Take the City – Social Ecology in Practice

Written by Dimitri Roussopoulos

When we think of cities, especially the basis upon which we can  undertake building a movement for radical social change in cities, we have to research and think hard about  the political economy of cities.

In the global economy, both among the major multinational corporations and certain rich governments, we currently note a large amount of liquid capital. This form of capital remains loose and is not invested in major ‘natural resources’ e.g. mining, petroleum extractions, forestry, or in the further expansion of established manufacturing industries. The liquid capital has been and is now more than ever, invested in real estate in cities, particularly the 40 dominant cities in the global economy. By real estate we mean the buying up  of  urban land in large tracks at any given time usually in the central areas of big cities. On such urban land, condos are built to big heights often with shopping malls. So the question of urban land, and who owes it and who controls it is crucial in any  radical urban transformation. Look  at Athens, for example. This city has been disfigured more than ever with such ‘developments’. Athens is one of many cities that has gone through this kind of messy change. Urban Master Plans have been set aside by municipal politicians, as they  welcome increased property tax monies with open arms.

So what should be advocated for urban land by us?

The Abolition of Urban Private Property

Nothing less should be put forward. Instead of the present situation, what should be put forward is that city/urban land should be owned and controlled by community land trusts consisting of associations of neighbourhood citizen committees, housing and other cooperatives, and worker owned enterprises. Each land trust will have a different composition but basically each such part of the city should be ultimately owned and controlled by a citizen assembly  using direct democracy.. In addition all other tracks of land should be owned and controlled by the city itself through its city council.  And this latter option could be transitory, as every neighbourhood may not be ready or able to establish a citizen controlled land trust. It is important to stress that the whole ensemble will be married by democratic confederalism.

Land trusts already exist. In Canada and the US, there are now several significant land trusts, both urban and rural. For example the first, or one of the first, was established in 1980 in Montreal, in a large neighbourhood named Milton-Parc. All private property in a six block area, in the center of Montreal, is an urban land trust in which the largest cooperative housing project is to be found. Therein 645 houses, formed of  22 housing coops and non-profit housing associations, plus 11 small commerces and social spaces.are all federated together  Much of the life in Milton-Parc is informed by social ecology. It is a fine example of the basic notions of social ecology in practice. Since then the idea continues to grow. For example just north of Milton-Parc another massive project is in formation. A coalition/association of 40 community based organisations have been put together, and what is being advocated is the creation of 300 social housing units, including cooperatives. It will include urban agriculture whereby 4000 square meters of car parking will be transformed into green spaces. There are other examples.

Now there are land trusts across the continent. Many of these have had two major meetings, one in California and another in Pennsylvania. There is a Canada-wide association of activists pushing for land trusts. Much of these community initiatives are based on and draw upon the cooperatives movement as a whole. In doing so, a new social economy is emerging which battles market capitalism. Recall that the first co-operative was founded in 1844 in Rochdale,England. From the start it was based on gender equality and democratic control by all its members. The international cooperative movement today, according to the United Nations, creates more jobs than all the multinational corporations put together. The 300 top coops have an annual financial turnover of  more than $1.2 trillion dollars US. And for social ecologists what has to be noted is that coops have voluntary and open membership, entirely controlled by the members of a cooperative, and they are autonomous and independent. There is ongoing education, training and information sharing within and between coops.

If we can imagine these citizen associations turning their attention to libertarian municipalism, a fundamental feature of social ecology, the future of democratic and ecological cities becomes more possible. And in the last four years in Montreal, a political federation of some twenty neighbour organisations have united under the banner “Take the City”. This entire experience can be an example of social ecology in practice and can be implemented in other cities. To be sure, it  takes much time and hard work, But it can be done, with determination.

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