Democratizing the City Using…Planning?


As I mentioned in a recent post, we just read some Marxist critiques of planning in my planning theory class, one by Fogelsong (”Planning the Capitalist City”) and one by Harvey (“On the Ideology of Planning”). These old readings brilliantly show how state-led planning in capitalist societies is necessarily an activity that preserves capitalist social relations and thus the capitalist system. The common complaint about these readings, though, is that they do not offer a clear alternative. Of course there is always state-socialist planning (which may be, as one of my students perceptively hypothesized, the alternative the authors (Harvey) actually do favor but cannot advocate out loud). But there is also here, embedded in the Fogelsong, something perhaps of use.

Fogelsong says that capitalism is subject to crises, and planning’s function is to manage those crises so capitalism doesn’t collapse. Fine. But he focuses specifically on spatial contradictions, those having to do with urban land. One contradiction is what he calls the “capitalist-democracy contradiction,” which is: despite the fact that urban land is mostly privately owned, nevertheless it has a social function, a use value for urban inhabitants. Fogelsong says that there is some need to socialize control over urban land so that its social functions can be ensured (if not, the self-interested decisions of private owners may well ignore these social functions, which will produce unrest that could threaten capitalism). But of course fully socializing decisions about urban land would eliminate the system of private ownership that is capitalism. Fogelsong thinks about this socialization in terms of democratization, i.e. socialization requires and involves greater real-democratic control over the decisions that produce urban space. So, as an alternative to the trap of planners-as-handmaidens-to-capitalism, we could imagine planners working to create mechanisms to increase popular participation–and here I mean participation that really does increase the control people have over the production and management of urban space (rather than the same old bullshit)–as a way planners might begin to alter the very structure of the capitalist city. Not just using state control of space to ensure a modicum of social function, but finding ways to increase popular control over space so that people themselves can ensure the social function, constrain the privileges of private ownership, and work toward a more really-democratic, and therefore less capitalist, city. I am not sure how far this can be pushed, or what its limits are, but it seems, for planning, a fruitful direction to explore.