John Thackara | Interviews

Cities, Design and Democracy: Conversation with Sunil Abraham in Cluster

Colorful Panorama City Vector Background, with permission from Shutterstock

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

John Thackara: All cities are part of a larger ecology of resource extraction, energy use, environmental impacts, 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 that they obtain food, energy, materials, and water — in cities, or outside them. This kind of design is of course "political," to the extent 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 organizing representative government. From now on, cities will increasingly be held accountable, by new kinds of economics, and hence by politics, for their demands on farmland, forests, wetlands or biological diversity.

Sunil Abraham: The state and the judiciary can either build or destroy democratic cities through policy formulation and implementation. For example, in New Delhi there have been several instances of violence against the poor. The high court is attempting to ban the sale of street food and the government has shifted many slums to the outskirts as part of the preparation for the Commonwealth games. In Jakarta, most of the police stations are required to have large glass windows so that the public can monitor the behavior of the police.

However, one must remember that there is a huge gap between policy and practice in developing countries. For example, in Bangalore, corporate logos adorn police buildings and vehicles because of sponsorship, but this only makes the poor more suspicious of the law enforcement infrastructure. Planners of public works such as transportation systems determine the mobility of the the poor. This can determine their level of financial and political engagement with the city.

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

JT: The drive towards enclosure and privatization — 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's food systems is an obvious place to start: growing food in public spaces, sharing knowledge about how to prepare and store it, and organizing communal meals to eat it, are easy and practical steps that produce quick benefits at many levels.

SA: Globalization and migration over the centuries have introduced many new complications. Tolerance of everything and openness to everybody are not universally accepted principles. Most religions in theory advocate for tolerance but organized religion can be oppressive. For example in Malaysia, Muslim lovers ape their Chinese and Indian counterparts by arranging for romantic rendezvous in hotels, only to then be arrested and publicly humiliated by the morality police. In India, you have Hindu fundamentalists. In Riyadh, there are no toilets for women in most government buildings. In America, heterosexual male motorcyclists don't embrace each other and women don't bare their breasts when they breast feed – both practices that are common in many parts of South and Southeast Asia. In the digital world there seems to be greater acceptance of diversity. Unlike broadcast media, the internet has contributed to the balkanization of sexuality. Anonymity and privacy afforded by the Internet and emergence of safe spaces for different online and off-line communities has contributed to this. In other words, it would be futile to enumerate actions – each community has to evolve its own approach and action plan for tolerance.

C: To what extent do the city, its pace of life and distribution of facilities condition the behavior of its inhabitants?

JT: Speed or slowth are not lifestyle choices. Our ways of life will not become sustainable just because we decide, as individuals, to "slow down." Slowth will to some extent be imposed by events; escalating energy costs, for example, will drive re-localization more powerfully than attitudinal change. But sustainability does not mean that fast is bad, and slow is good. Some forms of speed, such as feedback or the implementation of lighter solutions, are desirable. Think of the polio vaccine; it was disseminated around the world in a few years. We need to innovate our life support systems just as quickly. The design challenge is not to slow everything down, but to enable situations that support an infinite variety of fast and slow ways of living. In the language of sustainability, this means changing the word “faster” to “closer” in our design briefs for cities. Moving bodies and products fast is bad; moving information fast is good. Wireless communications have an important role to play here. They make it possible to reduce the distance between people who have needs and people who can meet those needs.

SA: Speed by itself does not guarantee efficiency or effectiveness. Sometimes it is better to do less. Also, the pace of a city is often connected to the systems of rent between those who own and do not own resources. As citizens become more and more entrenched in these rent seeking systems, they begin to increase the hours and years of their working life. So the poor are forced into high-pace lives while the elite can afford to purchase idleness. In a Vietnamese village, the International Fund for Agriculture (IFAD) tried to introduce a package of loans and proprietary cash crops. This required additional farm labor during the afternoons. The villagers rejected the project saying that they prefer to play volleyball in the afternoons. A more equal distribution of resources allows a city to find its own unique pace.

C: Many cities invest in the quality of their architecture to show the world an attractive, dynamic face. The big names and projects are given the task of conveying the centrality and ability of cities to attract high class players But the dynamic image of a city does not always correspond to its ability to make room for the creative energies of its inhabitants.

JT: Show me a city with a "dynamic image" and I will show you an unsustainable city. "Dynamic" usually means high entropy buildings, financial speculation on a massive scale and a low degree of social participation. From now on, the most interesting cities will be those whose citizens are able to invest their energy and creativity on "re-inhabitation" within the unique ecosystems of their place. This approach will often involve adaptive or more intense uses of existing infrastructure rather than the construction of signature buildings; sometimes this approach will mean building nothing at all. To live sustainably we need to place more value on the here and the now. A lot of destruction is caused when design is obsessed with the there, and the next — and the "dynamic."

SA: The dynamism of a city is usually in the informal sector because that is where the bulk of the population is employed. It is also where legal, technical and market limits and norms are challenged and redefined as everyday practice.

Q: What level do we need to work on to enable European cities to effectively express their innate creative potential?

JT: Survival. Seriously! We'll need to be creative to eat before too long. The World Bank reckons 33 countries are at risk of social upheaval because of rising food prices. In the North we fondly imagine that we won't be affected, although we may have to pay more for food. But I can't get it out of my mind that supermarkets only have three days supply of food in stock at any one time — or so they think. Their supply chains are so inefficient and filled with errors that they don't really know.

SA: In my opinion, attitudinal transformation will lead to more creativity in European cities. Western-style individualism needs to be re-imagined because we have run out of planet to exploit. Sharing intangible property such as software, films, music and books is not sufficient. To reduce our collective carbon foot-print, we need to intensify the sharing of tangible property. Thanks to the Internet and mobile technologies, it is now possible to share tangible property in a much more granular fashion across space and time. But technologies are insufficient because individualism has to make way for traditional systems of trust and creativity.

C: In European cities, culture is often viewed as basically a public function, insofar as it is free from market logic. But this preconception risks devaluing all spontaneous forms of expression by actively discouraging them with regulations and bureaucracy or even preventing them altogether.

JT: I'm not sure that formal culture is free from market logic, even in Europe. Nearly half the people who visit the British Museum in London go to its cafe and shop without even looking at the formal displays of art. In many cultural venues, shops and restaurants are an important revenue stream for their managements and an important part of the experience for visitors. Is this a crime against culture? I don't think so. People eat and trade things at Pagan festivals, too. The bigger challenge is that cities as a whole — not just their cultural quarters — have become spaces for spectacle and consumption rather than work or exchange.

C: Recent years have seen the implementation of many participation-based initiatives to foster people’s involvement in and contribution to urban transformations. Often these are attempts to construct public consensus around decisions taken prior to the initiative in question. Regardless of the efficacy of such initiatives, they reveal the increasing distance between the public and decision-making processes. Do you agree with this view? How is it possible to foster more spontaneous forms of participation?

JT: You are right: a lot of the "consultation" that takes place during the evolution of major projects is a sham, and everyone knows it. I would add that many of the least democratically decided and most ecocidal developments are driven by design "visions." This takes us to the heart of the political dimension.

SA: Yes, this is often true. To some extent this can be fixed by revisiting the design of classical multi-stakeholder public-private partnerships. We have to differentiate between the votes cast by organizations representing the elite minority and poor majority. But pure representative democratic structures and processes can be slow and unwieldy. Crowd sourcing of urban design projects and civil society facilitated public monitoring of urban transformations might provide an environment for more spontaneous forms of participation.

C: The various examples of sustainable cities, such as BedZED and Dong Tang, focus mainly on influencing the behavior of the inhabitants, reducing movement and fostering processes of emulation and social control that encourage responsible behavior. The types of buildings and aesthetic models rationally designed for these initiatives prefigure highly standardized, if not uniform, cities. This scenario, possibly inevitable, is a little scary: how can we reconcile individual expressive space with the need to adopt stricter environmentally-friendly practices?

JT: What makes these models "eco" is not their aesthetics, it's the ways they organize space and time and material and energy flows. For me the problem is not the danger of uniformity, it's that they are not models that can be scaled up on a global scale. Foster's Masdar project in Abu Dhabi is an extreme example of the problem. Yes, it will be a new eco city, but it will also be a gated community for rich people — the 50,000 people who will live in Masdar are theoretically worth about $17 million each and their fellow citizens are responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions per capita than any other population in the world (apart from David Beckham and John Travolta). Masdars and BedZeds are useful testbeds, but it's not feasible to build them in multiples for six billion people.

A better place to look for models of the future is in marginal communities where people look after and live with ecosystem services in an expert and creative way. That's a sample group of half the world's population, by the way. Living on the edge is about survival, not about personal expression, but it is nonetheless socially rich in many other ways.

SA: This reminds me of a visit to the Singapore Management University during the celebration of a “Bohemian Week.” Each student was given a 1 x 1 foot tile on a graffiti wall. This type of tokenism toward individual expression is meaningless. At the same time, environment-friendly practices cooked up by centralized policy-makers may only be a sophisticated excuse to displace and marginalize the poor. For example, most wildlife conservation efforts transform indigenous forest populations into slum dwellers. The key to sustainability is in-situ design expertise and this by definition is incompatible with large-scale standardization and uniformity. Standardization and uniformity, like the etishization of hygiene in western civilization, extracts a heavy price from the environment.

C: The new world order seems to have generated an unstoppable acceleration in the race towards cities. What can be done to stop the growth of megacities? Can the things that migrants seek be transferred out of the city, extending the effect of the urban area? Is it possible to reduce the negative externalities of megacities?

JT: I don't agree that cities will keep on growing. The race towards cities will come to an abrupt halt when the high entropy systems that keep them going start to degrade. At the moment it's better to be poor in a big city than outside it; but that balance will change as it becomes harder to survive in them. Would you leave the countryside and go to a city filled with empty supermarkets and hordes of desperate people? Also, don't forget that mobile communications are transforming the dynamics of subsistence economics in many developing regions.

SA: I agree with John, though I am not sure it will come to an abrupt halt. It is indeed true that location once determined the degree and extent of participation – both in governance and in the marketplace. The rise of the internet and mobile technologies will reduce the appeal of cities. But still, as human beings, face-to-face interactions will continue to be important. The solution, however, is not to move migrants to the periphery. Stopping the growth of megacities requires addressing the myopia of city-based policy-makers and planners. Hopefully, technology will amplify the demands of the rural poor for a greater share of state resources and attention.

This interview was originally published in Cluster Magazine, June 14, 2008.

Posted in: Ecology, Social Good

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