Architecture of the New Society

E very city is a deeply interconnected web of spatial designs and patterns. From the urban to the suburban, our built environment is carved into commercial and residential areas. Buildings, parking lots, garages, and gas stations are built into streets, freeways, shopping malls, industrial parks, and transit routes; apartments, houses, yards, and sidewalks all lead to schools, churches, temples, parks, grocery stores, and restaurants—all woven together and mediated by noisy traffic, nauseating air pollution and aggressive advertising. 

The institutions of our cities provide interrelated roles and relationships for our day-to-day activities, expected behaviors, and usual outcomes. The private ownership of productive property, markets, and corporate hierarchies of capitalist cities produce and reproduce class rule, social segregation, and hierarchy. Housing is stratified by income, so poor people are ghettoized, their communities living in decomposing buildings and neighborhoods. Residences with nice houses, safe streets, pleasant views, and clean parks are reserved for rich and upper class communities. Communities from separate ethnic backgrounds often live in separate ethnic quarters. Sex and gender development in society has evolved into spatial patterns founded on the myth that the women’s place is either in the home or out shopping. Spatial functions often exclude consideration for those with mental or physical barriers. Patterns in our built environment have evolved into patterns facilitating mass consumption and competitive production. 

Of course, not everything is bad, we can consent or resist the institutions of our built environment. Islands of community and social space have been fought for and won. Important experiments have emerged and provide valuable lessons. However, the vast majority of our built environment is not the product of our own decision-making needs and desires, but that of someone else’s. Transformation of our cities means developing broad strategies for radical reform and fundamental institutional change across political, economic, cultural, and kinship spheres. 

This essay describes a broad vision of how cities, architecture, spatial design, and our built environment might evolve within a participatory economy. Such a city is an alternative to cities dominated by private property, capital, and markets as well as cities based on command economies with central planning authorities and corporate hierarchies. It assumes construction and design within the context of a participatory economy and equally liberatory political, community, culture, and kinship visions. Its architectural structure, aesthetics, and design are democratically planned and try to embody the values of equity, self-management, solidarity, diversity, and efficiency as well as compliment and promote the values of other spheres of social life. 


Other Post-Capitalist Visions of Cities 

T here are volumes of research and decades of activism making links between capitalism, our built environment, corresponding modes of social relations, and their consequences. That cities’ institutions can produce and reproduce racist, sexist, classist, and authoritarian social relations within our society is not controversial. What is controversial is to suggest concrete values, procedures, and defining institutions about how cities of a new society might be built. 

There have been proposals for what future post-capitalist cities may look like. Dolores Hayden, in her 1983 essay “Capitalism, Socialism and the Built Environment,” outlines classical visions from many communitarian socialists of the 19th century where “…a return to the environmental harmony of the pre-industrial village was essential to their visions of the socialist future. Even Marx and Engels observed the Shakers carefully, while Charles Fourier, Robert Owen, William Morris and Ebenezer Howard all shared their environmental ideals to the exclusion of much urban concern at all. Fourier and Owen suggested that individuals combine work in agriculture, industry and domestic life, and live in groups of about twelve hundred to sixteen hundred people. For William Morris and other members of the Arts and Crafts movement, a return to a world of small villages would permit the intensive, personal, artistic labor which industrialization had banished. Hand carved and hand-painted public buildings were a sign of a happy populace.”

In the same tradition, but in the 20th century, Murray Bookchin proposed a “communalist” vision of the city. Bookchin’s communalism was comprised of “social ecology” and “libertarian municipalism,” which “…seek to recover and advance the development of the city (or commune) in a form that accords with its greatest potentialities and historical traditions.” Bookchin speaks of post-scarcity anarchism and identifies modern technology as the force generating a new landscape integrating town and country. 

In 1887, Edward Bellamy published Looking Backward: 2000-1887 . Bellamy imagined a socialist Boston in the year 2000 which was technologically advanced and where consumer goods were in abundance: “At my feet lay a great city. Miles of broad streets, shaded by trees and lined by fine buildings, for the most part not in continuous blocks but set in larger or smaller enclosures, stretched in every direction. Every quarter contained large open squares filled with trees, among which statues glistened and fountains flashed in the late afternoon sun. Public buildings of a colossal size and an architectural grandeur unparalleled in my day raised their stately piles on every side.” 

From the 1950s to the 1970s social movements rose that sought to break away from older traditions in the classical Left. Among those who attempted a complete break, proposing a radical departure, were the “Situationists.” Inspired by the DADA and Surrealist art movements, and playing an agitational role in the Paris uprising of 1968, Situationists proposed “truly grand public visions of constructing whole new revolutionary cities…much more ambitious than those…of [other] artists.” Broadly, Situationist visions were comprised of concepts of “psychogeography” combined with workers councils, self-management, poetry and art to construct a “revolutionary every day life.” The basic theoretical underpinnings of Situationist visions began with the activity of constructing “situations”: “A moment of life, concretely and deliberately constructed by the collective organization of unitary environment and the free play of events.” The concept “psychogeography” was defined as the “study of the precise effects of geographical setting, consciously managed or not, acting directly on the mood and behavior of the individual.” 

The Situationists also developed “unitary urbanism,” a “theory of the combined use of art and technology leading to the integrated construction of an environment dynamically linked to behavioral experiments.” Instead of being organized, designed and controlled by the needs and demands of commerce, industry, and the circulation of traffic—in short, capitalism—unitary urbanism sought to make the city a free space, open for play and adventure. 

Other Situationist proposals included the “new Babylon,” a city designed by the utopian architect Constant Nieuwenhuys. This city abolished town planning for a continuous drift, perpetual movement between spaces or sectors, such as a floating city or hanging sector, which was suspended over the movement of traffic. 

Other visions for cities included sustainable cities, small-scale cities, self-sufficient cities, walking cities, garden cities, etc. Some modern tendencies included “anti-civilizationists” and primitivists who both opposed sidewalks, bicycles, cities, and almost every other construct that is “unnatural” and harmful to the environment. 

Although many of these proposals provoke our imaginations about spatial design and spatial reorganization, they are vague at best since they do not specify any guiding rules, procedures, or institutions for how architecture, design, or social space could be allocated in a democratic way. They do not outline how people choose what it is that they want to consume and why. They do not propose how things get produced and why. They either leave open the possibility of using markets or abandon allocation all together. They don’t address better ways of organizing worker and consumer life or any other sphere of social activity. Some of these visions, if pursued, would even mean potential human catastrophe on a grand scale. Others have lots to offer that we can learn from. There are many common values, goals, and motivations. However, in making sure that we achieve a society that fosters the values of self-management, solidarity, diversity, equity, and other humane values, we need to create and debate specific proposals so that we can actually achieve a better world and do not burn ourselves or others who may be committed to the same goals. 



B uilding cities by using the defining features and institutions of “Parecon”—a participatory economy (see Michael Albert’s Parecon: Life After Capitalism, Verso) —is only one part of societal construction. Cities are not made of economics alone, but overlap and intersect into other spheres of social life. Regulation of buildings, information based advertising, speed limits, etc. all overlap into the political sphere. The actual design of mosques, synagogues, and churches will originate from various cultural groups and religious communities. The proximity  or integration of day care centers into homes and workplaces will be determined by strong considerations from the kinship sphere. There is other overlap as well, but the disproportionate influence of economics on this vision of the city is simply for lack of detailed and compelling proposals for other spheres of life.

A participatory economy is comprised of federations of worker and consumer councils, socially owned productive property, and participatory planning determining what goods and services are produced. Everyone works in a balanced job complex combining work tasks for an equal distribution of both desirable and empowering tasks remunerated in accord with effort and sacrifice. 

Workers in worker councils propose what they want to produce, how much they want to produce, the inputs needed, and the human effects of their production choices. Consumers propose what they want to consume, how much they want to consume, and the human effects of their consumption choices.  


The Architect and City Planner 

U nder capitalism, architects and city planners go to school and get technical training. Once at work their job is largely conceptual and their work could easily be considered that of an artist. They are remunerated according to bargaining power, output, genetic endowment, talent, skill, better tools, more productive coworkers, environment, inheritance, or luck. Within a participatory economy, architects and city planners also get education, training, and work. However, their efforts are both balanced for desirability and empowerment, and they are remunerated for effort and sacrifice. They would work in their own balanced job complex just like everyone else. They would also get effort ratings like everyone else. They too would have a work plan that embodies the needed inputs, tools, and equipment necessary to complete their plan. 

Another implication of the institutional context of Parecon is that by eliminating class barriers, more people will have the opportunity to learn the art of architectural design. Their interest in the profession will not be influenced or inhibited by financial considerations or material reward. Rather they would pursue it out of admiration for the form and a desire for social recognition of achieving a great architectural work. A positive consequence of having the profession open to more people is the tapping of rich and diverse skills, perspectives, opinions, and practices in architectural and city planning. 

Similarly, architectural innovation would not be biased because of the institutional roles of buyer and seller competing in the market toward private consumption of space. Nor would there be a profit motive, inherent in the private property of capitalism, which sacrifices the quality of our built environment. Rather, private and public space is dealt with on equal footing through the participatory planning process. Quality is geared towards society’s needs, interests, and what is socially responsible. 

Individual or groups of architects and city planners can help achieve a just outcome in our built environment in numerous ways. Some will play a purely expert consultative role. Others will be participants. Still others may be given responsibility for design or for facilitating different consumer proposals, providing a variety of models to be voted on by those affected. These proposed methods and procedures will vary from building to building and city to city. 


A New City for a New Life 

W e want a city with social space distributed fairly; we want a built environment where people have decision-making input in proportion to the degree they are affected; a city that embodies and reflects the creativity, cooperation, and diversity of its inhabitants; a city that utilizes human and environmental resources efficiently; we want a city that promotes equity, solidarity, diversity, self-management, and efficiency. 

Through participatory planning, building, maintaining, and developing a city is a social process. Houses, factories, sidewalks, parks, streets, and distribution centers are all generated through iterations between worker and consumer council proposals. People plan the space they use on all scales—from individuals to large communities; as consumers and as workers; as households, neighborhoods, regions, and provinces; and from production units to industries.  

Guilds of architects and city planners are also grouped by the scale of project proposals. They will be grouped according to households, neighborhoods, city, region, province, and nation. These federations will work with  worker and consumer councils to hammer out the fine details of project proposals. The balance between large and small scale, urban and rural,  public and private, agriculture and industry, between work, domestic, cultural, and political life, and the incorporation of arts, crafts, and technology—all this will be determined through decentralized participatory planning and vary in detail from city to city. 

Because work is remunerated in accord with effort and sacrifice there will not be huge disparities in wealth within or between cities. Remuneration in Parecon is also tempered by need, in cases where certain communities may need space, but are unable to pay for it, say a community theater, in which case they would get their request for free. Consumption requests that are above average will need to be justified. Production proposals that are below average also need justification. It’s through its institutions, rules, procedures, and guidelines that Parecon facilitates people generating a fair and equitable outcome in our built environment.

A city facilitating self management and diversity allows those who are affected to build their spatial environment. Inhabitants of one city may want workplaces near their homes, day cares, community centers, etc. Inhabitants of another city may want these things spread further apart because they like that better or for reasons that may be very practical, say a mountainous region where it makes more sense to utilize flat, but spread apart areas for building. Each city has separate but diverse and equitable outcomes. No community will have a say in how another is organized unless inhabitants of one are affected by the other in some way (e.g., transit routes connecting the two cities, hydroelectric dams, etc.), in which case they would have proportional input into spatial reorganization. City boundaries and borders are defined by those affected, although this may also be an area that overlaps into the political and other spheres. 

The construction of community gardens, libraries, and schools are all determined primarily by the people who use them. City planners and architectural designers work together with artists, construction workers, community, and cultural members. Together, they collectively plan and design their parks, museums and national coliseums. Diverse family formations design their own living spaces. Kids help plan their playgrounds. People from multiple ethnic and cultural communities design their contemporary and historic districts, places of worship, and monuments. Inter-communal architectural projects become exciting places for new cultural formations and expressions. Separate city quarters, such as an “historical quarter” or a “natural quarter,” could easily be included in a neighborhood or city-wide consumption request to beautify a neighborhood. From grand to small, artistic monuments that rotate and move could be incorporated into the built environment if people want them and their societal benefits outweigh their costs. 

Inhabitants of cities based on a participatory economy have concern for the well being of others in other parts of the city. This solidarity ensues partly from the rotation that takes place in balancing job complexes, both within and across workplaces. A benefit of time spent working, commuting, and socializing in other parts of the city is that it gives people an understanding of what life is like under those conditions and hence an interest for improving those conditions, not just for one, but for all. 

Indicative prices also help people make informed decisions about how their choices will affect others. Information about the social and environmental cost and benefits of having skyscrapers, landfills, highways, private or public automobiles, urban expansion, etc. are included in the planning process to help people make socially responsible decisions. Highly desirable city spaces or protected areas such as coastal zones or wilderness areas that would otherwise be expensive for private consumption, would be left public for all to enjoy. Participatory planning internalizes, through indicative prices, all external effects of any project. From the visual aesthetics of a building to its built functionality, both positive and negative consequences of project proposals are accounted for. 

Participatory city planning generates an efficient spatial design mapping out road, freeway, and transit routes, utilizing society’s human and scarce resources without unnecessary waste. Pollution will be limited to what is environmentally sustainable. Advertising will be limited to only what is necessary to communicate important information. Spatial design and the built environment embody the social costs and benefits to society distributing them fairly. 

In addition to generating equity, self-management, solidarity, diversity, and efficiency, a city based on Parecon must also include spatial design that facilitates engagement in participatory processes. Options could be rooms in houses, neighborhoods, workplaces, or communities designed specifically to facilitate an interactive flow of information necessary for democratic planning. Such a room, community, neighborhood, workplace, or city “participation center” would likely be equipped with modern technology, including on-line databases, computers, Internet, radios, phones, etc. 

Cities are constantly shifting and changing environments. A future Parecon city (“participatory city”) will have to simultaneously utilize already existing space while building new spatial designs. Transition from capitalism to Parecon would have to begin with “building the new society in the shell of the old.” After a period of successful transition, we could begin to engage in massive reconstruction projects. Cultural space, workplace space, family, home, community, and political space will all become networked into a physical environment. Creating new spaces would take place through participatory planning. The creation and functioning of this kind of city deepens its inhabitants capacity for participation in social life, tapping rich human potential that will be reflected in our built environment. It is this life that is waiting for us. We only need to build it.

Chris Spannos works in Vancouver, British Columbia on a “concurrent disorders” outreach team. He is a member of the Vancouver Parecon Collective (