Architectural Democracy

A debate

Can we, as limited cognitive beings, ever be able to cope with the growing complexity of cities and be a part of its decision-making structure or are we doomed to go into an automated democracy?

One thing we can say about a city, unlike a power regime, is that cities have very long lives. They may suffer massive destruction, but they recover in a way that a king etc might not. Cities are resilient.1 But cities are never independent of the broader power regime in which they are born and in which they exist and survive through time. Cities are shaped differently if they are under a monarchy, a despotism, an empire, or an imperial setting. Time runs through cities, and their durability is striking. The German historian Reinhardt Koselleck wrote in Sediments Of Time, that it is the way in which cities developed certain customs, institutions and rules that makes them survive the mover time. If we think within the European tradition, the language of civil society is very important for the way we think about democracy today: civility, citizen, citizen of a town. This language of citizenship of civil society was born at a much earlier point, it is a product of urban life. Cities in early, late medieval times, and early modern Europe were small. In the 1500s, maybe only three or four cities had a population of 100,000 residents or more. For example, Naples, the largest of the time. And yet, those cities contributed a great deal to the whole subject of democracy and the way we think about power and the right to resist tyranny. The call to abolish monarchy, constitutional conventions, popular elections, the right of toleration of religious differences, liberty of the press, and later inventions like municipal socialism. All of these were creations of urban settings of citizens and their representatives in a broader power context. And those customs, the whole spirit of those innovations, survive until today. They’re a very important part of our urban history.

But now, we are seeing the rise of a different type of cities, the mega cities. Has that changed that perception? Are cities still connected with their power regimes in the same way as before? Or is that continuity being lost? Georg Simmel was one of the very first analysts of modern urban life. He was inspired by living in Berlin that was back then, becoming one of the great European cities, one of the great global cities. His emphasis lied on the restlessness of life and of the institutions inside cities. His emphasis was on the conflicts. Cities are never zones of harmony. Urban life sharpens the sense of complexity of the world in which subjects live. But what about the cities of today? The scale is clearly different if we look at the Chinese plans for a Greater Bay Area, to include Hong Kong, Macau, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou. This is to be the largest mega city in the history of the human species.2 And as researchers, as architects, no doubt, there’s a lot of work to be done to make sense of how that mega city is going to operate. Complexity is a challenge that was noted 100 years ago, and it continues to be with us. The implication here is that there is a warning whenever we talk about cities, in the present, and in the past, these are always interpretations. These are selective accounts of vast totalities that are in a way ungraspable. And it’s one of the magic of cities. It’s one of the attractiveness of cities. It was so historically, and it remains so today. When you arrive in a city which is unknown to you, one is struck by the contrast between rich and poor, between decadence and innovation. One is struck by the blight of concrete, and one is struck by the rewilding projects that go on. It puts one’s head in a world of a certain dizziness. And that should be borne in mind when we talk about the subject: modesty.

Charles Montgomery’s happy city work or Jan Gehl’s clearly show the impact of designs of cities that can create more empathic people. Researchers and activists do awesome work, but it almost never reaches planners at the city levels that implement it. How can we bridge this?

Most cities are small and they come by anonymously, almost never to be invaded, say, by the masses of foreigners who want to visit them. Now, the big cities contain within them very important contributions to a system, to a situation, to a kingdom, to whatever it might be. They generate complexities, and not all complexities can work in those cities. So, we have these two moments, we have poor, and we have rich, and we have bandits and we have honesty, that is part of the city, the city is that institution. The city is an open domain, with multiple options, multiple positives, multiple negatives. And it never completely stands still. When it stands still, it’s a dead city.

There is a danger of romanticizing small cities. There are small cities where indeed there is a sense of communitarianism, let’s say, but many small towns and cities are not happy places. Size is not the key variable for explaining if cities are happy or happier. Frank Lloyd Wright talked about the ideal city3 being a small city, where there is harmony, there is “organic architecture”. And even goes on to say that America is the place where the true democratic architecture4 is being built because it’s natural, and those cities are thus democratic, because they are organic, they are harmonious whole. Wright was a kind of communitarian, a green aristocratic, he was well ahead of his time in that he thought in terms of the embedding of cities within the biomes, which they depend upon. But the image of a city as a place of communitarian equality, where each individual flourishes like an aristocratic dignity is an impossible idealization. It’s a false description of cities. So we are back to the question of the self paralyzing trends of large cities, the way in which pluralism cripples itself. And the question therefore becomes, how democratically? Can that city be regulated? How can it be governed? This is the central question, and cities that are unhappy cities that are full of negative negatives are cities which are badly governed, or badly self governed, via abuses of power that destroy solidarities and that destroy the dignities of at least some of its population.

Democracy is a central ingredient of a well governed city, well functioning and happy city. Cities have been democratic laboratories. That was true for the ancient cities of Syria, Mesopotamia, Nepal, for example, or Babylon, where assemblies were invented.5 Cities have a history of being democratic laboratories. But in our time, are cities still the innovators? Are they innovator sin matters of power? And in matters of good government? Are they spaces of innovation? And the short answer is, yes! Despite the commercialization, the destruction of zones of solidarity, degradations and the surveillance that plagues cities, there are things going on in our times, such as, police monitoring groups, sanctuary cities, citizens’ innovations to protect mosques, synagogues, churches, to protect the right to be different, or in matters of for example queer politics… Cities are spaces where the “greening” of democracy has been going on for a generation.

Let’s hope one day we can talk about how cities have actually contributed to the whole idea and practice of democracy that has never happened before, which is the extension of the rights of representation. Democracy comes to mean not just the self government of people who can decide on Earth whatever they want, but democracy is coming to mean slowly, but surely, the self government of people that refuse arbitrary power. That acknowledges human’s dependence upon the nonhuman. This is a very fundamental innovation that largely happened in cities. And so we witness innovation, such as the Opal project in London, where citizens are called upon to note the birds and living beings in their back gardens, to try to publicly monitor species’ survival or destruction. Or the Butterfly Bridges, a small but very powerful simile of this trend. Butterflies and other insects don’t like traffic, they don’t like urbanization, it’s destructive of their meeting and of their feeding patterns. But good citizens build bridges of flowers, across roads, to enable butterflies to survive and to thrive in urban settings. And in general, the greening of cities is of striking historical importance. It’s one of the great examples of how cities today continue to function as democratic laboratories.

Cities survived corporations, kings, all of them. Have cities, being a design, emergent or planned, induced democracy or are they improving it, or rather is it the opposite effect?

In other words, is the rise of cities or maybe city states linked to the rise of democracies and now then new despotisms (despots hiding themselves behind fake democracies)?

A city exists under certain conditions, and there is considerable variety of power of who wins and who loses. At the same time, everybody is in principle, enabled, not at the same level, but that means that you have the rich and you have the poor, and they both benefit in many ways from the city, do the rich benefit more? Of course they do. But the poor exist too as they are distracted about their condition to survive. In Latin America you have a brutality of poverty versus wealth. The Americas are among the most extreme versions of the urban and of the kind of brutality and indifference towards the poor and those who suffer, makes the Americas not the most attractive when it comes to what a great city is. The Europeans do better, the Japanese do better.

Let’s take the example of public transport and of the fate of democracy in India.6 India’s public transport networks are on the whole disgraceful and this has a powerful destructive effect on people’s lives. There is no natural harmony. When there is a good functioning public transportation, as for example in Copenhagen or Berlin, London or Barcelona, this enables everybody in the city (if it is affordable) to move around. The right of motion makes us as equal citizens, when one boards into a tram or a bus or a metro and pays a standard price, rich and poor, and everybody in between black and white, yellow and brown, Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, non believer and so on, they enjoy the entitlement to move through space in time as equals. And cities that do not have decent public transport systems are much more miserable places.

Argentina is considered a democracy, but 40% of its population lives in the equivalent of shantytown settings. The measure of a good city should be if all residents of the city, all inhabitants and those who move in and out, enjoy equal capacities to live well, and to live in environmentally sustainable conditions. So there is no natural law towards the survival of cities that promote well being, this is a matter for citizens themselves to co determine it. It’s a matter of the governments and businesses and other nongovernmental organizations, and whether they are prepared to nurture that city and to nurture it well.

New despotisms are building cities that are architecturally astonishing. In which there is good public transport, they are clean, there is an effort to purify the air cities, like Dubai,7 with it’s tree shaped Palm Jumeirah Island, or the artificial new city in Colombo, reclaiming land from the sea, or Doha’s Lusail complex, which is built for the World Cup next year, or go to Kazakhstan to the new capital city Nur-Sultan and you will find amazing architecture. You will find a well functioning public transport. But you will also find that self government of citizens is a phantom. That is to say that these are cities without democracy. These are cities that are governed despotically with, of course, the support of the people of those cities. But where elections don’t function as free and fair, in which accountability mechanisms are in short supply. These cities are kind of phantom democracies. And that complicates the discussion about cities, happiness, well being and self-government.

We cannot import democracy, it is to grow from within, in our own cities. Do citizens and regulators and other organizations within cities, do they share experiences, do they network?

There are networks, initiatives, such as city net. It’s a network of cities of local governments in the Asia Pacific region. The point is to share information practices about how to improve the quality of life in cities, be it water recycling, or techniques of restricting automobile traffic, so that they do not choke cities, or for example participatory budgeting. If you go to Seoul, outside of the municipal hall of the city government, there is a large, big red and white ear. And you can as a citizen, dictate a message into that big ear, which goes straight into the government. Another example from Seoul, university engineering departments are putting their students to go out to inspect the safety of bridges. And this is simple innovation. But it’s the kind of innovation that is a shared knowledge that is shared among cities, and they help keep the spirit of democracy alive. If democracy means equality or equalization of life chances, if it means free and fair elections as well, and if it means the public scrutiny of arbitrary power, then innovations like the big ear in Seoul, are the sediments of time for which cities are justly famous.

Would there be a possible link where people agglomerated in such densified spaces tend to organize themselves for fairer decisions, more critical, or is the urban densification with lack of a social plan leading us into ever more loneliness and extremist positions?

Land is being grabbed for so many different functions that the question of space becomes extremely important. And the need to protect the urban condition. For instance, we are beginning to see certain cities, where growth damages life quality. For some of the low-income workers that live at the edges of the cities, they need to travel for two or three hours every morning to get to their job. Should we maybe build new cities?

We know densification is a very positive format, you don’t waste a lot of time, you have concentrated diversities of knowledge and needs, and intelligence, it’s all positive. That is what makes a city live, makes it significant. There is a set of conditionalities that need to be in play to have a functioning city, a city that functions for everybody. So, there are many cities now that function for everybody, for the rich, for the poor, etc. But there are also many cities that are expanding endlessly, and you see that in these, that is a negative.

If the norm is that cities should function for everybody, then we are talking about democratic cities in the exact sense that democracy has always stood for a vision that no tyrant, no monarch, no despot, is entitled to rule over others because they are simply not good enough. And what flesh and blood people are capable of, is just good enough to govern themselves and live their lives as equals in cities. The best cities to replicate are those with that ethos, with a flourishing Montesquieu’s spirit. That’s true for public transport.

Maybe we do not need to build more cities, maybe we need to redesign those that exist, their redesign and their improved self government, their improved democratic qualities. And here, plenty can be learned from the history of cities and their contribution as democratic laboratories from the last quarter of the 19th century in Europe and the push for what would be called, for example, in England, municipal socialism. So there ought to be decent sewage, so that it doesn’t flow and pollute and infect people in streets. Think too for example of the importance of the public library movement. The provision of gas and electricity, public parks, these were all innovations. Some of them are under great pressure as we speak, but they were all innovations designed by their own local champions to make cities places that function for everybody. The question is, what can we think globally of innovations that have similar compounding effects? Well, for instance, there are in several Asian cities, social innovation forums, where digital analysts, coders, come together with citizens and with urban planners and with elected representatives, to think about how a city could become digitally a place in which there is equal access to high speed 5g, or it will be six 6G networks, and so on.

Or a Dutch innovation: publiques (a play on the word public), it’s a letterbox, a Julian Assange type of a letterbox into which citizens and civil servants can post anonymous messages about corruption, about the need for improved government. Or think about the way that the best functioning cities have been redesigned in the last quarter of a century for people with disabilities, they were very unfriendly places. In some cities, there’s a greater visibility of disabled people and there’s a greater generosity towards them because of public servicing of their particular needs. Commons workshops where tools are shared among citizens of particular part of a city or festivals. One of my favorite examples is the kissing fest that was developed in Mexico City. The idea is that, on a Sunday afternoon, citizens are invited to command to be with others, most of whom they do not know. And to kiss at least one person, you could kiss your partner, you could kiss your lover, you could kiss a passer by. What is the significance of this? Well, it’s an expression of affection, bodily affection, a reminder that citizenship is embodied. But it’s also there’s a kind of equalization of differences for the first time you see someone queer, someone from other LGBTQ groups kissing and this has a civilizing effect. There are multiple ways in which ideas are transferable to cities in which these can become places that function for everybody and not just for the powerful and not just for the rich.

Historically cities are a place where those without power, can make history. Cities give a voice. Are we even relevant within these super organisms called cities?

Competing amongst each other, cities have a voice but do we still have a voice in them? It’s an illusion that we can think we have a theory about the cities. The mix of different types of institutions, different materials for building, also the diversity of actors have made cities into very complex little animals. And now that we realize how much knowledge is involved, we discover how little of that knowledge we typical citizens have, no matter how caring they are. Let’s take something as obvious as plants. In some fancy neighborhoods, people were trying to make it all beautiful, wanting to plant certain plants. Then the experts came by and said, no, you do not want those plants here, because it’s not going to work for you, you won’t like the smells that they will produce by the time they’re three years old. There was suddenly a recognition that putting the wrong tree in a city can produce negatives. The city is a very open system, it survives because it is an open system, we can be actors, but we have voids.

The greening of cities that is going on now, in the most advanced of examples, it is doing something to that very ideal of being a citizen. A citizen comes under pressure from this greening of urban life, that is, in its early stages, and has a great deal of opposition to it. The Citizen becomes someone who is the equal duty bound to respect the entitlements of others and who is entitled to live as an equal, but only insofar as the citizen comes to be conjoined with the biomes in which they dwell, that there is a recognition of inequality, or the need for a greater equalization of that relationship between humans and nonhumans. It’s a very important challenge to the historic originally Greek and Republican notion of a city. The greening of cities implies overcoming the dualism of city and country. And this is an unfinished process. There are some cities where the greening is more advanced than in the country. There’s a great paradox that needs imagination and fresh thinking.

There is a need in these years of the 21st century when it comes to cities and democracy and thinking about their interrelationship to reimagine democracy, as a never ending process within a city, and in other contexts, in which citizens and their chosen representatives are on the lookout for dangers that democracy comes to be the carrier, not of blindness or illusions of omniscience, but democracy comes to be a carrier of precautionary thinking and of precautionary attitudes, that cities must be on guard in the way that they’re governed in the way that power is allocated in the way that they treat the biomes in which they’re situated. Because if they don’t, they can accelerate the destruction of large parts of our planet.

So democracy has a quality of restraining abuses of power, restraining blindness and illusions of omnipotence, the omniscience of urban planners, or corporate builders of high rise buildings, etc. Democracy comes to be an early warning detector system. Cities need this more than ever; this is a new way of thinking about democracy. It stands for equality; it is against arbitrary power. It is a whole way of life. But it is also a set of mechanisms for blowing whistles on arbitrary reckless abuses of power. And in this sense, democracy is an early warning detector system that can prevent the self destruction of cities.

Regarding the vertical city versus a linear city, do you see an impact on the concept of democracy as to how that city is formed?

Is there a benefit to the vertical city because it creates more open spaces? Is there a disadvantage to that? And how would that compare to more of a linear city? There’s a balance needed between the too high and the too low because densification is important but so is human scale. If you stack human beings too much on top of each other, to maximize the return of investments for the stakeholders, then we are in trouble. We need to have a better social plan in the design of cities, in terms of, mobility, or in what kind of communities are these people being integrated into, hopefully, into existing communities, where they adapt into, because building up a community takes a long time. There are basic physical aspects of energy ratios that one must be aware of when going too high. If the local energy prices are high, going tall is nonsensical, if it’s low, like in the UAE, then skyscrapers are a good solution. Also, if you put a skyscraper of 100 floors, it might be difficult to build up a personal connection between the person on the bottom and the person on top. There’s a human scale to everything and we need to be identified with it in the cities in the micro and macro scale.

Certainly much more research needs to be done about the impact of COVID-19 on this individualization. One of the great complaints about Paris is that it’s a clump of people who live anonymously, they don’t pass by others, they have no sense of community. It’s as if they lose themselves in a mass of people and buildings and winding streets. It’s an old complaint. But it is an empirical question. It’s a question for research as to what degree physical distancing, for instance, in the last two years of this pestilence, will irreversibly fragment or render more anonymous life in cities.

But a vertically organized city is not just a reference to the height of buildings, but it’s also to the power structures, and unhappy and unlucky are those cities that suffer verticality. The much happier cities are those that are messier or complex, where there is a kind of entanglement of the people. There was in the history of cities, the push to socialize life and that meant to make cities happier, greater equality, equal access to libraries and public spaces into running water and electricity. So this is not a dead principle. The question is, what does it mean for these years of the 21st century? We are all aware that when we visit a city that is well governed and in which there is a sense that the city belongs to more than a few, this is a much more interesting city amidst its complexity, and dynamism. It is a place that one wants to visit again.

In the role of the city squares, like in Shanghai or Wuhan, one sees lots of people in the evenings going into the city squares or corners around buildings to do their dances and their communal activities. But we also see a trend over the last 100 years where city squares are being privatized. What impacts is this bringing?

Yes, that trend is a decadent trend that will result in the destruction of sociability. It will accelerate the privatization of experiences in cities. And those cities become much less interesting. Certainly less plural, and certainly less democratic. We are living through an unfinished communications revolution, we’re moving into an age of communicative abundance. When I’m staying at home I can go to places in the most private of domains, one is socially connected. I mean, this needs to be built into the understanding of city life. But unlucky are those cities where public spaces are destroyed by privatization. And it’s not accidental that there are cities such as under Erdogan in Turkey, where an uprising took place against this despotic trend under a government that has multiplied the number of shopping malls seven times. An uprising took place because of an attempt to privatize, destroy, develop, and modernize an existing public space. Public spaces remain of fundamental importance for democracy. And for the vibrance and the magnetism of cities.

Would there be any examples of these happy but chaotic cities that we can look at just for get some further inspiration or just a consideration for how we can take those as an example for better living?

Suvilahti is a no man’s land in the middle of Helsinki. The city wanted to change this and capitalize on that area and build office spaces. It’s an old compound with Victorian architecture “occupied” by artists. We were against the plans of the city, as Suvilahti is the last place of experimental architecture and pop up culture in the city. As we wrote back then with the late Michael Sorkin, the city of Helsinki has been promoting itself as to be experimental but to close such open systems will destroy the only place to experiment at. We should therefore have new updated zoning laws and regulations, not just residential, or office spaces, but maybe zones of the “in between”, things that progress over time and can change, or temporary structures. A city should be more adaptable in terms of experiments and in terms of temporary structures.

We could also speak about Hong Kong here as an allegory of the city in the 21st century. This city is large and vibrant. People live in very high-density settings. It is a city connected to thereat of the world. It’s the one of the largest air freight airports in the world that connects China to the rest of the world. It is a city of considerable diversity. It’s geographically filled with ups and downs. There are rich and poor alongside each other, the cost of living is very high, unaffordable for so many people. There are surprises at every time in the city. The food is very interesting. There is a bizarre liveliness 24/7. It has all the qualities of a functioning viable city with a great deal of inner complexity and anonymity plus sociability. But it is also a city that is now under great pressure to conform to a national security law in which public life in the last six months has been attenuated. Its public life has been suffering. And it’s a less of a happy city now. It’s a city from which there are now large numbers of emigrants. It is an allegory of the way in which cities have this democratic potential but they can also be transformed relatively quickly into sites of despotic rule. Where their vibrancy, their plurality, their openness can suddenly be chucked. It is an open question as to the future of Hong Kong but it stands as an allegory of these competing trends.

This transcript has been condensed, edited and referenced for clarity. Full debate can be seen below.

  1. Fraccascia, L., Giannoccaro, I., & Albino, V. “Resilience of complex systems: state of the art and directions for future research,” Complexity, 2018. “A common property of many complex systems is resilience, that is, the ability of the system to react to perturbations, internal failures, and environmental events by absorbing the disturbance and/or reorganizing to maintain its functions.” []
  2. Or maybe even Delhi. See Bansal, S. (2022, January 20). “The Plans for the World’s Next Largest City Are Incomplete,” New York Times. Retrieved January 21, 2022. []
  3. Wright, F. L. (1945). When democracy builds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. []
  4. Not to confuse with Pedro Aibéo’s term of “Architectural Democracy.” []
  5. Assemblies of citizens who consider themselves as equals who discuss and decide who gets what, when and how is not a Western invention, archaeologists tell us it happened much earlier. See Keane, J. (2009). The life and death of democracy. Simon and Schuster. []
  6. See Chowdhury, D. R. and Keane, J. (2021). To Kill A Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism. Oxford University Press. []
  7. Dubai in 2019 invited a couple of urban planners, to make an urban planning participatory program. 100 million US dollars investment. Everyone knew it was a facade of participation. But at the same time, everyone knows that if you don’t start somewhere, you never start. So what changes first? The political regime, the participation, the education, the cities? []
Pedro Aibéo is an internationally awarded MSc Architect, MSc Civil Engineer. John Keane is Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney and at the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin (WZB). Saskia Sassen is a Dutch-American sociologist noted for her analyses of globalization and international human migration. Read other articles by Pedro Aibéo, John Keane and Saskia Sassen.