A Conversation About Creating More Democracy

By Andrea Marpillero-Colomina, Laura Castro, and Zef Egan

Urban Systems Lab
Feb 1 · 18 min read

This is part three of the More Democracy Triptych. Here are part one and two.

For this piece, Resilience editor Zef Egan was in conversation with Laura and Andrea about two of their favorite topics — democracy and classroom vibes.

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An open street on 34th Avenue in Jackson Heights. File photo: Clarence Eckerson

Andrea Marpillero-Colomina (AMC)
I’m Andrea. I am a born and raised New Yorker. I’m a Sagittarius. I have spent most of my time in the urbanism space thinking about how to make cities work better for people. I think a big part of that is having people feel through policy and planning mechanisms that their neighborhood and the space in their city is for them.

When I found out about participatory budgeting I was very excited because for me it represented a real meaningful way to engage people that might otherwise feel like they couldn’t voice their opinions or that their opinions didn’t matter. And for them to then see, as a result of their engagement and participation, palpable changes in what their community looked like — from where money was going to how people were prioritizing the needs of various groups of people in the community. I think that is an important step towards creating more meaningful and inclusive communities that derive power and make decisions from a ground-up model.

Laura Castro (LC)
I am Laura. I am a Brazilian architect and urban planner. I was a visiting scholar at the New School as part of my PhD. I’m a professor of history and theory of architecture.

In the classroom, I try to develop a sense of collective responsibility with the students regarding the historical formation of urban consciousness. In my recent research,I started investigating collective actions that develop in urban centers, and I tried to focus on the difference between the center and the periphery, especially considering that I’m currently on the global periphery, in Brazil. So, I try to differentiate the kind of material resources we have in the Global South and Global North, but also consider the local scale of these problems since social inequality is also manifested geographically . I am especially interested in territorial margins. That does not designate necessarily geographical margins, but also culturally marginalized urban groups.

I try to listen to what people have to say about their own modes of living and try to understand alternative forms of urban living, especially in the everyday life realm. Tactical solutions developed by communities that live in material precariousness can be a very special topic to research, especially when we work with architecture. Historically, Architecture addresses monumentality instead of the banality of urban life. But it is everyday life that drives people to want to engage in their communities and to recognize themselves as social beings.

Zef Egan (ZE)
I am going to start small and work out. Both of you are teaching now. I want to ask about participatory mechanisms in the classroom, and democracy in the classroom, and also about the transition to remote learning. How do you include people, how do you develop participation, multiple modes of participation in the classroom, and especially in the virtual classroom?

AMC
I think that’s a super interesting question. I have been teaching at the New School since 2013.The transition to remote has been interesting for me, and in mostly not great ways. Because for me, so much of teaching in a classroom is about creating community. Particularly now that we spend so much time, even pre-pandemic, isolated on our phones, doing things pretty autonomously, I have always stressed the importance of a classroom that’s really about human interaction, human connection. The transition to remote was very hard in the spring, I was completely unprepared, as everybody was. And my students were unprepared. That was not what they signed up for. It was a struggle figuring out how to retrofit learning objectives and syllabus items that had been planned, imagining that we would be in person.

This semester was different. I’m only teaching one class. I made a conscious choice to only teach one class, because I wanted to intentionally create a space in the digital realm that could function well and engage people and not just be trying to put a square piece in a round hole in the way that I was trying to in the spring

My class only meets synchronously every other week. In the asynchronous week students participate in a discussion board on Canvas. I ask them to post and to engage with two posts by their peers, and write a ~50 word comment on the post. I have found — much to my delight — that for the most part, they are writing many more than two responses to their peers’ work. And often a conversation happens. One person will respond, and then another person will respond.

It’s been exciting to see that I have managed to cultivate a community, where they are able to really talk through the work and talk through their opinions, very similarly to the way they would if they were in a classroom, but actually often at a much higher level, because they’re articulating themselves in writing. They are having conversations with each other on the discussion board, and it’s all super precise. They are free from that thing that often happens in a classroom where you are trying to make a point, but you can’t think of the word or reference and you get flustered. They sort of get to bypass that.

When we do meet synchronously, I try to not have the students be in a Zoom for more than an hour sequentially. I just think it’s unfair to assume that people can be present for longer than an hour in a digital setting. The other thing that I do on Zoom is to put them into random breakout rooms and give them a prompt for the breakout room. So they in some ways get to emulate the experience of being in a classroom and working in a small group. They get to know each other; halfway through this semester, people knew each other’s names.That was my main goal, to cultivate enough community so that people felt like they weren’t just showing up to a bunch of squares on a computer, but they were sharing space and time and knowledge with other people. That not is dissimilar from a lot of what happens in participatory engagement and budgeting processes — where people are coming together from totally different places and they have to start negotiating about what are the priorities of a community.

But I deeply miss the classroom, I miss the energy of the students. I miss being able to read the room. I tell my students all the time, it’s so hard to read the room on Zoom! I rely so much on coming into the classroom and being like, oh, everybody in this classroom is exhausted and in a bad mood, so we’re going to take five, or we’re gonna talk about why everybody’s exhausted or whatever. And you can’t do that in the same way on Zoom.

Also you don’t know what anybody’s wearing! It’s devastating. Such a big part of being in a classroom, especially at the New School, is getting to see everybody’s outfits. The self expression. All of that, I really miss. We also lose — which is a big part of our shtick as human beings — our shared lamentation about the shortcomings of the space. On Zoom I can’t complain about the windows being sealed shut or the slow internet. You know, we don’t get that sort of shared experiential bonding in the digital setting, or we do, but in a very different way.

LC
I can relate to all of that. This was my first semester teaching online. One thing that is very difficult for me is to try to frame non-verbal communication into a screen during synchronous meetings. I’m a very performative person. I come from a dance background. So yes, I was a ballerina! [Laughing] A contemporary dancer, so I move around a lot. This semester I was teaching in two different universities. One is a Federal University. The students come from all sorts of backgrounds. I had 43 students, and they came from all over the country. Some of them, I got to understand within a couple of weeks, came from very poor backgrounds. One day I asked a student a question and she was like, “I’m sorry, you’re gonna hear my neighbor’s music.” I responded, “Oh, that’s okay. Everybody is dealing with home life right now.” And she told me “No, actually, I’m not at home. I’m in the middle of the street.” That was the moment when I realized she was in a favela. She left her house, to a place where she’s still got WiFi. Eventually she was in a common area with her other neighbors. That’s the kind of materiality that you have to deal with when you are teaching to a diverse group in the Global South.You’re entering people’s homes. And that was a rich experience, because at the same time, I was teaching the high middle class in Sao Paulo.There are a lot of strategies that we can use physically in the classroom to engage the group in a discussion. There is a very good book that I read this year. It’s called Teaching to Transgress, by bell hooks, and there’s a chapter that talks about desire. The presence of bodies in the classroom draws affection, and suddenly you are very involved with the subject being discussed. That’s something that I had to learn to develop during this semester, without being physically engaged, we have to try to keep students emotionally and socially related to what I’m talking about..

With participatory budgeting, and the digital possibility to vote and to participate, it’s the same problem and potential. I think it broadens the possibility for you to engage and be virtually present when you can’t be physically present. But to feel like we are a part of a community and to engage with a collective matter, we need to be involved passionately in the moment with our peers. For a digital situation to be really democratic, we have to consider the different realities that are at play. Sometimes we are going to have people that can’t talk because they have limited access to the internet or to a personal computer, and that kind of material limitation can be a crucial feature to subjective engagement. . That’s the kind of marginality that we have to consider when we’re talking about broadening participation in a diverse urban reality.

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One of the firsts PB meetings in Porto Alegre, circa 1990. (Photo by Joaquim Felizardo / Museu de Porto Alegre).

ZE
Thank you. I want to talk a little bit about these participatory dynamics and how concepts that you mentioned, like conversation, compromise, deliberation and anonymity play into healthy civic life.

How do participatory dynamics, including participatory budgeting, help us as a culture get out of these bubbles — these dichotomous, polarizing political worldviews — which are fueling this crisis in which a good portion of the country now believes that our elections are fraudulent? What is the role of different kinds of participatory dynamics in creating a more pluralistic civic life?

LC
There is a conceptual thing that we have to address. There’s a big difference between participation and autonomy in a community.

We are trying to build a new form of autonomous culture, facilitated by digital tools. We understand that urban space is not necessarily a place for consensus. Actually, it is a place for disagreement, to present divergent points of view in a respectful and attentive manner. The goal is not to bring everybody to a consensus, but to let democracy be developed.

Developing this autonomous posture actually comes from being able to develop your own rules, or your own norms or protocols. So, for us to change the rules, we have to be able to put ourselves out there, to feel safe doing so. Autonomy means that we can share experiences of what is not working anymore, what we would like to change. The problem with considering participation apart from this autonomous posture is that sometimes, — not always, but sometimes — participation is limited to voting for options that have already been developed within the existing framework of existing rules, so you don’t have the opportunity to point out the limits of the rules.

We have to be very careful about the structures of participation. The possibility to speak for yourself and to speak for your community, to be heard, and to be legitimized as different is an important path to build a culture of democracy through diversity, and the recognition of difference in large cities.

There are probably many other modes of doing that, that we just don’t know yet, because we sometimes don’t listen to people who have new ideas.

AMC
I totally agree. I think one of the major shortcomings in political decision making in capitalist democratic societies have developed is that you do feel like you have to always choose one or the other…

There’s a deficit based structure: you’re choosing this, or for this; you can prioritize this, or this. Everything is: If we want more money here, we have to cut the budget here. And that doesn’t incentivize people to participate, because people don’t like feeling like they’re operating within a paradigm of scarcity.

The other thing is that democracy, I would say particularly in the United States, was developed by a specific group of people at a specific time in history. It was developed by white men 250 years ago, when the population of this country was maybe a 100th of what it is now. So many of the shortcomings we see in American democracy is that the society doesn’t match the system. So the system isn’t working. It’s creating these unnecessary polarizations because it’s based on totally different places in time and space.

The other thing is that we have created a system in which personal values have become so closely tied to politics. Society doesn’t work that way. Society is about a group of people that opt into society. Society is bigger than you.

Political decision making cannot just be about, I personally would prefer to drive a car, or I personally would prefer to not get an abortion, or I personally would not like to spend more money on public school because I don’t have children. Those are really personal choices. If that becomes the lens through which people vote, and people participate politically, it will limit the capacity to make any kind of decision.

Going back to Laura’s point, can we create the structure so that people who disagree, or people who have different priorities, both can have their needs met? Not coming from a deficit based model, coming from a model of there’s enough abundance, there’s enough resources, brain wise, money wise, etc., to, for example, build a roadway that can accommodate both a car and a bicyclist. We don’t have to choose one at the expense of the other. I think that that meaningful civic participation through mechanisms like participatory budgeting can be — and I’m a true optimist here — really, really important pieces of the conversation.

If you actually get people to be civically engaged, they can see beyond themselves, and understand: Oh, I live in a community with other people. These are the priorities of my neighbors. They also should be important to me, and maybe I can facilitate both the priority of my neighbor, and my own priority in this same physical and fiscal space. I think the only way we’re going to get out of democracy alive is if we create more opportunities for people to make choices. And to have that choice, then, not only be a great thing for yourself, but actually contribute to your community being better, being stronger, being more diverse and more able to adapt when conditions or needs change.

LC
An image that came to my mind: It’s kind of the difference between an open-ended question and a multiple choice. Autonomy is when you can write and put yourself out there. Multiple choice is what participation in non-democratic structures can be.

AMC
I totally agree. I think that’s a great way to frame it.

The way that I was taught to do multiple choice: first, you eliminate all the answers that you know are wrong. From the get go, you’re starting from a place of , I don’t want that. I don’t think that’s the right answer. And then you’re left with, Well, which one seems like the least wrong answer?

Whereas an open ended question is: What do you think is the right answer? And why do you think that?

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A PB meeting about installing public surveillance cameras in 2013, in Belo Horizonte. It was the first city to develop a digital version of PB in 2006. (Photo by Prefeitura de Belo Horizonte)

ZE
I don’t want you to feel that I’m taking these beautiful open responses and trying to pigeonhole them into specific issues. But the last question is going to be specific.

In New York City, we have almost a million people, well over 800,000 undocumented adults, otherwise participating in civic life, paying taxes, sending their kids to school. Many are essential workers. And these people are not allowed to vote in state, municipal and federal elections.

Participatory budgeting is one of those opportunities to make a rule that changes the rules, that cycles into greater and greater enfranchisement. What do you see as the role of these other forms of civic participation in both interrogating why we have exclusive structures in our society, and also in changing those exclusive structures in our society?

AMC
I think it goes back to my last point. Democracy in this country, in particular, was created by a specific group of people who wanted only people like them — at that time white men — to be decision makers. I think the companion piece to giving undocumented people voice in participatory processes is the fact that in almost every case, certainly every case that’s included in this piece (see part 1 and part 2), decision making through participatory budgeting and other processes is open to people who are younger than the voting age, and people who are eligible to vote but choose not to or are not registered.

It points out that there are a lot of people who because of this multiple choice type framework are being excluded from decision making. You are disenfranchising perfectly capable people who are under 18, who are not registered to vote, and others who are not documented, but they are making meaningful contributions to their community. And that in itself, — the fact that those folks are not able to participate — perpetuates and plays into this scarcity approach.

There’s a whole layer that we see — particularly in the United States of — “this thing is not going to benefit me,” it’s going to benefit, you know, “these illegals who are stealing from our healthcare system,” …. Like anybody would ever want to steal from the US healthcare system. Or “these people aren’t paying taxes.” whether they be children or people who are undocumented.

Meanwhile, children and undocumented people both pay taxes — they pay sales tax, they often pay income tax, etc. So I think the fact is that participatory democracy is a way to get more people in the room and to include folks who are previously disregarded by traditional democratic structures, for whatever reason because they don’t meet all the “multiple choice” criteria to be democratic participants.

In a beautiful way, participatory budgeting points out the deficit of that very system, — that only allows certain people who meet specific criteria to participate in traditional representative democracy. Well, if that’s your system, then you don’t have a democracy! Because a democracy is about representing the needs of all people and all people being able to participate.

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Portrait of Democracy? (Painting: Howard Chandler Christy, “Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States,” 1940.)

If you go back to the Founding Fathers, only white men who own property can participate… That’s a lot of people that are not participating in your democracy. That in itself is a fundamental reckoning. Particularly right now, as we are interconnected and as information is traveling between us and across communities in new ways, we have different ways of casting a vote, of understanding what’s going on, of getting in touch with our elected officials, of learning about the systems and structures of our communities, this is a fundamental transformation. How does democracy perceive itself?

Democracy, and democratic governance, has often been a gatekeeper, preventing more people from participating in democracy, which, for me, undermines what democracy is supposed to be about.

LC
One thing that scared me a lot was the percentage we came to find in our research for the tryptic : only 0,4% of New York’s budget goes to participatory budgeting. That is very low. Especially when you consider that representatives can choose if they want to be a part of it or not.

I like to think that the state is a collective institution that should serve as an intermediate structure between individuals and big institutions with the purpose to achieve social justice. The role of the state in that sense would be to try and protect the population from being exploited by big corporations, as the latter have infinitely more resources and political leverage than an isolated individual. Anyway, the role of the state should be of mediation. What a number like .04% shows us is that the state is not valuing the population’s direct interest and their everyday life issues.

There is a problem that some representatives feel like they are being disenfranchised, losing their job, when they open that space to citizens to suggest a new approach to the budget. When you take a number that is less than 1%, and you put that in comparison to all the other prompts of work and investment, we see a big gap. We can start from there to build a strong enough argument to make the state be accountable for mediating that discrepancy, as well as to promote a more direct interaction between citizens and elected officials in charge of budgetary policies.

When we are dealing with people that are disenfranchised as a prerogative –and here we’re talking about undocumented people, informal workers, and people that historically have been excluded from the public realm — , the state has a very big responsibility to try and be that institutional mediator.

We can’t count on benevolence. Especially when we live in neoliberal context, where foundations are not doing that only for the sake of good. They’re not doing that for free. We can’t count on big companies or institutions or even NGOs to do this very important base-work that should be done by democratically elected representatives.

How do we create more democracy during a pandemic?

The answer to augmenting civic life during the pandemic is decidedly NOT multi-hour Zoom meetings in the name of “democracy.”

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Vanderbilt Avenue, Brooklyn, in August 2020. (Photo by Twitter user @IyadKheirbek)

More interesting and more inclusive is actually democratizing civic space by creating the capacity for people to come together — safely, informally, spontaneously, joyfully — in the actual existing shared space of their community, as people did in the very celebrated example of the Vanderbilt Avenue Open Street in Brooklyn; the existence of which was maintained and fiercely defended through citizen-led organizing.

What do you envision for cities once we have community immunity?

I’m hoping once we have community immunity (and a new mayor in NYC in 2022!!) that participatory democracy really takes off in New York, invigorated by new political energy and enough funding to actually work!

Physical isolation made clear that open public spaces are essential as meeting places. We have to consider the possibility of further social fragmentation and disenfranchisement if we don’t consider how to improve accessibility to those places. Urban Design has a very important role in reconstructing the sense of community and in symbolizing the importance of togetherness. As we mentioned before, being present with our bodies and emotions during an exchange of ideas can be crucial to the level of engagement and passion we put into a project or a discussion. Also, because of long periods of confinement, the scale of our neighborhoods become an important feature because we increasingly value walking distances. To be able to get to do daily chores on foot or using our bikes is better for both our physical and mental health.

By reoccupying the streets, parks, gardens and squares, the scale and speed of our urban experience change, thus we open ourselves to engaging with our local community.

Have more questions or want to get involved in participatory budgeting?

Check out the Participatory Budgeting Project and 72 Frequently Asked Questions about Participatory Budgeting produced by UN Habitat.

This is part three of the More Democracy Triptych. Here are part one and two.

Andrea Marpillero-Colomina is a spatial policy scholar. She researches the intersections of infrastructure, policy, and place. Her passion is figuring out how cities can work and feel better for people, by advancing equity, supporting anti-racist practices, honoring history, constructing sustainable infrastructure, and creating healthy and beautiful public space. Her work has taken her to three continents and across the US. She has taught hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students, and been awarded course development funding by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. She holds a PhD in Urban and Public Policy from The New School. She lives and loves in Brooklyn, NY. @urbandrea

Laura Castro is an Architect and Urban Planner, and Ph.D. Candidate at the Architecture School of the Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil. She is a scholar at The New School for Social Research, the Urban Systems Lab, and the Cosmopolis Research Group. She has continuous experience as a Professor of History of Art, Architecture and Urbanism, Theory of Architecture, Aesthetics (Philosophy of Art), and Design Studio at the Federal University of Minas Gerais and the Pontifical Catholic University of Minas Gerais. Her doctorate research focuses on everyday urban life, considering the materiality of Architecture as support for subjective narratives and political engagement

Zef Egan is an educator and writer. He is pursuing a masters focused on environmental and social justice at the Graduate Center. Zef is the managing editor of Resilience Quarterly. @EganZef

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A forum for research, design, writing, and engagement for more equitable and resilient cities

Urban Systems Lab

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Research, design, and engagement for more equitable and resilient cities. http://urbansystemslab.com/

Resilience

Resilience is a quarterly publication co-produced by the Urban Systems Lab at the New School, providing a unique forum to share strategies in design, data visualization, and interdisciplinary scholarship on urban ecology, environmental justice, and sustainable cities.

Urban Systems Lab

Written by

Research, design, and engagement for more equitable and resilient cities. http://urbansystemslab.com/

Resilience

Resilience is a quarterly publication co-produced by the Urban Systems Lab at the New School, providing a unique forum to share strategies in design, data visualization, and interdisciplinary scholarship on urban ecology, environmental justice, and sustainable cities.

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