The balance of powers

A recent discussion on LinkedIn group URBANIST asked “Should Mayors Rule the World?” Some suggested that mayors are “just human”, and therefore imperfect, and that a better solution would be “direct democracy.”

But this solution misunderstands where we have arrived, and why we have arrived at where we are today.

There’s a tension in governance between technocracy—”the government or control of society or industry by an elite of technical experts”—and democracy—”a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state”. Most of us interested in the city are professionals, and have a bias towards expert knowledge, and therefore technocracy. Most planners bemoan the influence of politics and politicians in city-building. But politics is just the face of democracy.

This tension goes back to the Athenian Greeks, who ruled their city through a direct democracy, though only the landed elite were allowed to participate. Democracy was criticised by Plato in The Republic. He thought that cities should be ruled by knowledge, and that knowledge requires expertise and skill. He used the example of a ship: do we want it guided by a knowledgeable captain, or by the whims of the crew?

And this introduces a third tension: the need for stable guidance, otherwise known as leadership. Where we have arrived now, in representative democracies, is a particular accommodation between the demands of:

  • the constancy of leadership
  • the knowledge of experts
  • the demands of the people

What particular accommodation would be better?

I don’t accept the quick response “direct democracy.” There are many problems with direct democracy, and though the whole ball and dice of governance is worth examining, I think that anyone who is quick to advocate for direct democracy is not dealing with the problems of direct democracy, which include:

  • the tyranny of the majority: “the scenario in which decisions made by a majority place its interests above those of an individual or minority group, constituting active oppression comparable to that of tyrants and despots.”
  • demagoguery: “political leadership in a democracy which appeals to the emotions, fears, prejudices, and ignorance of the lower classes in order to gain power and promote political motives.”
  • the madness of crowds: basically, the capacity of rumours and false beliefs to propagate through a populate, leading to speculative bubbles, moral panics, witch-hunts, and other nasty stuff.

The founders of the American Republic thought that all state power was dangerous, and therefore introduced the concept of checks and balances to their design.* This suggests that the various powers should be set against each other, so that no power can gain complete control.

If we are dissatisfied with this particular accommodation between these disparate powers—leadership, knowledge, popular will—what will the new accommodation look like?

That’s one question we want to explore here.

* The Wikipedia article attributes early American political thinking to Greek and French sources. But another account, which has considerable scholarly support, attributes these ideas to the Iroquois Confederacy.

Drivers are people too

This article states a common sentiment, which I’ve been hearing since 1973.

The streets are commons that belong to everyone. So imagine diverting traffic from a major street in your neighborhood, then welcoming families on bikes, families on foot, babies in strollers, people in wheelchairs, toddlers on training wheels, grade schoolers on skateboards, teenagers on single-speeds, hipsters on fixed gears, grandparents on recumbents, couples arm-in-arm and even yoga classes in the middle of the road.

Over time, I’ve come to see something wrong with this statement: and that is that cars are not mechanical automatons. They contain people too. As do buses, and taxis, and trams.

So the solution given here to making “streets for people” is to exclude a certain group of people.

Of course, I like (some) pedestrianised streets. But there are also many streets in which the people in cars mix freely with people. Some of those examples are written up in the very same “On The Commons” magazines, such as in this article. The common name for this taming (rather than removal) of people-in-cars is “traffic calming.”

So the problem isn’t with people in cars per se: it’s when people in cars dominate the street, thus excluding other people. So why do we see streets-as-commons as being streets-that-exclude-people-driving-cars?

I think that this is the Romantic imagination at work. People see the problem as humans vs machines, and victory is won when the machines are vanquished. (Ignoring the fact that in doing so, there are people in those cars.)

But the real problem—the problem that is overlooked by the Romantic imagination—is domination. And in post-Cold War rich countries, people still don’t want to use a language of domination. Romanticism is more acceptable as a trope.

But the problem with the Romantic trope is that domination is not the exclusive domain of people-in-cars, who can in fact be “tamed”. We also the lycra-clad aggressive cyclists. (In public pools, we have so-called “lane Nazis” who are their watery counterparts.) We have groups of joggers. We have the wolf-whistling men. The people who abuse the skateboarders.

In considering the street, we should let go the idea of “streets for people”, which does not useful differentiate between domination and fair use. Rather, we need to make a more nuanced analysis of what contributes to the commons, and what is fair use without diminishing the commons. And then how can we shape streets to allow that.

The Great Urban Game

Game theory

Remarkably little work has been done on the application of game theory to urban development. Mainly, the application has been done around parking. In that case, players compete against each other for parking spaces. What are the best strategies?

But there’s a broader, more interesting understanding of a city as a game, which does not necessarily mean that people are chasing the same outcome, or competing each other. Look at a city this way:

At any time, the city is in a certain state: the shape of the city at time 0. In the city, there are various players, all poised to move according to their own objectives, each with different kinds of moves available to them.

Lucinda and I have been talking about this, with the objective of simulating such as game at Melbourne Knowledge Week.


So far, we’ve considered four types of player:

  • Resident
  • Developer
  • Business
  • Council

Of course, this list can be extended indefinitely. Every day, each of us takes different roles in the city. We might, on the same day, be not just a resident or a businessperson, but also a driver, a pedestrian, a cyclist, a public transport user, a shopper, a diner, a flaneur… But we’ll keep things simple for the start.


Each of these residents might have different objectives. Again, simplistically:

  • Resident: Create a family-friendly environment around his/her house, with low traffic, walkable access, parks, playgrounds…
  • Developer: Make money through profitable, low-risk development…
  • Business: Find affordable premises from which they can run their business, with each business having its own criteria for operability…
  • Council: Minimise conflicts between players, and keep enough of them happy that Council is re-elected…


In addition, each has a certain number of plays available at any time.

  • Resident: Stay, Move, Advocate (where advocate means to take political action to Council to object or propose)
  • Developer: Buy, Hold, Develop, Sell
  • Business: Stay, Move, Advocate
  • Council: Block, Permit, Change the rules

To these four roles we might also add now a fifth: Judge. When there is a conflict between players which cannot be resolve amicably, they can take it to the Judge for arbitration.


Different moves, in different situations, will accrue points for each player. The points represent how well that move has moved them towards that objective.

More Open Gameplay

In the game as its currently established, we can see that players have very limited options. They can buy and sell pieces of land, and operate within the rules—or they can advocate to Council.

Finally, each of the players makes his or her move with imperfect information about the intentions of the other players. You don’t know that a developer has bought next door, until a development application is published. As a business, you don’t know how many similar businesses are being planned for your area.

In Cities By Citizens, we’re exploring the option that citizens might be able to more directly shape their neighbourhood, other than through the slow processes of democracy, or within the bounds of their private space. This means that all players might have more moves available to them, without going always through Council.

In other words, city development might become more like most human games, in which the players play with each other, and the Council is not active—just referee. A referee mainly watches, and intervenes rarely.

This, then, is one challenge:

Can we set up a city game in such a way that the players play directly with each other to create good city form.

Good city form here is one in which all players rack up many points, because points mean that all stakeholders are being satisfied in their quest to meet their own urban objectives.

A Cooperative Game

In conventional city planning, the tacit assumption is that players are in competition with each other. This involves establishment of a clear zone in which they can do what they like (the private); a clear zone in which they can do nothing (the public); and a clear set of rules as to the way in which the private can impact either the public, or other private zones. It works to separate parties individualistically, and have all interaction done through Council or its rules.

This works, and sits within an individualistic view of life and economy. However, it tends to shut out the value that can be created when different players start working together—i.e. cooperating. And we know from life and theory that cooperation can produce more powerful results than individuals working alone.

To refine our quest, then… We want to find a city game in which:

  • the role of the referee is minimised, so that players can work directly with each other to achieve urban outcomes, and
  • the rules of the game are such that it is a cooperative game, in which all players win, rather than a competitive one.

Ideas welcome.

Democratic city-making?

Winston Churchill famously said:

No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

During the Cold War, questioning democracy seemed unthinkable. In 1989, just before the collapse of the Soviet Union, a leading economist, Francis Fukuyama, even wrote an essay called The End of History. In it he proposed that the modern Western state—democratic, market-based, liberal—was the end-point of human social development.

Perhaps the feudal kings thought so too in their time.

Today, the flaws in modern representative democracy as a form of government seem to be increasingly evident. And so a discussion is emerging about what might come next? Something that is perhaps more democratic than current forms.

One of the criticisms of representative democracy is that it takes political power away from the citizens, and gives it to a few elected “representatives.” But the few can never really claim to represent the many. What often happens instead is they use their position to advance their own ideas and ideologies, or they become captives of an entrenched bureaucracy, or of big money elites, or just of the machinations of the political process.

We see this in cities too. In The Just City, Harvard academic Susan Fainstein analyses a number of city-funded megaprojects, and shows how they hurt the poor and small business, and favour large corporations.

But in cities today we see a variety of new processes which are bypassing these problems of representative democracy.

In slums, local communities that are ignored or even militated against by the city government organise themselves to provide basic services and organisation.

Tactical Urbanism refers to “small-scale, short-term interventions meant to inspire long-term change in cities.” It is “focused in a participatory approach of local people which aims to take back the street for its inhabitants.” Tactical Urbanism and other kindred movements allow for citizens to immediately shape their built environment, or at least experiment with it, so that decisions can be made on the ground, on the basis of lived experience and real behaviour, rather than by abstract discussions in distant offices.

In the developing world, where it’s understand how much elite capture and over-centralisation have harmed national development, there are strong processes afoot to decentralise power to the local. In Laos, the communist government instituted a new policy that the national government set policy, the province sets strategy, the district does planning, and the villages implement. In the education sector, this has led to radical changes in school construction. Indonesia, too, has seen rapid decentralisation in the post-Suharto era.

New York City has facilitated the establishment of Business Improvement Districts in which local landowners can establish a self-governing planning precinct, with extra taxes, which they themselves would decide on spending. Though criticised for leaning to far towards owners and away from tenants, the result is more local than the large-scaly NYC planning system.

What do these new movements and trends say about a democratic form of city making, in which citizens can see the impact of their ideas and their choices?