The Participatory Design of Cities

Very interesting interview with John Thackara and Sunil Abraham in Cluster magazine, reprinted at the Doors of Perception site.

We excerpt a few of the questions and answers that create the framework for thinking about the topic, but there’s a lot more, such as a discussion on ‘speed vs. slowth’, the use of alternative monetary systems, and more.


Cluster: What role does design play when it comes to creating democratic cities?

JT. All cities are part of a larger ecology of resource extraction, energy use, environmental impact, waste flows, and social networks. The rules that govern how this larger ecology works – or not – are political rules shaped by an era in which we could burn cheap fossil fuel while ignoring the ecological consequences. That era is now over, and its eco-cidal politics (and economic development) have become obstacles to our survival. The only meaningful task of design, now, is to help people transform the ways they obtain food, energy, materials, and water – in cities, or outside them. This kind of design is of course “political” in that it opposes the demands of industrial society for limitless resources in a world whose carrying capacity is finite. But ecodesign – and hence, eco politics – is about new ways of inhabiting places; it is not about new ways of organising representative government.

SA. The state and the judiciary can either build or destroy democratic cities through policy formulation and implementation. For example, planners of public works, such as transportation systems, determine the mobility of the poor which then determines the extent of their financial and political engagement within the city. There is a new dimension today as governments turn digital; participation in the market and in governance will now depend on the design of the “information city”. Where the state or city governments base infrastructures on proprietary software, proprietary standards, surveillance and censorship technologies, the result is less democracy. On the contrast, public Wi-Fi, telecentres, cyber-cafes, municipal broadband and other forms of shared access have a democratizing effect on cities.

Cluster: What actions are needed to create a city which is tolerant and open to all citizens?

JT. The drive towards enclosure and privatisation – of knowledge and ecosystem resources, as much as public space – goes back a long way; but attacks on the commons are particularly intense right now. The answer is not to have a leisurely debate about tolerance and city governance. The answer is to demonstrate, in practice, that openness and collaboration deliver a better chance of survival. A city food system is an obvious place to start: growing food in public spaces, sharing knowledge about how to prepare and store it, and organising communal meals to eat it, are easy and practical steps that produce quick benefits at many levels.

SA. Tolerance of everything and openness to everybody are not universally accepted principles. This is one reason why globalization and migration have introduced new complications. Most religions advocate tolerance in theory, but organised religion can be oppressive in practice. In Malaysia, Muslim lovers, like their Chinese and Indian counterparts, arrange for a romantic rendezvous in a hotel – only to be arrested and publicly humiliated by the morality police (or, in India, by Hindu fundamentalists). I’m struck that in the digital world there seems to be greater acceptance of diversity. The anonymity and privacy afforded by the Internet and the emergence of safe spaces for different online and off-line communities has contributed to this. The question is: how then can a physical city also provide for such safe spaces and systems?”

More Information:

We have selected four local initiatives we think are models for p2p-inspired action, here.

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