Democratic by Design – new book with rich diversity of democratic approaches

By Richard Register

In the perfect world of politics and economics rolling along, direct and official accountability to the public, through free speech, open deliberation and voting (decision making) and taxing and spending (getting real about doing something) would be mainly through government and the law-making practice. The idea is to have open debate and a beautifully informed public. Everything is then supposed to work out nicely for “the People” as they like it. In people-initiated government-independent work, generally meaning business, sometimes non-profit organizations, just to keep the bad actors in line with a little bit of regulation for the common good… and all’s well that continues harmoniously.

When I went to Norway for the first time, in 1988, I said to my host and friend there, Kirsten Kolstad, “I’d like to visit some environmental organizations; where can we find some?” She looked at me a bit puzzled. “I think we have a Greenpeace here, somewhere… You know we don’t really have environmental organizations. If you want to make a difference you study, get competent then work for the government. They can actually get a lot done.” The subtext was this: government is the institution set up to deliver the common good, including the good of plants, animals, bioregion, planet. “Why do you even need environmental organizations?” she added. Answering herself she added, “Because your government doesn’t do the work it should.” Well that wasn’t completely true but she had a point, which is not to say they are perfect in Norway either with most of their wealth based on North Sea oil, but I’m getting ahead of myself or off to one side…

I’d surmise the best of government requires this ideal of a high degree of democracy – participation and empowerment in deliberations and decision- making – by the public.

The only problem is, as with the assumptions of mainstream economic theory that the consumers all have 1.) accurate and extensive information and 2.) are thoroughly rational and 3.) are also thoroughly self-centered, which maybe exists on a planet near Alpha Centauri, with life here on Earth, it’s a bit more complex.

Unfortunately a few bumps occur along the road to make perfection impossible. So we fumble forward in what some people call politics: the art of the possible. Most of us individuals, and institutions too, want just a little more, and the greedy among us want a whole lot more. We are not all that reasonable and democratic. And some are even more focused on benefits for others than for themselves becoming subservient to what others think of them, to family, nation, religion, fanatic group and so on. Then there are various levels of deception providing a less than unbiased information base, from little white lies of gross exaggeration as in the advertising industry to brazen (strategic they rationalize) deceit by many politicians performing up front before us all, and by the genuine sociopaths lurking under the rocks ready to pounce out and steal or kill.

So here’s how it really works

Gabriel Metcalf’s new book, Democratic by Design – How Carsharing, Co-ops, and Community Land Trusts Are Reinventing America, addresses all this eyeball to eyeball, mano a mano, and does so by looking at who steps in with the creative alternative called the new institution that strives to solve some problems along the bumpy way.

Alternative to what? Government and the big businesses and even the big non-profits – or maybe just the bad habits of the masses. Maybe even a lot of smaller institutions in their vast number aren’t working that well – we need alternatives to those too. The success of the new institutions paradoxically has to do with how large and/or how pervasive their offspring become, including small ones. The criteria: how influential on everyone’s lives the alternative institution becomes, how broad the level of cultural acceptance, all the way down to the level of normal daily habits, some quite healthy, some pretty bad, even dangerous. We can all think of some of both types. Thus not only is there the issue of cultural acceptance but also that culture might be going wrong in some way, say, by abusing one social group or another or destroying the climate balance or accepting that war will go on and on forever and ever.

The particular institution Gabriel chose to create, with a lot of help from a few friends and work pals, was a car-sharing scheme that turned into one of the world’s pioneering leaders in the form they called City CarShare out of San Francisco.

I got off to a good/bad start with this magnetically friendly and obviously brilliant guy, Gabriel, way back when he was very early in his ruminating about the idea: set up a fleet of cars owned by a non-profit so that city folks could rent cars for trips around town on a very convenient basis. This would, if successful and broadly implemented, vastly reduce the number of cars inflating the city with asphalt parking lots and paved surfaces for driving and make possible not creating several stories of concrete and steel parking inside most of the buildings while liberating massive moneys for better uses and radically reducing fuel dependence and the disasters of burning the stuff which afflicts atmosphere and climate.


My vegetable garden car, 1979, a 360 horsepower GTO. You can tell even way back then I was a critic of cars, fan of organic farms.

More fundamentally, moving away from cars is generally moving away from sprawl, and vice versa. And, if the smaller suburban centers of a region like the San Francisco Bay Area got with “carsharing” in a big way too, sprawl could be eventually etched away and replaced with compact cities and modest sized towns. But we’d have to understand what we were doing and make zoning changes to fit: more mixed uses, centers oriented development and gradually removing car-dependent development while shifting to rental, fewer and eventually entirely car free areas tending to whole cities, towns and villages. Cars? The rare few for connecting between cities where rails and bicycling, even horses, for one reason or another won’t work. These days I think of this as a kind of co-shifting – land use and transportation – toward low energy transport and high functioning physical community infrastructure. It would be the pedestrian ecotropolis replacing scattered, enormously destructive car accommodating and promoting sprawl. With transport and city form changing roughly together, the number of cars needed could be radically reduced over reasonable time. The idea of carsharing looked like it might be a promising part of a transition strategy toward thorough-going ecocities. I liked the mission he had in mind.

Gabriel’s approach was to create an institution to create positive change in society. Alternative institutions could be ones to change habits (stop smoking, for example), eliminate injustices somewhere, protect nature, advance (hopefully good) local and national policies, promote renewable energy, actually build an alternative by designing better bicycle networks and getting them built, same for ecocities, and so on. His launch point and one of his major case subjects in Democracy by Design was in a real organization aspiring to change the way we get around and at the same time, change the basic layout and texture of our cities, starting in San Francisco and attempting to change things everywhere possible, which is pretty much everywhere people gather together in building communities from city to village scale. If alternative institutions don’t effect the mainstream then the only success they could be said to have would be a lesson of some sort: they were too early – try later – or maybe what not to do. They basically fail by either never getting big or never influencing what is big in its own right or big in the sense of gaining broad acceptance in society, maybe by way of numerous small copycats. So Gabriel’s intent was big from the start. He wanted to change the whole structure of cities, which was why we launched our conversation.

I don’t remember who initiated our get-togethers, but I had recently written a book called Ecocity Berkeley – Building Cities for a Better Future and he was studying all sorts of issues related to city planning and transportations systems. My favorite place to meet was at the pizza beer pub in downtown Berkeley called Jupiter. (“Why did you name it Jupiter?” I asked the owner once. “Because we were thinking of something really big and I thought, Hey! Jupiter’s big!”) Big was Gabriel’s ambition too, and of course mine, to change cities everywhere from an ecological disaster phenomenon to a fabulously successful human-nature partnership. Insanely big? Maybe, but Gabriel’s success was, if not to reshape cities everywhere, to help significantly in that direction. So we were nicely aligned, as the planets sometimes are.

That was the good start, plus we had a lot of fun munching, swilling, fantasizing and hopefully laying out some thoughts that, if connected well to work and a goal, would amount to us doing some planning.

The bad, or at least uncomfortable part, was my initial almost reflexive, and I thought very natural reaction when he described his idea of how people would share cars, renting them through a non-profit he had in mind. It would be a transition strategy to affect the form and function of the whole city. So with no laborious analysis behind what I was hearing for the first time I said something like, “Well how do you know people, when they switched to rental cars, would already be drivers? Maybe a lot of them would be people who don’t drive yet, and once they start getting used to driving they’d eventually buy their own car. How do you know those already car-free guys would be outnumbered by those who already have cars and would end up driving less or eventually not at all?” It seemed to me it could work in either direction.

Gabriel was visibly agitated by my thought, as if I’d thrown my nice iced beer on him and his pizza. But I knew from lots of other topics in our conversations he had the best of intentions. In fact, he probably had best of information too since so many more drive in the US than just walk, and unlike today, there was no renaissance of people hankering for the options and free airs of the city and not many attracted to car-free living. It would seem his notion made a lot of good sense. There was simply a much larger body of driver/owners out there than there were walkers to be converted to car ownership. He was probably as educated on his point as I was likely off point in my rejoinder.

How alternative institutions work

Early in his book Gabriel says, “The American Revolution illustrates some of the key components of alternative institutions as a strategy.” He elaborates, “First, it succeeded at least partially because before the [Revolutionary] war began, the people living in the colonies had created alternative institutions of self-government that made the British Government superfluous.”

The institutions in question “ranged from early corporate enterprises organized for the purpose of trade to idealistic religious communities. What emerged over time was a de facto system of self-governance camouflaged by formal subservience to the British crown.”

The town meetings were where the shoe or horseshoe met the road, and town meetings would appoint representatives to other de facto institutions, which were the colonies’ legislatures, which even levied taxes, built roads and occasionally mustered militia – I’d guess to fight restive Native Americans and be ready for the French. The town meetings and hence the colonial legislatures were not perfect, leaving out slaves, Indians, women and men without real estate or business properties. But it was the best one could do at the time and a long step up and away from the distant small isles across the stormy North Atlantic where the governing elite were telling a few million people, by necessity very personally and collectively self-reliant, what to do.

The already existing institutions in the colonies cut a dramatic contrast with France and their revolution. Gabriel quotes Hannah Arendt from her book On Revolution on that score: “The great and fateful misfortune of the French Revolution was that none of the constituent assemblies could command enough authority to lay down the law of the land; the reproach rightly leveled against them was always the same: they lacked the power to constitute by definition: they themselves were unconstitutional.” She continues, “Conversely the great good fortune of the American Revolution was that the people of the colonies, prior to their conflict with England, were organized in self-governing bodies.” Institutions created by people to meet their needs can be powerful and profoundly change society.

Pan right and up to today, and some of the alternative institutions are environmental groups, transit and bicycle advocates’ organizations, city planning advocacy groups like Ecocity Builders, coops, land trusts, early unions, farmers’ associations, community land trusts, mission-driven investment funds and so forth. He covers all of these and more, reminding me a little of Howard Zinn’s approach in A People’s History of the United States. Gabriel’s is more like An Institution’s History of the United States, much briefer but embracing a wider political/economic viewpoint.

In what Gabriel Metcalf calls a “theory of piecemeal change,” he says, “The central idea of the alternative institution strategy is that we should focus on creating elements of a better society today, one institution at a time. This approach means we do not have to convince people of a particular critique of society’s ills or have the same view of what a better society would look like. We simply have to find people who agree with us about better ways to achieve specific ends.” He calls this a “strategy of minimum consensus.”

Though contrasting the US and the French alternative institutions prior to their revolutions does have an element of changing physical institutions most of those concerned could relate to, they also had strong elements of dealing with “views of what a better society would look like.” Many of the particular institutions he examines for us, dear readers, are relatively free of political undertones, such as those in the sustainable food movement as well as something as physical in impacts as carsharing institutions, and for that matter, again to say, building ecocities. Those three have so many benefits for both people and nature they are in fact something of good cases in point for his theory.

But let’s think a little about the non-government institutions, which include business with its relatively strict adherence to the profit motive – the profit reality or you go broke and disappear – and the non-profit institutions that enunciate a set of values to be furthered by doing something very particular. These institutions can include carsharing groups to be organized and promoted into existence, environmental groups seeking policies defending “nature,” others feeding the hungry left behind by the government and business sectors, religions, universities both private and public, experimental towns including Garden Cities and much of the earlier mentioned list above. We could even include government institutions when they first come into existence when the established institutions left a good goal unattended. For example, redevelopment agencies when they first started to provide housing. And you can yourself likely name others that were alternative once upon a time or still are. And by the way, have you noticed that when people talk about alternative transportation they mean everything but cars? They are dancing around avoiding outright car-blame because it is not yet the cool thing to do. With about 1 in 6 of us in the United States employed in the auto-related, car, suburb and highway building, fueling, repairing, insuring, policy-writing, policing and defending resources, especially fuel resources institutions – and don’t forget hospitals and mortuaries and you have to include car rental institutions, even taxis – you can see why there is a reluctance to identify the elephant in the room. (Though some of us think planning a full employment transition would create even more jobs – but that’s another story and too much for this article.)

A couple dozen pages into his book, Democracy by Design – great title by the way – I began to realize Gabriel was talking directly to me. I’ve created, and very intentionally, several institutions though initially I didn’t think of them in that “institutional” language of his. The first was No War Toys, started in 1965 which quickly became a group of a few dozen people around the US bringing attention to the question: does giving war toys to little boys cultivate an atmosphere conducive to war-like values; does it lie to the children encouraging them to think war is exciting and heroic rather than drudgery and a kind of collective psychopathic controlled out of control mayhem? That’s a tale for another telling too.

My second institution was called World Community Events started in 1970. The idea emerging from a very commercial Christmas season conversation about the fact that there seemed to be no holiday for all of us, but should be, a kind of Earth Day/Peace Day combo. That one I even managed to gather a board of directors and incorporate. I managed to stage about a dozen medium sized events and seed a few around the country but they had no staying power of their own. So I went on to found two alternative institutions, which I didn’t think of by that term, to promote ecocities. And here I am today reporting on what Gabriel refreshes and clarifies for much of the organized effort of my life – and I can tell you he is right on! The exercise he takes us through in his examination of these groups is definitely worth the trip.

But… though he emphasizes the separate and relatively straightforward, benefit-for-pretty-much-everyone institution, and it is an approach to understand and learn from in its proper place, he does also say there needs to be a culture of acceptance of such organizations for them to really thrive, a context. To use his own words, “a whole new ecosystem of organizations that can begin to make its own rules. So, keep this in mind: change does happen piecemeal in many cases but in good ecological theory, “when we try to pick out anything by itself we find it hitched to everything else in the universe” as John Muir said.

How institutions work, fail or succeed

Gabriel covers many of the dynamics of institutions, especially in their formative stages. He discusses how to gather people around an idea, how to enunciate the values at the core that don’t challenge hot political issues of the time – common goals featured prominently. For example, Jane Jacobs in her book Systems of Survival – A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics, posits two sets of percepts pretty well adhered to one by the left on one wing, and another on the right. She points out that a few percepts, and especially “be courageous,” is common to both. In fact she points out writers who have held that courage is the “master virtue” in that it makes the practice based on all the other virtues possible. Similarly, pick a physical issue that improves by standards widely shared, such as health, and proceed without so much resistance to do that type of good that is perceived to benefit all. If City CarShare moves us toward the multiple virtues of the ecocity with solutions in numerous categories, progress should be enjoyed by both left and right.

Gabriel also covers development and enunciation of the mission, the financing and the strategy of the institution, often a non-profit, or a business. Sometimes it is a branch of government such as Jerry Brown established. I mentioned above redevelopment agencies when introduced. The central, defining new institution that young Gov. Brown launched was the Office of Appropriate Technology (OAT) in his first through second term as governor, 1975 through 1983. His OAT-centered initiatives (“ecosystem of organizations”) featured innovative architect Sim Van der Ryn as State Architect and founder of the Trust for Public Land Huey Johnson as Resources Director for the state. OAT, as it was known to activists and bureaucrats and pronounced like the nice edible grain, oat, at the time supported wind, solar, recycling, organic farming and other technologies “appropriate” to healthier living relative to human’s resource base, personal health and health of the environment. It was a heady time for me as I knew Sim and Huey modestly well personally and shared ideas with both of them. My poster for a proposed “Integral Neighborhood” in West Berkeley was tacked to the OAT office wall in Sacramento of Ty Cashman who was then head of work for wind electric power in California.

Jerry Brown’s innovative governmental institutions were definitely alternative to the 1950s oddly comfortable materialist yet war-like values of the mainstream of the early Vietnam War years that long overstayed their popularity and legitimacy by the early 1970s. Thus much in the results of the alternative institution of OAT and its related organized institutions entered the mainstream, accepted even by the President of the United States and dramatized by Jimmy Carter placing solar power on the roof of the White House. Then in the 1980s Brown’s institutions and those of many others that had gained mainstream traction were partially subverted by the policies of the Reagan Era, equally dramatically and treated as something of a joke when Reagan pulled the solar panels off the White House in a flourish of cynical showmanship. But deeper down, the foundation values – and simple logic of the way nature and resources actually work – are recently showing many signs of coming back. Welcome solar; more people than ever are buying organic food, young people aren’t so desirous of cars, more want the convenience and excitement of downtown, bicycle culture growing and etc.

Dare to be co-opted!

Democratic by Design features I think a particularly insightful investigation into the ways innovative organizations can be co-opted, that is, deflected from their values and programs by the more powerful mainstream. Think for example of large foundations largely writing new programs for non-profits by simply holding out money to do things the way they like. I’m familiar with more examples of this than I like to think about, but Mike Davis probably says it better than I can in his book Planet of Slums in which he questions the value of small businesses and larger non-profits that support small scale, one might think “appropriate” technologies and services, but ones whose message is largely that “government doesn’t have a problem,” as Reagan famously stated, “government is the problem.” Then these small businesses and the non-profits that take money from the larger foundations, and sometime smaller foundations too, help promulgate the idea that businesses and the idea of private profit, not government and public service, are the real engine of the economy and we should reduce government services, lower taxes on the rich and privileged and loosen regulations designed to protect people and nature alike. Plus the actual work tends to not be what the group would necessarily think best supports its mission. Davis points out that many micro lending programs generally enable poor people to improve their lives modestly but the same level of general poverty exists throughout society. They advance a little, others fall while meantime the divide between poor and rich grows even wider and trust in government and hence its power to work for the common good erodes. Leave it to business, which you don’t vote for, to solve our problems. I think Davis is right about these alternative institutions, but at the same time there are other causes of poverty not addressed well as yet, such as growing population wearing down the resource base and poor structure of cities forcing people to turn to cars or suffer incredibly long commutes. Again, it’s Gabriel’s “ecosystem of organizations” some of the “alternative” ones at least addressing the problems if not succeeding in solving them, but in their synergy have a better chance of success than if acting alone.

In Davis’ scenario, the power flows from the very wealthy to the foundations that then award money to the “civil sector” or “NGOs” (non-governmental organizations) that promote small businesses and the notion that they are there because government just can’t do its more activist job. I noticed that it took fully 16 years, 1974 to 1990, from the time that I started seeking money from foundations to actually getting $1,000 each from two small foundations (for the First International Ecocity Conference) and thence continued getting only very small support, tending more recently to rather small support. The real money went to the organizations whose mission either wasn’t very “alternative” from the first or to those that changed to better fit what the foundations wanted to promote. As my friend Sylvia McLaughlin, co-founder of the Save the San Francisco Bay Association (aka Save the Bay) – who actually did save San Francisco Bay from massive filling and pollution – reminded me a few times that foundations generally fund alternatives that aren’t really. They like slow change they can be part of and keep an eye on, change that doesn’t change the basics much; that way they can keep control for the established wealthy elite.

Gabriel’s rendition of “co-option” surprised me a little in that he focused mostly on organizations changing, sometime so much as to subvert their programs. This dynamic he followed with insights to educate any person in an activist mode. I was more familiar with the other brand of co-option, meaning the establishment picking up on what the innovators initiate, as when for example the mainstream food corporations become a little more “organic” and make small changes in that direction, taking the wind out of the sails of the small and prior alternative institutions promoting organic foods.

Then again, Gabriel Metcalf sees something of a success when that kind of co-option mainstreams not just thousands of people going for deeper organic, say, but tens or hundreds of millions picking up on the terminology and going shall we say organic lite. Sometimes it really is progress and we see society making a more fundamental shift. He says he would call some cases of co-option by another name: success.

If not a social change goal, what is it really? The physical serving the social.

Carsharing sounds like an odd one at first glance, for major changes in the world. But in fact the automobile is an enormous influence on city structure. In fact there is the whole system that is the physical built environment made up of several completely interrelated elements that comprise radically different whole systems. They are largely, from village scale to large cities, 1.) physical layout of the built environment, 2.) transportation system and 3.) energy system, all entwined together. We’ve been building the scattered, automobile dominated city powered by and dependent on massive use of cheap energy, the easy sort to get, mostly fossil fuels. Change any of those major components and the other two are greatly affected.


In seeing transportation and land use patterns as being especially important and tightly interrelated, I’ve often said “the better the car the worse the city.” But that depends on cars being basically what we see now: privately owned and operated vehicles about 30 times as heavy as a human being traveling about 10 times as fast in normal operation. What if they weighed only three times as much as a human being more like a “cart” than a “car” and traveled around in cities at a maximum of around 20 miles an hour, mixing with little danger with bicycles close but to one side? Answer: they genuinely are morphing into something else with something like a magnitude reduction in energy use, land occupied and victims sacrificed to the gods of excessive mobility in vehicle accidents. As people say about major change in economics, “Now we’re talking real money,” we can say in city design terms, “Now we’re talking real ecocity.” Everything changes, including a land use shift toward more compact, fine grain, pedestrian design with a scale and speed change this large.

What if the car is a City CarShare that shrinks to more like a cart in size, speed and energy requirements? If the vast majority of other vehicles were similarly small and the utility trucks were a little smaller than they are now – fire engines in Europe for example are smaller than in the United States, the better to navigate the narrower old streets there – but slower. With more density and diversity of activities closer together you don’t have to go so far to get what you need. Such change would be enormous and benefit everyone, even farmers their land acreage and people, animals, plants and natural environments their health.

Gabriel points out we need cultural acceptance of a whole rather large cluster of these smallish alternative institutions to constitute a larger whole – then society will be much healthier. Or, in the positive type of co-option, what if the larger corporations and government actually built the ecocity and the sub-technologies that make sense in that context, such as solar electric systems and public transit? They create millions of “green jobs” in the process too. His strategy of learning about and getting good at building these alternative institutions then definitely has a place.

Near the beginning of his book Gabriel says, “The alternative institutional strategy depends on having the end in mind at the beginning. What would the world look like if the alternative succeeded in becoming the normal way of doing things?” Then he goes off into a projection into the future that I think is utterly disastrous, contradictory to what I see as ecologically healthy city design – or perhaps just stopping far too soon on the good road he starts down.

He continues: “The carsharing movement, as of this writing, is still evolving quickly… As driverless vehicles move toward becoming a reality, and as we witness a wave of business-led innovation in transportation services, carsharing has come to seem like just the smallest beginning of a broader change in urban mobility.” Then two pages later, “…perhaps eventually driverless cars would whisk people around and finally put an end to widespread personal car ownership.”

Still swamped in cars?! Terrible! Still “whisking” about too fast for pedestrians, pushing them off the streets of the future city just like now? No street redesign for humans? It may sound strange that I’d take pride in being able to drive well, but whatever happens to knowledge and competence about the world we humans actually create that we’d not be embarrassed that we could use a car and not even be able to parallel park the little monster, much less not even understand basically how to operate – drive – such a basic tool right in the middle of our lives?

On March 21 the San Francisco Chronicle featured an article about an artificial intelligence expert named Andrew Ng. The title of the article: “Humans should adapt to driverless vehicles, expert says.” They are inevitable. Get used to them. Roll over and play dead. Let the tool rule people, not vice versa. Is this getting a little beyond a little nuts?

Even if smaller in number than today’s fleet of cars, driverless cars would still require wider streets than the pedestrian streets of pre-car days or future ecocity days. Why not recognize cities can actually exist with zero cars: all cities from 4,500 CE to around 1895 were car-free. Car-free contemporary cities exist too, and are strikingly pleasant and economically successful, such as Venice, Italy; Gulangyu, China; Zermatt, Switzerland; the Medina of Fez, Morocco; Lamu in Kenya, Avalon on Catalina Island right next to car-crazy Los Angeles. Why give up the streets to cars at all instead of going far enough along the healthy road to ecocities that Gabriel Metcalf starts down? The carshare car may be a step in the right direction but we need to see beyond the car itself if we are to ever have a truly healthy city.

Ultimately I think the exercise of thinking through the alternative institution approach to “mobility” is well worth the time reading Democratic by Design, but skip that weird destination that continues the car addiction. Keep in mind that what we need is physical access at radically reduced speed, consumption of physical space and use of energy. We can get it by designing with “access by proximity” in mind rather than starting out always seeking ever more “mobility.” Access is the point of mobility, gained without the damage of the far too much mobility we now “enjoy” at the expense of human tragedy and ecological disasters still accelerating world-wide. But, as you think through these important observations in Gabriel’s otherwise deeply insightful tour of alternative institutions and sometimes good conclusions remember there is a destination some distance farther down that road that is far, far healthier than can be imagined with any kind of car – electric, self-driven or shared.

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