, its how Brexit occurred. Referendums are how so called leaders abrogate their responsiblity to provide solutions and turn to the ‘mob’, pub philosophers, and those who hold sway through the force of their character to come up with something better.

    Capitalism is roughly the expression of a meritocracy, which requires tempering through countering the structures tendancy to become totalitarian.

    While the Professor thinks he can rid the world of capitalism he seems to have no idea what he will replace it with. The security of ownership and the rights and status it confers on people is one of the ways in which a society identifies those of greater compitance. Without ‘badges of status’ every initiative would be a power grab of equal status.

    1. I think the replacement the professor offers is locally-led self-organised communities. Precinct-level, and he points to developing countries where people organise their own services because there is no state-based alternative.

  4. Yes, indeed… ‘democracy’ literally means ‘power in the hands of the citizens’ but at the time the word was created, only a small percentage of the population were considered citizens. Women, children, slaves and foreigners were deemed non-citizens. The word was created sometime around the Sixth century BCE as city-states like Athens had grown to a scale where participation by all residents was no longer feasible. The ‘Council of 400’ was created as a representative democracy. This concept of ‘representative democracy’ is an oxymoron…is the power with the representative or the citizen?… or does it mean that we have the power to forfeit our power to a representative every 3 or 4 years?
    Anarchy, means ‘without a leader’… therefore implies power is in the hands of all the people.