A construction worker builds framing at a housing construction project in San Francisco. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

A conversation with Gabriel Metcalf on his new book, Democratic by Design.

“Things aren’t right in America today”: In his important new book on social innovation, Gabriel Metcalf—executive director of the urban policy think tank SPUR (San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association) and a CityLab contributor—opens with this all-too-familiar sentiment. Rising inequality, deepening segregation, and increasingly unaffordable housing are just a few of the many problems currently plaguing the U.S. These issues are no more evident than in America’s dense, large urban communities, which boast some of the greatest technology and innovation in the world, but also some of the harshest economic and class divides.

St. Martin’s Press

To make things right, Metcalf argues in Democratic by Design, we need to make more and better use of alternative institutions like cooperatives and community land trusts to help build more sustainable, socially responsible, and prosperous communities. Drawing from his experience as an urbanist and one of the founders of the car-sharing movement in North America, Metcalf documents how a range of alternative institutions—which operate outside of traditional government agencies and differ from traditional companies—can help U.S. cities tackle some of the major issues they face today.

To delve deeper into this, I put a series of questions to Metcalf about exactly how he sees these alternative institutions helping to build better and more sustainable cities in the future.

When do alternative institutions actually succeed at becoming the new normal? What is the secret sauce to making that happen?

The idea is to create living examples of a better society, which can be studied, improved on, and hopefully scaled up. The book profiles some very successful examples, but it also tries to look honestly at failures. Based on the case studies, I identify a few key ingredients that are essential for success:

First, organizers have to pick the right institution—something that can work within the world as it is today, while also opening up possibilities for a different world.

Second, I think it’s really important to be oriented toward engagement with the broadest possible set of people—to recruit, in other words—rather than treating alternative institutions as a means of escape from the dominant society. The hope is that the alternative institutions can actually grow and outcompete the mainstream institutions, and this can only happen if the organizers have a real commitment to connecting with new people.

Third, the most successful examples of an alternative institution strategy involved the creation of networks. Alternative institutions work best when they are embedded in a broader progressive movement, and when they are linked up with other alternative institutions.

Your experience with co-founding San Francisco’s City CarShare informs many of your insights on sustainable living. What was the impetus for starting the program, and what do you think it achieved in the city of San Francisco?

We got the idea for City CarShare from the Berlin car-sharing co-ops in the early 1990s. As a group of young sustainable city activists, it had a lot of intuitive appeal. If nothing else, reducing the number of cars that have to be stored inside urban areas would free up real estate for better uses—parks, housing, whatever. We also understood the so-called “love affair with the automobile” as a cultural pattern that was deeply ingrained with oil wars and suburban sprawl and a very destructive form of settlement pattern, so we thought anything we could do to re-position the meaning of the car in American society would be helpful.

We had a lot of big dreams for this project. And some of them came true. I think it’s amazing to see how much young people today are doing everything they can to avoid the hassles of car ownership. But we have a long way to go.

How has the concept of alternative institutions evolved since credit unions and co-ops first came on the scene?

Howard Sandler / Shutterstock.com

There have been several big waves of alternative institution-building in the United States. Some of the most long-lived institutions date from the New Deal era—credit unions, rural electricity co-ops, and the like. The New Left of the 1960s launched a wave of free clinics, organic food co-ops, and alternative newspapers. I’ve personally gotten very interested in attempts to develop new ways to manage and allocate the “big resources”—land and capital—so I spend a lot of time on those.

You describe city-building as a “layering of history” in which “each generation builds to solve the problems it faces.” What does the role of alternative institutions look like in our future cities?

Cities are almost never built from scratch. Part of what I’m trying to do is unpack the political intention behind city building—to make the goals and ideals visible. And I think that one of the ways we achieve abstract goals like promoting sustainability or resilience or equity or community is through devising different physical arrangements and different institutional forms for our cities.

There is a major role for alternative institutions in our future cities. This includes a lot more experimentation with physical form and infrastructure—more ecologically benign buildings, a reinvention of public space, a rethinking of mobility systems, and an embrace of new models for providing renewable energy. It also includes a new wave of experiments with place-based economic development. And most fundamentally, it involves the creation of new institutions of land ownership and stewardship.

Your book cites some examples of current efforts that have a lot of potential. Which of them stands out to you as particularly exemplary?

Some of the alternative institutions I am most excited about today include community land trusts (I profile the Champlain Housing Trust in Burlington), attempts to link anchor institutions to local economic development strategies (the Evergreen workers cooperatives in Cleveland), and efforts to redeploy capital to socially responsible firms—both non-profit and for profit—to enlarge the space for high-road enterprises.

One of the interesting parts of the book is the “Appendix,” where you develop a sort of intellectual history of the idea of alternative institutions. What were the most important influences on your thinking as you put that together?

The Appendix is actually one of my favorite parts of the whole book, because that’s where I get to give credit to some of the thinkers who mattered most to me. I draw on everything from deToqueville and Putnam on voluntary associations, to the social anarchists of the 19th century, who wanted to “prefigure” the way a society would work in their ideal world. Gar Alperovitz of the Democracy Collaborative has done a lot of the most practical work developing and supporting alternative institutions and thinking through a theory of how they can lead to widespread social change. One of my own teachers, the late Murray Bookchin, was a major influence on me in his writings about democracy, cities, and alternative institutions. I hope that my book helps give this strategy a higher profile, and that other people—both theorists and activists—will pick up the ideas and develop them in new ways.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

About the Author

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