Can you Crowdsource a City?

A screenshot of the Video for the City 2.0, the 2012 TED Prize Winner, which aims to use crowdsourcing technology to rebuild our cities. Photo via Atlantic Cities.

Pop-Up,” “DIY,” “Kickstarter” “LQC” (That’s lighter, quicker, cheaper for the unfamiliar). Urbanisms of the People have been getting awfully catch-phrasey these days. What all these types of DIY Urbanisms share is a can-do spirit, a “Hacker” mentality: people are taking back their cities, without any “expert” help.

Unfortunately, of course, this mindset creates an anti-establishment (often, anti-architect) antagonism that would render any wide-spread change nigh impossible. Yes, the DIY movement, facilitated by the use of technology, is excellent for getting people involved, for encouraging important, innovative ideas – in the short-term.

As Alexandra Lange recently pointed out in her post “Against Kickstarter Urbanism,” technology is not a “magic wand,” and crowdsourcing initiatives often fall short in the day-to-day, nitty-gritty work of a large-scale, long-term urban project.

But while technology certainly has its limitations, its potential to facilitate connection and communication is unparalleled. What is vital, however, is that the technology enhance, not replace, our physical relationships. Instead of using online platforms as divisive or purely conceptual forums, they must becomes tools of transparency and trust-building, mediators of a conversation that invests and connects all parties on the ground.

From Catastrophe, Co-Design

Image of Constitución after the 2010 Earthquake. Image via Brickstarter.

Allow me to take a somewhat unusual angle here. To understand what technology can do for us, let’s first take a look at the incredible feats you can accomplish without it at all.

February 27, 2010. 3:34am. An 8.8 magnitude earthquake, the third largest in history, hits the city of Concepción, Chile, moving the city 10 feet to the West. Triggering a tsunami, the earthquake leaves devastation in its wake.

Rodrigo Araya, of Tironi Asociados, is faced with an enormous challenge: to facilitate the planning of a similarly damaged city, Constitución. In 90 days. How does he do it? “As Sitra‘s Dan Hill explains in a Brickstarter post: “By pivoting the entire masterplan process upon citizen participation, with co-design as the organising principle.”

What does this mean, exactly? It involves something known as “hybrid forums.” In a small structure in the middle of the city, members of industry, government, and the community met in a series of intense debates to express what they needed/wanted from their future city. Meanwhile, architects Alejandro Gutierrez of Arup and Alejandro Aravena of ELEMENTAL were on-site, adjusting their proposals in response, essentially shaping the plans in real-time.

One of the resulting plans for Consitución, this one for a Theater.

Vitally, the citizens were always given priority in this process, displacing the politicians and businessmen (the funders) from their traditional place of control. The result of this transparent process was not just a plan, but the community’s trust in the plan.

In earthquake-ravaged Constitución, the internet was not a possibility; thus, anything from radio channels to megaphones on roving cars were used to spread the word. But Araya’s principles – the focal forum, the strict timeline, the feedback loop, the constant rhythm of meetings - all seem perfectly suited to a virtual implementation.

First World Problems

A parklet in San Francisco, a hacking initiative that has been embraced by the local authorities. Photo via Atlantic Cities. © Matarozzi Pelsinger Builders & Wells Campbell photography.

Of course, the extreme crisis of Constitución, the rallying cry for this massive Urbanist project, isn’t generally the condition upon which most developed nations’ urban renewals begin. As Dan Hill notes: “our crises are generally of the slow, creeping variety (climate change, ageing population, emerging social issues) rather than the focus-pull of natural disaster. So how do we create the sense of urgency?”

It’s a good question, but I think there’s a better one: how do we create the sense of ability?

From citizens stenciling bike lanes to reclaiming intersections as plazas, DIY Urbanism shows us that community members become engaged when they feel it is in their power to make a difference. In the context of an internet-rich environment, technology could be the tool to engage citizens in a dialogue about their community, cultivate trust with architects/developers, and legitimize the role of the citizen in tackling these complex Urban dilemmas.

But how? What would these technologies look like? Sites like Neighborland, ChangebyUs, and Spacehive all attempt to provide citizens resources to connect to funding, community leaders and/or non-profits who can help make their ideas reality. But where are the architects in this dialogue? Where is the design?

A Place from the Crowd

A plan to develop a dock in London, one of the most ambitious "kickstarter urbanist" projects on SpaceHive.

This is where Crowdsourced Placemaking comes in. Despite the name, this is no Kickstarter Urbanism, where the citizen buys into into a vague concept (reality uncertain). Crowdsourced Placemaking functions firmly in creating realities.

As Brandon Palanker, VP of Renaissance Downtowns, a real estate development company using crowdsourced placemaking to redesign the town of Bristol, Connecticut, shared with me, their process is all about using social media and technology to bring community members into the planning conversation – from the very beginning.

They have created a social-media site, Bristol Rising, where community members can suggest and vote on (“like”) certain ideas they’d like to see implemented in their community (a Restaurant Row, a Literary Café, a Beer Garden, etc.). Renaissance then analyzes the most popular items and, through monthly meet-ups, engages the community in an open, meaningful dialogue about what is feasible.

As Palanker explained, the desire for a piazza has become so adamant in Bristol that the community, understanding the necessity for trade-offs, has come to compromise on other, previously taboo restrictions (i.e. the creation of a higher density, 5 story hotel). And this in the suburbs, where “density” might as well be a dirty word.

The plans for Bristol's Piazza, around which the Bristol, CT community has rallied, thanks to the site BristolRising!

The cruxt of the process is the feedback loop that builds trust and the physical meetings (and campaigns) that complement the virtual idea-exchange. Although it uses technology to access its audience (to “tap into the silent majority” as Palanker puts it), the process is remarkably similar to Araya’s principles of citizen participation: create a forum to share ideas and receive instant feedback, establish a constant rhythm of monthly meetings, and set a timeline to put the ideas into action.

Designing Glass Underpants

Pritzker Prize Winner Peter Zumtho's sketch for a gate in Isny, voted against, due in part to the public conception of the work as "Glass Underpants"

The strength of Crowdsourced Placemaking is that it encourages a transparent dialogue that bridges the disconnect between  the community – dissatisfied and skeptical – and the planners, developers, and architects who too often ignore them.

To end, I’d like to share a story Jody Brown told on his Blog, Coffee With the Architect, the other day: “On February 5, 2012 The town of Isny voted against the design for a new gate for the city. The gate was designed by Pritzker Prize winning architect Peter Zumthor. It was to be a tower of 250,000 glass stones, marking the entrance to the town. But, after a long and controversial process, 72% of the town, ultimately voted ”no”. So, the gate will never be built. The town came up with a nickname for the project: ‘The Glass Underpants.’”

The story underlies the difficulties architects have in communicating their projects’ purpose to communities. Technology is providing a means to open up this dialogue, to mediate and translate, and, most importantly, to provide the platform for forging physical relationships – making sure we are truly building bridges and rebuilding cities, and not just designing Glass Underpants.

Further Reading

Badger, Emily. “The Street Hacker, Officially Embraced.” The Atlantic Cities. May 7, 2012.

Berg, Nate. “What’s Behind the Grumbling over TED’s City 2.0?” The Atlantic Cities. March 6, 2012. .

Hill, Dan. “Conversation with Rodrigo Araya, Tironi Asociados, Chile.” Brickstarter. April 23, 2012. .

Lange, Alexandra. “Against Kickstarter Urbanism.” May 2, 2012. The Design Observer Group.

Prevost, Lisa. “You ‘Like’ it. They Build It.” The New York Times. July 7, 2011.

About this author
Cite: Vanessa Quirk. "Can you Crowdsource a City?" 10 May 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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