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The Urban Democracy Lab: Chasing Moving Targets

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By Gianpaolo Baiocchi

From the Fall 2016 Gallatin Today

In the early 2010s, the issue of urban democracy dramatically took center stage around the world in the form of protests and occupations of prominent public plazas. From Tahrir Square to Zuccotti Park, to Spain’s Indignados in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor to the free-fare movement in São Paulo, a new generation of activists has taken to the streets to reclaim democratic institutions and urban rights, including the right to shelter, livelihood, mobility, assembly, and control of the urban form. At the time of this writing, Black Lives Matter in the US is only the latest and most dramatic of these movements, resisting a vision of exclusive and racist city spaces.

The question before both activists and urban scholars is, what next? Activists no doubt have a clear vision of what they do not want—elite cities defined by displacement, police violence, gentrification, economic precariousness and poverty, and environmental degradation and injustice. But what are these new visions and models emerging—what might truly democratic cities look like for today and tomorrow? And how likely are these alternatives in today’s contexts, where cities are in many ways more challenged—more unequal, more exclusive, more segregated, and more environmentally vulnerable—than ever?

It is not just social movements that have been drawing interest to cities. We are living through a time of intense and renewed interest in cities. After a generation of disregard, cities have become popular once again as destinations for people and businesses. Yearly there are dozens of conferences and forums worldwide dedicated to urban futures. Cleaner, safer, more walkable, and greener cities utilizing the latest technologies, in this view, will provide the setting for constant innovation and creativity.

Not often talked about in these discussions, though, are the harsh realities for most urban residents. Greener cities often displace the poor, and smart technologies are often closely linked to surveillance of “undesirables.” Nicely designed buildings will not, by themselves, solve the housing crisis, just as inviting public spaces will not solve the epidemic of police violence. Also missing is the question these social movements have been asking: What is the role for democracy in determining the future of our cities? Whether we are talking of cities of smart buildings, or of affordable housing and climate change adaptation, what role will people play in determining their fates and imagining and realizing more just cities?

There is an important space somewhere between these two poles—a grassroots, activist imagination in search of proposals, on one side, and a technical vision devoid of people and politics, on the other. The Urban Democracy Lab was founded in 2014 with the goal of filling in this gap, even if in the end, the question of what next? is probably unanswerable in any kind of definitive way. Advances beget new goals as well as setbacks, and the direction of change is sometimes confusing. Issues force themselves on situations in unpredictable ways. To be a protagonist for urban justice today means, more than advocating particular platforms, developing a kind of intellectual flexibility and the ability to listen and learn that we try to foster. Urban democracy, like democracy, is a moving target.