Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Involvement, empowerment and feeling

With the city planner for downtown Eugene, Oregon, I discussed a massive, proposed private urban plan, subsidized by public funds of course, which looks very negative. If built, it would wipe out a lot of incremental improvements downtown, and would happen essentially without public input.

At some point in the discussion I made an assertion, one that I think is true, but which is not the kind of assertion that can be made without an explanation.

I said that positive change is made exclusively by increasing the participation of people in a project, whether a building, an organization, a polity, a city ... whatever. If you want to increase quality, get more people involved, more broadly & more deeply.

For example, non-violent grassroots action, by the mass of the public, forces elite institutions (companies, governments, non-profits) to pay attention to the public interest. It makes them become more sensitive to the needs of people & nature. Although typically this is a point made in discussions about anti-imperialism & civil rights, participation also is recognized as necessary for good design -- hence "focus groups".

But let's take city planning. If you go back to the building of medieval, aboriginal, and early modern, villages & cities, the reason they are so nice is because they were built with more sensitivity: to people (their needs & feelings) & nature (its connection to human life & respect for resources). No matter what the political & social structure on paper, actual sensitivity was demanded by the masses of townpeople ... and this demand was effective. Sometimes it had a political effect, but it certainly had a structural effect on the shape of the town.

No one would be able to get away with modern urban planning in medieval times, because everyone knew what worked and what didn't. When structures didn't work, when they had no feeling, the builders & "town fathers" just looked ignorant. These old "city planners" had to impress everyone with their sensitivities, partly because elite power was then (and is today) a very tenuous thing. Today, however, the vastness of scale means that people are subject to manipulation by mass media and bulldozing by massive power.

People can still effectively push back -- but they don't always know, in time, that they should. The employed masses tend to assume that the elite is working in the public interest, because the elite say they are, and normal people would behave honestly, and in the public interest. Unfortunately, the elite do not behave well -- institutions are increasingly geared towards concentrating power and wealth.

When simple sensitivies to people, such as their survival, are successfully ignored by governments & corporations, then good urban structure can be demolished more easily. But, certainly, if people are more involved in positively shaping their local space, they will become more involved in pushing back against the larger empire. Because these are intimately connected, you have to fight them both.


Post a Comment

<< Home