Published here.

August 19, 2004

Every city is a deeply interconnected web of spatial designs and patterns. From the urban to the suburban, our built environment is carved out into commercial and residential areas. Buildings, parking lots, garages and gas stations are built into streets, freeways, shopping malls, industrial parks and transit routs. 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 often 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.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, subsequent spread of corporate globalization, and privatization of our public goods and services, government policy has combined with market pressures to further weaken worker and consumer control over city space and urban planning. Third world economies have mostly suffered from integration with the global economy. Trade liberalization, structural adjustment programs, international debt, financial speculation, capital flight, war, and imperialism have exported these disparities in wealth, spatial design, and loss of democratic control globally.

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. Better ways of life are turned into fleeting fragments, mere instances and potential possibilities of other ways of being. 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 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. It’s architectural structure, aesthetics, and design are democratically planned and try to embody and promote 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:

There are volumes of already existing research and decades of activism making links between capitalism, our built environment, corresponding modes of social relations, and their consequences. That the institutions within our city space 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”, succinctly 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, 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.” (1)

In the same tradition, but later in the 20th century, Murray Bookchin proposed a “Communalist” vision of the city. Bookchin’s Communalism is 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. (2)

In 1887, Edward Bellamy published “Looking Backward: 2000-1887”. Bellamy imagined a socialist Boston city in the year 2000 which was technologically advanced, decadent, and where consumer goods were plenty and 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.” (3)

As for shopping and stores, “’Here we are at the store of our ward’, said Edith, as we turned in at the great portal of one of the magnificent public buildings I had observed in my morning walk. There was nothing in the exterior aspect of the edifice to suggest a store to a representative of the nineteenth century. There was no display of goods in the great windows, or any device to advertise wares, or attract custom. Nor was there any sort of sign or legend on the front of the building to indicate the character of the business carried on there”…”Edith said that there was one of these great distributing establishments in each ward of the city, so that no residence was more than five or ten minutes walk from one of them.” (4)

From the 1950’s to the 1970’s 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.” (5) 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.” (6)

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.” (7) With this concept they experimented with the “Dérive”, “An experimental mode of behavior linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique for hastily passing through varied environments,” where people would drift perpetually through separate city quarters. (8)

The Situationists also developed a theory of “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.” (9) Unitary Urbanism was the basis for the development of situations, as a game and as a serious way of building a freer society. Unitary Urbanism means that the social and aesthetic could not be separated on the level of every day life. 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. (10)

Ivan Chtcheglov developed an early proposal that later inspired many Situationist visions of cities. In his essay “Formulary for a New Urbanism” Chtcheglov imagined a city with a ‘Happy Quarter’, ‘Historical Quarter’, ‘Nobel and Tragic Quarter’ etc. Chtcheglov’s architecture was constructed out of labyrinths, covered passage ways, mazes, ramparts, and stairways which led nowhere. (11)

Other Situationist proposals included the “New Babylon”, a city designed by the utopian architect Constant Nieuwenhuys. (12) 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. ‘New Babylon’ was not, of course, a feasible project, Constant himself admitted as much. (13) It’s function, like much fiction, was to provoke the imagination, to think of architectural possibilities and how we could actually incorporate grand vision into of every day life.

Other visions for cities include sustainable cities, small scale cities, self sufficient cities, walking cities, garden cities, etc. Some modern tendencies include “anti-civilizationists” and primitivists who both oppose 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 in day to day life. 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. The consequences of all this would be to leave the door open to the reemergence of capitalism or some other horrendous system. Some of these visions, if pursued, would 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, self-management, solidarity, diversity, equity and other humane values, we need to make 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.


Building cities, by using the defining features and institutions of a participatory economy, 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 of or integration of day care centers into homes and work places 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. (14)

A participatory economy is comprised of federations of worker and consumer councils, socially owned productive property and participatory planning determining which goods and services are produced according to a set of rules and procedures all accommodated by various Facilitation Boards. 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 allocation system generates both qualitative and quantitative information used for “indicative prices.” These prices are used by the Facilitation Board to update proposals for further rounds of iterations. A plan is chosen and implemented for the coming year.

A participatory plan is a feasible and desirable choice distributing the burdens and benefits of social labor fairly. It involves participants’ decision making inputs in proportion to the degree they are affected. Human and natural resources should be used efficiently providing a variety of outcomes.

The Architect and City Planner:

Today, under 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. (15)

Another implication of the institutional context of parecon is that in a classless society, 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 an 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 divers skills, perspectives, opinions and practices in architectural and city planning. (16)

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 societies 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. And still others may be given total responsibility for design, or 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, with participants having decision making input according to how much they are affected.

One final note is the concern some may have about potential corruptibility. With all planning information freely available and architects and city planners working in balanced job complexes issues of corruption, or abuse of power, is practically a non-issue. In fact, I find it difficult to imagine what incentive there would be to manipulate the built environment, much less how someone may benefit from such manipulation. However, if these issues were to arise they will most likely be dealt with by a political response. (17)

A New City for a New Life:

We 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 it’s inhabitants; a city that utilizes human and environmental resources efficiently — we want a city that promotes equity, solidarity, diversity, self-management and efficiency. (18)

Through participatory planning, building, maintaining, and developing a city is a social process. Houses, factories, side walks, parks, streets, and distribution centers are all generated through the iteration 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. Even from production units to industries. What ever scale is appropriate according to how many people are affected. 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 federations of worker and consumer councils to hammer out the fine details of project proposals. The balance between large and small scale, urban and rural; the balance between public and private space, between agriculture and industry; the balance between work, domestic, cultural, or political life; 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 work places 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, hydro electric 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.

Community gardens, libraries, and schools are all determined primarily by the people who use them. City planners, architectural designers and experts, work together with artists, construction workers, women, people with multiple barriers, minorities, community, and cultural members. Together, they collectively plan and design their commune’s, neighborhood’s, region’s, and city’s parks, museums and national coliseums. Diverse family formations design their own living spaces. Kids help plan their play grounds. People from multiple ethnic and cultural communities design their contemporary and historic districts, places of worship and monuments. Inter-communal architectural projects become new and exciting places for new cultural formations and expressions. Separate city quarters, such as a ‘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 shift, rotate and move, could be incorporated into our built environment, if people want them and their societal benefits outweigh their costs. City inhabitants plan and design their physical environment as they should, generating a diversity of outcomes and life styles.

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 spending working, commuting, and social time, 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. Experiencing transit, social services, high-rises, offices, and factories of other areas of the city also provide insight into where resources need to be allocated, again, not just for the benefit of 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. Things that have a negative impact on society, like large single family houses, will be expensive. Things that a have a positive impact, like community centers, will be cheap. 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 it’s built functionality, both positive and negative consequences of project proposals are accounted for.

Participatory city planning in a parecon generates an efficient spatial design mapping out road, freeway, and transit routs; utilizing societies human and scarce resources without unnecessary waste. Pollution will be limited to what is environmentally sustainable. Information based advertising will be limited to only what is necessary to communicate important information. This would obviously be in sharp contrast to the hundreds of competing car, cigaret, and clothing ads under capitalism. 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 have to be equipped with modern day technology including on-line databases, computers, internet, radios, phones, etc. Different communities, workplaces, neighborhoods and cities may have different arrangements for these centers but they should be designed into the built environment with respect to the diversity of other community, kinship, and cultural space. Modern day technology allows much of the above information technology to be transported conveniently through multipurpose gadgets, which may also be made available on persons, in transportation, or in other convenient locations.

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”. (19) 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. Updating, modifying, maintaining, and creating new spaces would take place through participatory planning. The creation and functioning of this kind of city deepens it’s inhabitants capacity for participation in social life, tapping rich human potential that is reflected in our built environment. It is this life that is waiting for us, we only need to build it.

Chris Spannos works in the down town east side of Vancouver on a ‘Concurrent Disorders’ outreach team. He is also a member of the Vancouver Parecon Collective,


1) Dolores Hayden, “Capitalism, Socialism and the Built Environment” in “Socialist Visions”, ed. Stephen Rosskamm Shalom, 56., (South End Press, 1983)

2) Murray Bookchin, “The Communalist Project” in Harbinger (Vol. 3, No.1)

3) Edward Bellamy, “Looking Backward: 2000-1887”, 27., (Random House,Inc, 1951)

4) Ibid., 79.

5) Peter Wollen, “Situationists and Architecture”, New Left Review (8, March – April, 2001) This is a good outline of the sources contributing to Situationist ideas, theories and concepts of architecture, urban space and the city.

6) Situationist International, “Definitions” (1958) republished in Situationist International Anthology, ed. Ken Knabb (Bureau of Public Secrets, 1981)

7) Ibid.

8) Ibid.

9) Ibid.

10) Andrew Hussey, “The Game of War”, 151. (Pimlico, 2002) It should be noted that the Situationists themselves eventually abandon many of these concepts. They are noted here for their insights into the intersections between social life and the built environment, architecture etc.

11) Ivan Chtcheglov, “Formulary for a New Urbanism”, “Situationist International Anthology”, ed. Ken Knabb, 1. (Bureau of Public Secrets, 1981)

12) New Babylon was later rejected by Guy Debord and denounced as “pre-situationist”. Constant was also expelled, or resigned, from the group. See Kristin Ross’ interview with Henri Lefebvre, “Guy Debord and the Situationist International”, ed. Tom McDonough, 275. (October Books, 2004)

13) Andrew Hussey, “The Game of War”, 153. (Pimlico, 2002)

14) This section is a thumbnail sketch of parecon based on: Albert and Hahnel, “Looking Forward: Participatory Economics for the Twenty First Century” (South End Press, 1991), and Albert, “Parecon: Life After Capitalism” (Verso, 2003)

15) I didn’t offer any rebuttal here to address the concerns of some artists about having to work in balanced job complexes. Nor did I address concerns about remuneration for effort and sacrifice vs. payment according to contribution. People concerned with these issues can look to Michael Albert, “Creativity / Quality”, 244. in “Parecon: Life After Capitalism” (Verso, 2003). Also, regarding remuneration see Robin Hahnel, the “Doctor-Garbage Collector Problem”, 28. in “The ABC’s of Political Economy” (Pluto Press, 2002)

16) As above, I didn’t offer any counter argument against balancing jobs and efficiency, i.e. letting the artist work only on art and not in a balanced job complex . For a very convening argument for balancing jobs, for possibly increased efficiency see Albert and Hahnel, “The Political Economy of Participatory Economics”, 31-34. (Princeton University Press, 1991)

17) The only example of corruption I can think of is a crude one. That of an architect/peeping Tom (or Jane) who would directly “benefit” from manipulating design. Maybe even stealing. However, I believe that this kind of perverse activity would be easily exposed for obvious reasons e.g. transparency of information, hiding it from consumer proposals, trying to persuade others to actually build the manipulation into the project proposal, etc.

18) This is an adaptation of Albert and Hahnel’s statement in “The Political Economy of Participatory Economics”, 7. (Princeton University Press, 1991), “We seek an economy that distributes the duties and benefits of social labor fairly; that involves members in decision making in proportion to the degree they are affected by outcomes; that develops human potentials for creativity, cooperation, and empathy; and that utilizes human and natural resources efficiently in the world we really inhabit ecological world filled with complicated mixtures of public and private effects. In short, we want an equitable, efficient, economy that promotes self-management, solidarity, and variety under real world conditions.”

19) See Tom Wetzel, “The City: From Self-managed Movements to the Self-managed City” (2003 World Social Forum / Life After Capitalism conference)