Democratic by Design

“I owe my city planning career… to my time at Antioch. …

I was able to test my ideas through co-ops and the community. …

I feel like I got two lifetimes of experience as an activistone at Antioch, and one after.”

By Matt Desjardins

Gabriel Metcalf ’93 was one of the founders of car-sharing in North America and serves as executive director of the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR).
He is one of the leading voices on urban policy, social change and organizational strategy. In 2015, he published Democratic by -Design: How Carsharing, Co-ops, and Community Land Trusts are Reinventing America. In this interview, he reflects on what he learned at Antioch and how that informs his current work. 

Why did you write Democratic by Design? Tell us a little about the book.

Democratic by Design is a book about alternative institutions as a social change strategy. It explores the role of institution-building within social movements throughout American history, from the New England town meetings to workers co-ops, from communes to land trusts. 

The basic idea of an alternative institution strategy is to create living examples of the world you want to see, in the here and now. If they are successful, they can be scaled up, and eventually displace the current set of institutional arrangements. In my research, I found that alternative institutions have been very common throughout progressive social movements, but it’s a strategy that has been under-theorized. Hopefully the book will start a discussion about the role alternative institutions can play in the future.

I should also say that this book has its roots in ideas and experiences that go all the way back to my Antioch days. That’s where I learned about the idea of alternative institutions, and I left Antioch determined to test those ideas in practice.

You’re an urban planner/
policy expert who
started one of the country’s first carsharing programs.
How did Antioch College prepare you for your career?

I studied political theory at Antioch (along with many other things) and I came out knowing that I wanted to work at the city level to create change. I ended up running an urban policy research and advocacy organization focused on the San Francisco Bay Area. I was able to use that as a launching pad to experiment with alternative institutions, when my two best friends and I launched a car-sharing organization.

We knew about car-sharing from reading about co-ops in Berlin, but no one thought they could work in the United States. We were hoping to prove everyone wrong, by dislodging the automobile from its central role in city life. If nothing else, getting a bunch of people to share cars would free up a lot of urban real estate for better uses than parking. One of the chapters in the book tells that story.

I feel like I owe my city planning career as well as my experience bringing car-sharing to North America to my time at Antioch. It’s not just that I got a grounding in political theory, and it’s not just that I learned to write well and think critically. It’s also that I was able to test some of my ideas about how to change the world through the co-ops and through the community of “seekers” who was there with me. I feel like I got two lifetimes of experience as an activist—one at Antioch, and one after.

What are some of your fondest Antioch memories?

Div dances. Fireflies. The Midwest spring. Getting back to campus after co-op. Study groups—one on anarchism, one on psychoanalytic feminism. Editing The Record.

Where did you co-op?

Some highlights: One summer organizing migrant farm workers in Michigan. One fall working for the Democratic Party on an election in New Jersey. A winter working for an anarchist newspaper in New York. A summer following a Mexican political party around doing ethnographic research.

What advice do you have for current students interested in social change of the variety you prescribe? 

There are a lot of ways to make an impact, and I think we should celebrate everyone who is willing to put themselves out there to try to fight for their ideals. But alternative institutions have a role to play within a broader progressive movement because they answer the question of how people can translate their values into their everyday lives, once their consciousness is “raised.” 

Students who are interested in alternative institutions might want to spend some time with the older generation of them (maybe workers co-ops or credit unions) and some newer ones (land trusts, community supported agriculture farms)  to get some experience with how they have fared. And then, the essence of the strategy is to try to envision how things would work in a better society, to imagine your way to an institutional arrangement that approximates your values, which you can try to create in miniature form in the here and now. My book goes through a lot of the more practical questions that activists need to ask themselves as they decide which alternative institutions to work on, but it all starts with that critical imaginative leap, to be able to see how things might work in a world that is more free, more democratic, more ecologically balanced, more equal.

Urban America has its share of problems, but many cities have made great strides over the last 20 years. In some cases, we’re seeing a return to the cities—especially millennials flocking to urban areas in droves. What roles have alternative institutions played and can alternative institutions help ameliorate negative byproducts of this trend like gentrification? 

For decades after World War II, American cities were struggling with the problems of abandonment—population loss and disinvestment. But over the past quarter century that has reversed in many (though not all) U.S. cities. While concentrated poverty is still a far more prevalent problem than gentrification, there is a set of cities that is struggling with the opposite problem, of almost too much popularity. These cities are facing extremely high housing costs and displacement of long-time residents by those with more money.

There is no easy answer to this problem. Some observers talk about the root problem being a “shortage of cities” that have the full set of urban amenities (walkability, good jobs, transit, etc), which means that the few places in the United States that have all those amenities face overwhelming demand. But I do think that alternative institutions have a role to play. My book profiles quite a few place-based institutions that try to rethink the way land is managed, owned, and occupied, outside of the traditional real estate market.

What’s next for you? 

My work is focused on cities in the San Francisco Bay Area. Our theory is that we need to turn the Bay Area into a laboratory that demonstrates what it looks like to create an ecologically sustainable, carbon-free way of life, that also offers good jobs and high wages in the face of a globalized economy. We start out with so many advantages in terms of high education levels and a culture of progressivism. In a sense, if we can’t create a model society here, we can’t do it anywhere in the United States. So we are trying to build that model now.