Jul 6, 2017

How to Create Democratic and Ecological Cities

By Jonathan Korsár and Svante Malmström / new-compass.net
How to Create Democratic and Ecological Cities

For the past few months we have published a series of posts on New Compass introducing social ecologydiscussing possible future environmental scenariosstudying the crisis of capitalism and openings for an alternative urban and economic development. Now, we will immerse ourselves in the connection between ecology and democracy in the development of our cities.

From a social ecology perspective, to democratize the economy and the society at large is fundamental if we are to achieve an ecological society. Therefore, when we here discuss the resilient and ecological city we will do so with the following questions in mind: What opportunities for a democratic management of society is opened up by the vision of a resilient and ecological city? In what ways could people roles as citizens be strengthened in the process of creating such cities? How could changing the roles of producers and consumers contribute to such a democratization? What kind of democratic forums could clear the way for such a development?

The idea of a resilient, ecological city

The discussion on how to create resilient, ecological cities is often seen as a rather new discussion. But in fact it can be argued to have started over a hundred years ago. The question of resilience is connected to urbanization and industrialization, and it reflects thoughts and sentiments that have developed in tandem with these processes.

“Communalists” may be seen as an appropriate term for a series of thinkers that saw the social and ecological problems of the new times as deeply intertwined with the development of cities and their political organization.

William Morris, for example, was a British communalist who, in the late 19th century, envisioned the annihilation of the contradiction of the city and the countryside. Morris thought that only through a new balance between the city and the countryside was a harmonious society possible. He basically envisioned what we today would call an ecological or resilient society.

Another Brit, the city-planner Ebenhezer Howard, was thinking along the same lines, and proposed a cooperative system for the city and the countryside that eventually would “drain the impossible metropolis” (Howard 1898).

The Scot Patrick Geddes was inspired by Howard. He saw planning as a fundamental part of social life and something that not only professionals should work with. Rather it was something that everyone had a right and a duty to participate in. For Geddes it was crucial that the people who dwelled in cities and their surrounding regions transformed them themselves. He called for a participatory, democratic planning of society.

The American Murray Bookchin has more than anyone else defined the terms communalism and social ecology for our age, and developed a political vision for the resilient, ecological city.

Let us now look at a few chapters of a documentary on the “urbal” city - a city that unites city and countryside - and thereafter focus on Murray Bookchin’s communalist perspective on politics and democracy. In the first part of this documentary there is a discussion on Ebenezer Howard’s ideas from the 19th century, and how they relate to the city of Leeds in England today:

It is worth noting that Howard not only was concerned with how to create communities with a large degree of self-sustainability, walkability etc.. He also saw the need for cooperatively managed land and of seeing the city as a commons, i.e. as a resource outside the domain of the market economy.

In the next chapter of the documentary Tom Bliss discusses how new ideas about CPULs - Continuous Productive Urban Landscapes - are relevant when we look at the preconditions for a new cooperative, ecological system for the city and the countryside:

In this clip you can see what the ideas presented in the videos above could mean in terms  of enterprises and jobs:

And in this clip you see how such a project also involves renewable energy, transportation etc.:

A democratic project

The transition sketched above involves a reorganization of current enterprises, as well as developing new cooperative ones. It is a transition that demands political steering and a great deal of social change. Some local, as well as international economic interests, would clearly have to be prioritized over others. Car businesses and food businesses in external shopping malls are examples of businesses that must suffer when we prioritize smart transportation and local, organic food production. When we pursue publicly owned, locally produced reneweable energy, then the big energy- and oil companies would have to step back.

If we look at these endeavors individually they might not seem very revolutionary, but if we consider all the possible and desirable transitions together we discern the contours of a greater redistribution of power in society. This is why we like to talk about the ecological transition in terms of a democratic transition.

When we talk about a “democratic transition” we don’t simply mean that the transition has to happen “democratically,” but also that democracy itself has to be “transformed.”

In general, we often take our current political system for granted, just as we often equate economy with capitalism. The current system that is based on nation-states and representative democracy, however, is not older than capitalism. According to the modern version of communalism, as represented by Murray Bookchin and others, there are good reasons to radically rethink terms such as politics and democracy.

Janet Biehl has written an accessible introduction to these ideas called The Politics of Social Ecology - Libertarian Municipalism. The book makes a distinction between the social sphere where we meet as producers, consumers, friends and family, and the political sphere where we meet as citizens in municipalities. From this analysis, the state is considered nothing more than a parasite on the political sphere, without real democratic legitimacy.

You can read most of The Politics of Social Ecology here.

A democratic transition demands that we make changes in both the social and the political sphere. In the social sphere we need to invent new ways of sharing resources, create local as well as international, sustainable enterprises, create local economic networks and cycles as well as physical cycles for recycling and renewing different natural resources.

But none of this will be possible if we don’t simultaneously change the dynamics in the political sphere and create a space for a participatory democratic management of those resources that are municipal. This can include businesses, schools, welfare services, roads, energy grids etc. To put it briefly, this is a question of retaking power over the infrastructure, and the rules and regulations that form the conditions for the economy as well as social life in general.

This is the fifth of a series of posts that was originally written for a study group on social ecology in Sweden. Read the first four posts here:

Post 1: The Fundamentals of Social Ecology

Post 2: Future Scenarios

Post 3: Economic Contradictions and New Opportunities

Post 4: Cooperatives, Commons and Municipal Management

If you want to organize a study group on this series yourself, here are some questions you might discuss based on the material in this post.


  • How do you think that the creation of ecological and resilient municipalities give new opportunities for a participatory democratic management of society?
  • What do you think of the perspective on politics and democracy that is advanced in Janet Biehl’s book (see especially chapter 1)?
  • How do you think that people’s role as citizens can be strengthened in the political sphere?
  • How could our roles as producers and consumers in the social sphere contribute to a democratic transformation?
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