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t a time of global democratic retrenchment at the national level across the globe, what are the possibilities and limits of democratic politics at the local level? And how can marginalized citizens strive for equality collectively when they are divided by internal difference? These are questions taken up by Eli Elinoff in Citizen Designs: City-Making and Democracy in Northeastern Thailand. Through a decade-long ethnographic engagement, Elinoff offers an account of attempts by residents living along the railway tracks of the Northeastern Thai city of Khon Kaen to gain legal land tenure and upgrade their housing through a participatory slum upgrading scheme. Along the way, residents attempt to design new homes and communities as they navigate their relationships with each other, professional NGO community organizers, and the state entity that administers the program. All of this takes place in a national political context that shifts from rule by a democratically elected prime minister to populist mobilization against the elected government to a military junta installed by coup. The book speaks to the ways in which design and politics are intertwined, and how even a policy that explicitly aims to create more equal forms of citizenship can reproduce the very power relationships it seeks to disrupt. On this point, it is of interest to scholars of participatory urban policies. On a broader scale, though, the narrative speaks to the ways in which ordinary citizens can—and cannot—retain aspirations of democracy and equality when larger-scale democratic institutions are crumbling.
Urban studies scholars have long taken an interest in the political possibilities and limits of design, with Escobar’s (2018) Designs for the Pluriverse recently re-invigorating these debates. Elinoff’s analysis contributes to this conversation by seeking to comprehend the relationship between politics and design through a detailed account of how citizens shape and are shaped by participatory design processes—thus the title of the book, Citizen Designs. The policy that sets the stage for these design politics is the much-lauded Baan Mankong (“Secure Housing”) participatory slum upgrading program, which requires residents to organize themselves into formal communities in order to access credit and negotiate for legal land tenure status with landowners, which in this case is the State Railways of Thailand (SRT). Baan Mankong places a strong emphasis on participatory design as a means of empowerment, and the policy’s main advocates stress its capacity to produce “legitimate, ‘normal’ citizens” (Boonyabancha, 2005: 42). In analyzing how residents interact with each other and the different organizations that operate in the sphere of the policy, Elinoff illustrates that it does, indeed, yield new aspirations and practices of citizenship, though not always in the ways proponents of the program envision.
The book proceeds in three sections comprised of ten chapters and an epilogue. Part I, called “Prototypes,” lays the groundwork for understanding the predicaments of residents by outlining the history of state development efforts, infrastructure projects, and community-based mobilizations in Thailand. Part II, “Assemblies,” tracks the efforts of residents to create discrete and cohesive communities in order to gain leases to land along the tracks and perform their upgrading. Over the course of these five chapters, Elinoff discusses how residents attempt to form communities through a combination of democratic aspirations, bureaucratic machinations, and above all, through disagreement. Herein lies Elinoff’s primary contribution: contrary to the images of unity that underlie much of the rhetoric of government, activists, and often residents themselves, efforts to create communities necessitated the recognition that limitations of space, and the conflicting politics of members meant that not everyone could be included, and certainly not on equal terms. These disagreements were fed by the ongoing Red Shirt populist political mobilizations of the early 2010s, which many residents identified with, but the professionals they worked with were loath to support precisely because they threatened the unity and harmony many believed were necessary to build strong communities. However, Elinoff argues that disagreements and exclusions were not obstacles to building community, but rather the mechanisms for building it. He concludes that “Politics—not harmony—became the stuff through which communities were made. Although community as a technology of government was designed to quell disagreement, it also depended on it" (194).
Part III, “Fragmentations,” witnesses the undoing of some of the tenuous assemblies of the previous section. Some of these fragmentations have to do with the ongoing disagreements detailed in the previous section. However, they also owe to changes in urbanization brought about by the military regime of Prayuth Chan-ocha following the 2014 coup. Elinoff calls this turn “despotic urbanism,” and it entails the acceleration of mass infrastructure and commercial development through land appropriation, alongside crackdowns on political expression. At the same time, the government agency administering the Baan Mankong policy shifts its focus from assisting residents in their attempts to negotiate land rights in situ to encouraging acceptance of relocation to the outskirts of the city. Of this, Elinoff remarks that the agency’s “practices of participatory planning increasingly look like participatory dispossession” (249-250).
In the final chapter, “Happiness Otherwise,” we see residents attempt to make sense of the prior decade-plus of disagreements and work. Some do manage to achieve long-term leases and build new homes with their communities, but others face eviction or leave out of frustration. They move on to dream up alternative ways to pursue the good life for themselves as individuals within the political constraints of the “despotic city.” Throughout all of this, longstanding disagreements and resentments remain, but many residents retain a sense of their own political possibilities, fed by their experiences attempting to design something new together, as well as through engagements with the larger political mobilizations of the prior decade.
Citizen Designs contributes to understandings of the complex role of design in promoting—or frustrating—political self-determination. The book’s strength lies in its deep engagement with the day-to-day practices of the politics of design. The close attention to the individuals and their relationships to one another are what allows Elinoff to comprehend the many contradictions involved in attempting to form community or strive for equality through design. This strength, however, is attended by the book’s main shortcoming, as readers may struggle to keep the large cast of characters straight or to follow detailed descriptions of the terms of disagreement between the numerous actors involved with the communities along the tracks. Even if the reader may lose some of the details, though, the author always pulls the narrative threads together at the end of each chapter, making the book legible to a wide audience.
An additional notable aspect of the book comes in the handful of reflections Elinoff offers on his own positionality within the disagreements that take place throughout the ethnography. These moments of reflection complicate the notion of the activist scholar while also problematizing not engaging in activist research. He remarks, for example, that at the outset of the project, “I had hoped that this research would result in some space or site for advocacy. It had instead mostly resulted in my becoming embedded in complex and confusing disagreements” (188) because competing factions within the communities brought forth legitimate, but irreconcilable, rights claims and design plans. Elinoff’s ultimate refusal to take sides and instead to remain an observer was itself not uncontested by his interlocutors. In a striking passage at the end of the book, a resident-leader remarks to him, “’It’s easy to do work like you do, just sitting around listening to people’…’I have to go and solve these problems’” (282). These passages raise important questions about the role of the researcher when interlocutors present conflicting visions of a more just future.
Above all, Citizen Designs is a careful depiction of what democracy feels like, with all its discomforts, disagreements, and unresolved tensions. Elinoff manages to present a picture of the struggle for equal citizenship that is at once optimistic and unromantic. In this, the book makes a timely and important contribution to understandings of the relationship between politics and design.
Boonyabancha, S. (2005) ‘Baan Mankong: going to scale with “slum” and squatter upgrading in Thailand’, Environment and Urbanization, 17(1), pp. 21–46.
Escobar, A. (2018) Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds. Illustrated edition. Durham: Duke University Press Books.
Hayden Shelby is an assistant professor in the School of Planning at the University of Cincinnati. She studies housing policy and community-based social movements.