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.
“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 () 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.
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.