Democracy and the City

by | Dec 8, 2002

Caracas: Public spaces are the ultimate expression of democracy in a city.

We humans have the capacity to conceptualize ideas and elaborate thoughts, as well as to construct and fabricate both material and immaterial outcomes, based on those ideas and thoughts. Yet, the process of thought “thinking” is not necessarily an objective and linear process; it also involves passion, emotions, experiences, instincts, and situations or “context.” We understand our context—the immediate surroundings, the world, and the universe—in many different capacities, and we try to convey our understandings to others through several means. Because of these capacities, humans can impact the planet at a scale and magnitude that other creatures do not. To accomplish such goals, communication among people is required.

It is not the purpose of this essay to elaborate on semiotics; however, it is important to introduce that language and words, in our case the words “democracy” and “city,” differ in their meaning depending on the emotional and experiential “context” in which they are set. Furthermore, words and language work only if a group of people share a general understanding—a conceptual basis—of the meaning of these words, and follow certain rules that provide for their understanding. Although those rules tend to be shared by all those who speak the same language, I would argue that words hold many more contextual differences than conceptual similarities. This piece is more about these differences than about similarities.

I had to decide on one of two basic ways to approach this topic in such a short essay, to take either the formal or the informal path. The formal would require a conceptual discussion on the origins and evolution, as well as understanding of democracy throughout history, and its influence on city development and vice versa, starting with the origins of democracy in Ancient Greece as related to Athens. The informal has to do more with analyzing and interpreting how people understand democracy and how it translates into urban form and vice versa. These few lines pretend no more than skim certain questions on this issue; it is a limited view from within.

Indeed, can we talk about democracy in conceptual terms, or do we have to speak about Democracies? I would argue that nowadays there is not democracy; there are many democracies, and although they seem to share certain principles—what we call democratic principles—they differ from region to region, from one society to another, and from one governmental administration to another within the same society. In this respect, there is a spatio-temporal dimension to the concept of democracy.

We adjudicate meaning to words and, although quite vague, sometimes we can communicate ourselves, sometimes we do not, and there lies the beauty and nuisance of language. We can also adjudicate meaning to other things, like the built environment. However, neither words nor buildings or urban spaces have meaning in themselves. We can read urban form and listen to what it can say, but it is always up to us to interpret and understand it. Cities and languages have a lot in common; they are both extremely complex, they can communicate and are also means of communication. It is up to us, to listen and understand what they have to say.



Can we talk about democratic cities? Can the term “democracy” be used to qualify urban environments? In rhetorical terms, I have seen the term used quite often. Now, What does it mean? What do people mean by a “democratic city?” Democracy is a way of living; it is an organizational framework that provides for a group of people to perform their lives, according to certain principles and both customary and legally binding rules that govern their behaviors. These principles and rules set the boundaries of what is allowed for individuals and groups of people to do, and what is not. If democracy is an “organizational pattern,” and cities also follow organizational patterns, are they related?

If public spaces—streets, plazas—can be seen as the places where individual and social expressions can be performed, then we can qualify these spaces as the ultimate expression of democracy in a city. Evidently, private spaces are the necessary complement of the public. Still, public spaces have been provided since primitive towns were built. Every city has streets and plazas, even though they have been built, layer after layer, under different political regimes. Urban form survives socio-political organizations. They are things, man-made outcomes. Cities survive political régimes; cities prevail over social organizational patterns. Therefore, although urban form does not contain meaning in itself, it provides for understandings and interpretations.

Indeed, the design process involves ideology either tacit or explicitly; we are what we believe in, which includes our prejudices and preconceptions, and it gets expressed through what we do. However, things—urban spaces and buildings for instance—do not convey meanings, and if they do, those meanings dissolve over time, and acquire other ones. Those that do not fade become boring; they do not provide for multiple readings and interpretation. They remain static and un-poetic. Certainly, written history provides for learning about their original intentions, but only for those that have the explicit purpose to find out about it. Social organizations, e.g. democracy, can be reflected in urban form, however urban form does not reflect necessarily any ideology. It is the interaction between people and the cities, in a specific moment, that provides for ideologically biased interpretations. 



Carlos: ¡Cuidado! no entres allí­, no ves que es peligroso. PedroWhy are you telling me that it is dangerous to go in there? No ves que es un barrio? Todos los barrios son peligrosos. Why are all barrios dangerous? Porque sí­, todos saben eso. I don’t see why you consider this barrio peligroso. It doesn’t look dangerous at all, how can you tell? True, most houses need some paint, but no more than the buildings in the barrio where we are right now. Carlos: It’s common knowledge; it shows that you haven’t been living in Venezuela since you were a kid. C’mon! en un barrio no hay casas sino ranchos y además éste no es un barrio, es una urbanización, es la ciudad, un barrio no. This is the city; a barrio is not. Don’t you know that there are no houses in the barrios? There are only ranchos.

PedroI don’t get it; do you mean that you are excluding that barrio and all barrios from the city? But it is obvious that they are in the city, this barrio is sitting right there in front of us. How can you exclude it? We are only a few feet away, how can you set it off-limits so clearly? Furthermore, how can you visibly differentiate a barrio from an urbanización? Carlos: As I said, everybody knows that if you go in there you will get mugged or killed. The only way to solve the problem is to demolish these damned barrios and build formal housing in the outskirts. They are disorganized and lack urban planning; that is why crime and poverty proliferate in those places. See, each house sits next to the other, built only by the poor mostly on cerros around the city and ravines. They also lack services and accessibility; they are crowded, and furthermore they were built illegally. PedroHow can you say that everybody knows that if you go in there you will get killed? I am amazed that actually there are different words for differentiating one area from the other! Mostly, you are talking about the processes of how these two types of developments have taken place, not about the products themselves. How do you expect me to realize it just by looking at them? Let’s assume, for a moment, that someone can come with a way to solve the problems you just pointed out. Can the question then become how to integrate them to the city? Carlos: As I said, the only way to solve the problem is to tear them down and build new planned communities to house the poor.

Carlos and Pedro are not actual characters; they do not exist. However, most people in developing countries will assume one position or the other. Such a conversation has taken place in the past, is taking place now, and will continue to take place unless we approach the problem from a different perspective. Words like barrios, the word used in Venezuela for squatter settlements (areas built outside the formal legal system invading public or private land), ranchos (Venezuelan term for a house or a building within a barrio) and cerros (hills where squatter settlements are located) in this context implicitly reject a democratic solution. Carlos is going as far as raising the question of integrating barrios into the city. Still, this position excludes equal opportunities for both areas; it implies that if barrios are to remain they will have to look more like the “formal” city, and less as “informal” settlements. Linguistic differences permeate this imagined but all too realistic discussion. Urbanización is the term used in Venezuela that refers to formal settlements, areas built within the formal legal system on acquired land.

In Venezuela, formal buildings and houses sit on colinas, informal ones sit on cerros. Both colinas and cerros translate as hills. This inability to communicate sameness rather than difference establishes that “I am right and you are wrong” and rules out the possibility of weaving the city fabric together. In reality, most urban dwellers of Latin American cities live within a gray zone between formality and informality, regardless of where they live within the city. There is a mirroring process that is reflected on how people behave and do things in cities in the developing world. In other words, formality and informality have very little to do with barrios and urbanizaciones; there are examples galore of how in both places, people break the law to build their homes.

Explicitly, both worlds fight to differentiate one from the other; implicitly they are coming closer together. Certainly, most informal settlers do not hold a land title; not all formal settlers hold it either. These are subtle differences that most people do not relate to. The actual physical forms of barrios and urbanizaciones are very different, the former designed and built mostly by the people themselves, the latter by constructors. As a result, two very different shapes emerge: one looking quite “rational,” the other resembling more an “organic” type development, reminiscent of the medieval towns of Europe. To the eye of the common citizen in developing countries, the organic is associated with disorder, crime, and poverty. The question is no longer how to integrate the formal to the informal or vice versa, but how to integrate them together, perhaps through a third mechanism that will tie them together and provide access and freedom of choice for those who demand it. Actually, the discriminatory terms “squatter settlements” or “informal settlements” are self-defeating descriptions in themselves; which reinforce prejudices that separate and set differences in a part of the world that demands roads to integration.

Therefore, it seems that the task ahead requires first, to deal with people’s preconceptions and prejudices and then find ways of looking at problems from a different perspective. This requires a conscious decision of bringing these implicit feelings to the front of the discussion and turning them explicit. Slavery was “normal” until humans started realizing that it was not. Pinpointing the problem is always the first step that requires the intention and the vigor to define it as such. Such attitude demands a degree of freedom of thought that democracy provides for. Cities are playing a leading role in redefining democracy. They have become the arena where discussions, confrontation, and resolution first take place, particularly in their public realm.



Nowadays, the concept of what is public, and particularly how we qualify public spaces, is being revised. The boundaries between what is public and what private are blurring. We might have to come up with criteria that define degrees of “public-city” or “private-city.” Indeed, the concept of freedom in cities is also being questioned. For instance, freedom of speech, of expressing ourselves as individuals and as a society in city spaces, is being constrained through different means; urban violence is just one example that affects freedom to move around the city, and to have free access to all neighborhoods. (There are urban areas that are off-limits for most people, especially in developing countries, as portrayed by the conversation of Pedro and Carlos.)

If freedom is related to democracy that, in turn, it is, then it is a relative concept. The United Nations, in its latest Annual Report, acknowledged that there are degrees of democracy by ranking freedom of press or respect of civil rights in democratic countries. So, we can infer that not all democratic societies share the same principles and values, and if they do, they do not share the same meanings. I would argue that the meaning of rules and of the law in many Latin American countries has little to do with the concept as understood in countries such as the U.S.

In Venezuela, for instance, a popular saying goes, “La ley se acata pero no se cumple,” roughly translating as “Everybody acknowledges the law, but nobody obeys it.” This cultural outcome challenges democracy since, as mentioned earlier, democracy requires legally binding rules that apply equally to everybody. Everyone is supposed to respect, lets say, the Constitution. In a country where “compadrazgo,” family ties, and friendship are placed at the same level as justice, some end up being more equal than others, and most people “interpret” the law accordingly. In this Latin American country, democracy has been seen as the right to vote, and not as a means for ongoing political change. As Venezuelan historian Ramón J. Velázquez once clearly stated: “We believed that by honoring the vote, we honor all the traditional wrongs in Venezuela: nepotism, friend favoritism, peculation, traffic of influences, fraud, and the farce that we attributed to an oligarchic origin of all the preceding regimes. I recall how all Venezuelans in 1945 believed in universal vote as the miracle of national purification.” Both today’s political parties and the caudillos’ 19th century social structures do not differ considerably; the caudillos’ followers identified not with abstract ideals but with the leaders themselves, by offering their obedience and fidelity. In return, the caudillos promised special considerations for their followers. This sentiment has remained almost unchanged in Venezuela, proven by the current political situation.

How does this situation translate into city form? In the absence of “lawful law,” citizens of many Latin American countries feel that they have to take the law in their hands; everybody pulls in different directions trying to satisfy immediate individual needs. As a result, it is quite amazing almost unbelievable—maybe through what Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez defined as Magic Realism—that cities tend to work. Existing communities are gated and new-gated communities are being built as exurbia, walled all around to keep the “unruly” others out. New privately owned public space, e.g. shopping malls, are proliferating because there is a need for spaces where rules are acknowledged and comply with, so everybody can feel safe and respect each other. Subways like the ones in Caracas and São Paulo are also examples—in these cases of public services—of the need of people to feel that rules apply. In both, people respect and enjoy these public services run by independent authorities responsible for enforcing rules.

In lawless environments, the unruly takes over. The more people enclose themselves in their own urban compounds, the more the public spaces become no man’s land. If it is true what we discussed above about public spaces being the ultimate expression of democracy, then a lot more freedom for all, and therefore of enforcing rules, needs to be infused into these spaces. Freedom has nothing to do with abuse of a few over others, e.g. violence. Respect for each other and for the city streets and plazas will arise only if rules are enforced citywide. The less the need for segregated cities the more democratic these cities and their societies will become. Nowadays, if we want democracy to prevail, many urban walls—both material and immaterial—in cities in developing countries will have to come down. The less disaggregating components erupt in urban fabrics, i.e. urban highways, walled communities, the less segregated public spaces will turn out to be. A seesawing tension between what we need to do and what we are actually doing characterizes these dissonant times we are living in this new millennium. Instead of promoting exclusionary “public spaces” and therefore walling our cities within and around, a need for places for aggregating people will have to emerge, if we want “democratic cities” to survive.



It seems that we are running out of choices. Either we take care of our natural environment or it will take care of us; either we provide for a better quality of life for all, or we will simply continue aggravating the problems instead of resolving them. The more the distance between the have and the have not, the more room for confrontation and therefore for isolation. The more each individual, each community, each city, each country, each continent closes in itself, the further away we will be from solving our social problems. Most present-day confrontations in this globalized world are fueled by resentment and lack of hope of obtaining the benefits now enjoyed by just a fortunate few. The gap between those who live in poverty and those that do not within cities in developing countries is similar to the gap between the developed and the developing worlds. In both cases, those who have the choice to do something about it are still those who occupy the higher end of the income level spectrum. It is not only a matter of choice, it is a matter of understanding that if “I want to live better, my neighbor needs to enjoy a better quality of live too.” Again, either we take care of this problem or the problem will take over.

This is true particularly in Latin American countries where social confrontation is escalating at an unprecedented pace, bringing social and political unrest that have translated into a questioning of democracy as an appropriate system for highly differentiated societies in socioeconomic terms (of access to services, goods, and education.) Violence has invaded the public realm occupying the space that freedom once did. Following the unorthodox practice of qualifying cities, the more we segregate the less democratic a city is. The more we enclose ourselves in our compounds and in our worlds, the less room for social interaction and therefore for freedom are left.

When the absurd becomes quotidian it turns “normal,” and therefore loses its absurd quality. To be able to see what is absurd in the quotidian has become a real challenge nowadays. For instance, democratically elected officials have been behaving as guerrilla leaders or as dictators, promoting violence and social confrontation that ultimately have invaded public spaces. In such circumstances, real challenges to democratic values come from every segment of the society, defying basic principles that support this political régime. The illegal becomes the rule, and rules are broken right and left.

Transforming what has become “normal,” what “is,” demands a conscious decision to change things. Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” does not seem sufficient anymore. “I think therefore I care” seems to acquire more relevance every day. First, the intention needs to arise so the rational can take over. If this is true, “To care or not to care, is the question” in our times.

Fall 2002


Oscar Grauer is a Cisneros Visiting Scholar at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies. He is a professor, founder, and first Chairman of the Urban Design Master Program at Universidad Metropolitana in Caracas, Venezuela. He recently published Rehabilitación de El Litoral Central, Venezuela/Redevelopment of El Litoral, Venezuela after directing the team appointed by the Venezuelan government to manage recovery efforts after the disastrous 1999 floodings.

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