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Dweller-managed architecture as the basis of democratic and ecological urbanism

March 11, 2024

Whenever poor people can gain access to land and materials, they build dweller-controlled housing which grows and adapts according to need and opportunity.[1 ~Colin Ward

Our contemporary cities are marked by crises and inequalities. In many places touristification forces residents to the outer tiers of their city, and most urban environments have been completely conquered by the automobile with its negative impact on so many levels, such as air and other different other forms of pollution, etc.

Inequality too is a common characteristic. Cities, regardless of whether they are situated in the global north or south, share an unfortunate common pattern – that of being fractured into areas of extreme wealth disproportion. In other words, there are the districts of high affluence and luxurious lifestyles; on the other – poverty-stricken boroughs where dwellers struggle to get by.

Observing this pattern, Dr Janice Perlman from the New York University concludes that:

every first-world city has within it a third-world city of malnutrition, infant mortality, homelessness and unemployment. And conversely, every third-world city has within it a first-world city of high tech, high fashion and high finance.[2]

These features of contemporary urban life are rooted in a specific political architecture that shapes cities according to the needs of governing and business elites, while keeping completely voiceless the great majority of inhabitants. The reason is that cities have departed a long time ago from the old saying “urban air makes you free” – a maxim that during the Middle Ages indicated the transformation of urban communities into communes, within which serfs could seek freedom from their feudal masters.

Since then, however, city elites have formed with the help of centralized state and imperial powers. Thus, ever since cities have been shaped bureaucratically according to the interests of the wealthy and powerful few. Nowadays, with the liberation of the economic sphere from political control (a process to which, as Karl Polanyi shows, nation-states have greatly contributed[3]) this bureaucratization has only deepened, surrendering urban environments to the mechanisms of lifeless capitalist markets.

The result of this trend has led to the repeated reproduction of socially harmful patterns on a global scale. Bureaucratism, following dogmatically the logic of investors’ short-term profit, reproduces similar housing, traffic, environmental, and other problems within urban environments worldwide. In this regard renowned British anarchist and architect Colin Ward suggests that:

In a highly centralized State[…], where design expertise has been put at the service of the bureaucracy, every error that would be trivial if it happened once, is multiplied a hundredfold when sanctioned by the label “design”.[4]

These errors, of course, are a problem for the everyday person that has to struggle to find affordable housing or spends hours stuck in traffic on a daily basis, while inhaling heavily-polluted air. On the other hand, these urban ills are quite profitable for the political and business elites, who tend to view cities as resources to be mined or markets to be exploited. And to downgrade the quality of life for the great majority of urban dwellers is a sacrifice that bureaucrats and their wealthy patrons are more than willing to make.

The resolution of this clash of interests cannot be resolved within the framework of the state-vs-private property pseudo-dilemma, but by that of who gets to decide on how urban architecture will be planned – the wealthy few, or the collectivity of all urban dwellers. It is in this line of thought that South-African architect Joe Noero proposes the reversal of decision-making roles:

It’s not about giving freedom to developers, but to people. If you think about the provision of any kind of social infrastructure, the people who receive the benefits of a social investment are never consulted. You’ve got the architects and the government, and then you have the people who provide services, like the developers, and then at the end you have this passive group of people who are the unwilling recipients of social provisions. Good architecture is a matter of reversing those relationships.[5]

Self-management as the basis of an alternative architecture

The space that each society produces is bearer of a certain purpose and dominant values.T According to the underlying form of social organization, architecture can promote individualist lifestyles, servitude, submission, or it can encourage communal solidarity, freedom, and dignity. It is worth keeping in mind the example given by writer Steward Brand on how different a room of a given type might look like according to whim it is projected to serve:

Notice the difference between kitchens designed to be used by powerless servants – they are usually dark, cramped pits – and kitchens used by the heads of a family – bright, spacious, centrally located, crammed with convenience. A building ‘learns’ much faster than a whole organisations.[6]

A different approach to architecture will move away from the wasteful and profit-centered urbanism, adopting instead what Colin Ward advances as the the technical criterion for the anarchist house: “Long life, loose fit, low energy”, with all these being based on the principle of Dweller Control.[7]

In other words, if our cities are to serve the well-being of all their inhabitants, then the latter must undertake themselves the management of the city they happen to live in. Instead of bureaucratically enforcing the same patterns over and over again to urban environments regardless of local context, dwellers will be able to interact with their cities in a way that makes them sustainable in both social and ecological ways.

There isn’t one recipe fo how one such dweller-managed city will look like. It comes in different shapes and forms. The important thing is that it must rest on the direct, unmediated participation of citizens in all the decisions on which their shared urban habitat depends on. But it is important to remember that it is not enough for such processes to take place online; they need a spatial expression, a physical space, where the community can get together in face-to-face assemblies and forge a collective identity of democratic stewardship. As Italian architect Giancarlo De Carlo suggests:

Participation is not only a mental or intellectual event, but physical as well, nourished from human warmth. As such exchange intensifies – and wears thin, becomes sharper, gets layered – the interaction gets more and more stimulating and its outcomes can’t be foreseen anymore, because they depend on the interlocutors, who always vary, thus making the process-project they’re taking part in unique each time. That’s why there’s no recipe for participation. As participants and the reasons for which they met change, so does participation: we have to invent and experiment with it, everytime anew.[8]

This does not mean that there will no longer be city planners or architects, but that the development of general frameworks of urban environments, as well as the implementation of these frameworks, will be managed collectively by the citizenry. The role of the architect and the planner will be to offer their knowledges to the general whole, rather than to capitalist self-interest, bureaucratic centralism, or to a professional class.

In one such grassroots democratic context, it can be argued, that no building will be left empty or to decay. Unlike real estate markets, which incentivize owners to gamble with their property, often resulting in buildings being left empty and decaying, in conditions of dweller-managed architecture, as shown by squatter movements around the world, no structure is left unused. As Ward suggests:

vernacular buildings waste nothing. They hate to destroy a structure, and will adapt the most unlikely buildings for new purposes.[9]

If architecture is shaped according to social needs, rather than shareholder profits, this could arguably make cities more energy efficient too. In one such context buildings won’t be built according to the consumerist, growth-centered model of single-use only, where each structure is erected for a specific purpose, and after which it becomes useless. Instead, as architect Ian Bentley proposes,

energy efficiency will be further boosted if buildings and urban spaces are resilient; able to adapt to different uses over time, rather than being wastefully torn down and rebuilt every time human aspirations change.[10]

In any case, in a context where dwellers participate directly – as real citizens – in the management of the urban architecture, then we must be certain that our cities will be very different places. Putting an end to the domination that bureaucracy and the profit motive exercise over space will most certainly erase many of the ills that plague modern city life, infusing it instead with ecological and democratic content.

Seeds of dweller-management in practice

Worldwide experience shows, according to John Turner & Robert Fitcher, that

where dwellers are in control, their homes are better and cheaper than those built through government programmes or large corporations.[11]

Similar conclusions are drawn by other architects and theorists as well, including John Turner, who suggests that:

When dwellers control the major decisions and are free to make their own contribution to the design, construction or management of their housing, both the process, and the environment produced, stimulate individual and social well-being. When people have no control over, nor responsibility for, key decisions in the housing process, on the other hand, dwelling environments may instead become a barrier to personal personal fulfilment and a burden on the economy.[12]

And we must always remember that cities being shaped by professionals is a contemporary phenomenon. Ward reminds us that

over 90% of the world’s dwellings were built by their inhabitants without benefit of architects, building firms or housing policy, using with incredible ingenuity, the materials that came to hand, reeds, grasses, bamboo and the elaborate technology of timber, or of mud, adobe, stone or bricks, following the traditions of tribes, clans, families or communes.[13]

This does not mean that we should abandon specialized knowledge altogether, but that we must not fear popular input when it comes to urban planning and architecture. Architects and planners will still have an important role to play, which will be of help in the implementation of the visions and projects developed through collective and deliberative processes by all dwellers. It is this deeply democratic spirit that has been carried out by contemporary social movements worldwide.

The dynamics of capitalism produce winners and losers, and often for those at the very bottom no space in cities is designated. The bureaucratic apparatus, in turn, designs hostile urban environments in order to keep the most marginalized, who cannot afford to participate in consumerism, away. For people who find themselves in this category there is often no other option than squatting and building improvised settlements so that their basic needs are met. In this regard, Ward observes the following:

popular direct action among poor people in cities like Bogota, Caracas, or Mexico City, has developed an unplanned city from below which has integrated the unofficial economy, the unofficial housing, welfare and transportation systems into the cities whose public planning system was unwilling to accept those huge pressures from below. People make their own cities.[14]

But nowadays dweller input is not limited to improvised self-built shanty towns. There are examples in the most unlikely places too. In the 1980s in the South London borough of Lewisham, a self-built housing project was designed with the help of pioneering architect Walter Segal. This municipality decided to provide people with the opportunity to plan and build themselves their dwellings on plots of land that were deemed by authorities as not profitable enough, because of narrowness or steepness. Anarchist architect Segal helped the people in their effort to self-build their settlement there and recalls:

Help was to be provided mutually and voluntarily – there were no particular constraints on that, which did mean that the goodwill of people could find its way through. The less you tried to control them the more you forced the element of goodwill – this was astonishingly clear. Children were of course expected and allowed to play on the site. And the older ones also helped if they wished to help. That way one avoided all forms of fiction. Each family were to build at their own speed and within their own capacity. We had (quite a number of young people, but some who were 60 and over, who also managed to build their own houses… They were told that I would not interfere with their internal arrangements. I let them make their own decisions; there we had no difficulties.[15]

But even when State authorities attempt to provide help for the most needy we can still observe how their bureaucratic logic mismatches with the simple human needs of those on the receiving end. Jo Noero recalls one such example:

When I first came to Berlin, we visited some of the places where refugees were being housed, like the old Olympic Stadium. The Germans running the place were going completely mad. They would lay out the sleeping bunks with military precision, and then a big family would come and rearrange all the beds, turning them over to make walls around a space, and then sleep in the middle together. They weren’t acting as individuals but as huge extended family networks.[16]

Space always serves the decision-makers. If it is planned and developed by a narrow elite or bureaucratic layer, then it will serve their interests and will reflect the values of a hierarchical social structure, where there are always winners at the top and losers at the bottom. If, on the other hand, the collectivity of dwellers directly engages in planning and decision-making, then urban environments will serve communal needs and desires. And it is from this basis that a truly democratic and ecological city can begin to materialize.


[1] Colin Ward. Talking to Architects (London, Freedom Press, 2022), p101.

[2] Colin Ward. Talking to Architects (London, Freedom Press, 2022), p72

[3] Karl Polanyi. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001), p258.

[4] Colin Ward. Talking to Architects (London, Freedom Press, 2022), p19.


[6] Colin Ward. Talking to Architects (London, Freedom Press, 2022), p100.

[7] Colin Ward. Talking to Architects (London, Freedom Press, 2022), p101.


[9] Colin Ward. Talking to Architects (London, Freedom Press, 2022), p13.

[10] Colin Ward. Talking to Architects (London, Freedom Press, 2022), p43.

[11] John Turner & Robert Fitcher. Freedom to Build: Dweller Control of the Housing Process (London: Macmillan, 1972).

[12] Colin Ward. Talking to Architects (London, Freedom Press, 2022), p93.

[13] Colin Ward. Talking to Architects (London, Freedom Press, 2022), p25.

[14] Colin Ward. Talking to Architects (London, Freedom Press, 2022), p41.

[15] Colin Ward. Talking to Architects (London, Freedom Press, 2022), p95.


Yavor Tarinski

Yavor Tarinski is an independent researcher, activist and author. He participates in social movements around the Balkans, as well as in transnational organizations, dedicated to the production of grassroots knowledge. He is a member of the administrative board of the Transnational Institute of Social Ecology, of the editorial board of the Greek digital journal & publications Aftoleksi, as well as bibliographer at Agora International. Among his books are "Concepts for Democratic and Ecological Society" and "Reclaiming Cities: Revolutionary Dimensions of Political Participation".