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Democracy is dead! Or is it?

Article by Bart Steman Democracy is dead! Or is it? Democracy, as ancient as the Greeks, is probably one of the most contested concepts on our planet. In the upcoming months, TOPOS and the BuitelHucht will together work on a number of articles and events that aim to unravel the promises of democracy. We will focus on its impact on the landscape, on our living environment, on the political climate and on our lives. To start the thematic months, we will start with the claim that planners and landscape architects rule the world. In this series we will see if this claim is valid or not. What is democracy?

When you start searching on the internet to find a common definition of democracy, you will find endless discussion about what it is. Maybe the most important aspect of democracy is the origin of a the word itself, its etymology. It is based on two Greek words, dêmos and krátos: people and power. The word dēmokratia means, in its most common translation, “rule of the people”. A system founded in Athens in the 5th century BC. Initially, it was a theoretical counteraction on aristokratía, the “rule of an elite”. Aristotle, the famous Greek philosopher and educated by Plato, thought that the essence and the aim of democracy should be freedom. Although there is a lot more to tell about democracy here, I move my attention to democracy in the realm of public space.

Democracy and public space The main inspiration for this theme stems from John Parkinson, Associate Professor of Public Policy (University of Warwick), born in Australia as son of an architect. During a long drive in the state Victoria he and his father argued about whether democracy and great architecture went together. As a result of this initial discussion in the car, he wrote the book Democracy and Public Space. The claim of Parkinson is that, although we live in an increasingly digitalized world and a growing share of political communication uses digital means, the real things that are communicated involve people who “take up, occupy, share and contest physical space.” A concrete example of this premise is the Arab spring and the occupation of the Tahir Square in 2011. A digital medium was used to recruit people, but the actual event was as physical as it can get. In other terms, “democracy depends to a surprising extent on the availability of physical, public space, even in our allegedly digital world.” Although these claims refer to how democracy is ‘used’, they do not refer to the future of democracy.

Is there a future for democracy? Moises Naím, one of the world’s leading thinkers according to the British magazine Prospect and former chief-editor of Foreign Affaris, is worried about the future of our politics. Where business, driven by the market economy, are able to adjust and innovate their institutional settings and strategies, the political climate lacks innovation. According to him, political fragmentation leads to less effective politicians, which will lead to a form of anarchy. “Everyone has a little bit of power, but no one can decide on something”. Political parties are not any longer able to deal with the problems that our society is facing. Instead, activists, NGO’s and social movements do have a greater success in decision making and are able to engage people. Naím sees two possible future options. The first is that political parties will disappear and are replaced by new institutional structures, the second is that political parties succeed to change from inside out. The latter he sees as the less possible solution. “We stand at the beginning of a new era of how to organize our democracy.” On the 23th of February the BuitelHucht organises a symposium about Democracy & Space. This symposium is the start of a thematic period “Democracy & Space – How planners and architects rule the world” in which TOPOS and the BuitelHucht will publish interesting articles and organise exciting activities in the light of this topic. For more information about the symposium see:

februari 16, 2016

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