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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?

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