Can you crowdsource a city?

Melbourne, home of the Melbourne People’s Panel. Image: Getty.

In his 1971 book his book Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals ,activist and writer Saul D. Alinsky wrote, “If you want to know how the shoe fits, ask the person who is wearing it, not the one who made it.”

It’s advice that city planners and designers would do well to take heed of. And it shouldn’t be a radical step. In business market research and customer focus groups are the norm; nothing comes to fruition without full consult of the audience it is being created for.

The same doesn’t hold true when it comes to designing our cities. Yet listening to the people who live in a city, the people it’s being created for, is one of the most important steps in creating a place and community that will flourish.

There are numerous benefits to harnessing ‘the wisdom of the crowd’ – a phrase first used by Aristotle in Polis, his text about citizenship. Cities only thrive when citizens participate in its life – when they co-operate with one another, and with the civic structures that operate. If something is created with a group, for their needs, there’s strong evidence to suggest that it will be used and maintained by them.

It’s not that planners completely ignore citizens. There is usually some kind of public consultation, granted. But sometimes it appears to be merely a formality. Sherry Arnstein, writing in 1969 about citizen involvement in planning processes in the United States, described a “ladder of citizen participation”, spanning the full range from non-participative manipulation to full on citizen control. Most current methods of citizen engagement seems to be hovering around levels 3 (informing), 4 (consultation) and 5 (placation). There’s often a sense that bureaucratic documentation and consultation is more a token ritual than true engagement. It’s at rung 6 – partnership – where planning and decision-making responsibilities are shared that change starts to happen.

Including voices of a city’s people is not some utopian dream, impossible to achieve in the modern age. Around the world we see numerous examples of citizen activism and participatory design, varying from forums and arenas for discussion to strategic and long term projects.

A simple survey in Vienna in the 1990s was a catalyst for an entirely different approach to urban development. The researchers found that gender played a huge role in the use of public transportation. Men typically made short excursions, twice a day, to and from work. For women, it was more complex and varied, involving multiple trips using buses, trams, cars and pedestrian routes whilst they travelled to work, picked their children up from school, visited relatives, did the shopping – and all the other activities that continue to be considered the domain of  women in society.

As a result, the planners adapted transportation projects to women’s needs. This included wider pavements to make moving with pushchairs and wheelchairs easier, increased street lighting for safety, and more accessible networks between homes and the city’s resources. In 2008, the United Nations Human Settlements Programme included the Austrian capital’s city planning strategy in its register of best practices in improving the living environment.

Then there’s participatory budgeting, which has been used in cities including Porto Alegre, Brazil, and which essentially involves ordinary people deciding how to allocate part of the municipal budget. When people are economically invested in something, understanding how their taxes are being spent, and believing that they will make a difference, their level of concern is often amplified.

Its success has been demonstrated in a number of ways: by an increased level of participation, a more diverse board of governance, a growth in the number of schools, public housing, and the tripling of the share of the budget dedicated to housing and education (from 13 per cent to 40 per cent).

A study prepared for the World Bank described how, “This transparency and accountability mechanism has created a healthy tension between the administration and the citizens. Citizens’ participation ensures more people-oriented budget allocation decisions and their timely implementation.”

Similarly, when Melbourne City Council was creating a ten year financial plan, it called together 43 Melburnians to comment upon it. The Melbourne People’s Panel was a diverse group of both business owners and residents, most of whom had never previously been involved with the council. Together they developed a plan focusing upon where and how to invest resources in order to deliver for the maximum benefit to the city and its citizens. The theory was that these two things – the space and the people – should be considered together, rather than separately.

In Canada, the city of Calgary has taken a community approach to its building laws. With the objective of achieving “healthy and safe communities”, the Calgary Community Standards Process is based on the principles that people will follow laws they understand, deem as relevant, and feel they’ve been considered in the development of. The aim is for projects to be self-regulating and achieve voluntary compliance.

It seems to be working: the city has achieved 95 per cent compliance in resolving issues relating to noise complaints, previously a key area of conflict in neighbourhoods.

An approach of this kind requires planners to shift from solely building hard structures before walking away to creating an inspiring area to live for communities in the short and long term. In The Changing Face of Urban Planning, Charles Landry calls this a move from planning to place making. “A space becomes a place when it is imbued with meaning and significance,” he writes. “Place making is an approach to planning, designing and managing public and private space that seeks out the distinctive and special by listening to those who use it and in the process a vision or story of place is created.”

Rather than only looking at physical infrastructures, planners need to do more lateral thinking – to consider the creative and social networks of the people using them, and the lives that they lead. A city really comes from the crowd who lives there. Its voices should be heard.

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What is to be done? Some modest suggestions on solving the NIMBY problem

Lovely, lovely houses. Image: Getty.

The thing about NIMBYism, right, is that there’s no downside to it. If you already own a decent size house, then the fact a city isn’t building enough homes to go round is probably no skin off your nose. Quite the opposite, in fact: you’ll actively benefit from higher house prices.

So it’s little wonder that campaigning against property development is a popular leisure activity among those looking forward to a long retirement (don’t Google it, it’ll only depress you). It’s sociable, it’s profitable, it only takes a few hours a week, and, best of all, it makes you feel righteous, like you’re doing something good. In those circumstances, who wouldn’t be a NIMBY?

To fight the scourge of NIMBYism, then, what we need to do is to rebalance the risks and rewards that its participants face. By increasing the costs of opposing new housebuilding, we can make sure that people only do it when said development is genuinely a horror worth fighting – rather than, say, something less than perfect that pops up a Tuesday afternoon when they don’t have much else on.

Here are some reasonable and sensible ideas for policies to make that happen.

A NIMBY licence, priced at, say, £150 a month. Anyone found practicing NIMBYism without a licence faces a fine of £5,000. Excellent revenue raiser for the Treasury.

Prison sentences for NIMBYs. Not all of them, obviously – we’re not barbarians – but if the planning process concludes that a development will be good for the community, then those who tried to prevent it should be seen as anti-social elements and treated accordingly.

A NIMBY lottery. All homeowners wishing to oppose a new development must enter their details into an official government lottery scheme. If their number comes up, then their house gets CPOed and redeveloped as flats. Turns NIMBYism into a form of Russian roulette, but with compulsory purchase orders instead of bullets.

This one is actually a huge range of different policies depending on what you make the odds. At one end of the scale, losing your house is pretty unlikely: you’d think twice, but you’re probably fine. At the other, basically everyone who opposes a scheme will lose their entire worldly wealth the moment it gets planning approval, so you’d have to be very, very sure it was bad before you even thought about sticking your head above the parapet. So the question is: do you feel lucky?

NIMBY shaming. There are tribal cultures where, when a member does something terrible, they never see them again. Never talk to them, never look at them, never acknowledge them in any way. To the tribe, this person is dead.

I’m just saying, it’s an option.

A NIMBY-specific bedroom tax. Oppose new housing development to your heart’s content, but be prepared to pay for any space you don’t need. I can’t think of any jokes here, now I’ve written it down I think this one’s genuinely quite sensible.

Capital punishment for NIMBYs. This one’s a bit on the extreme side, so to keep things reasonable it would only apply to those NIMBYs who believe in capital punishment for other sorts of crime. Fair’s far.

Pushing snails through their letter boxes. This probably won’t stop them, but it’d make me feel better. The snails, not so much.

Reformed property taxes, which tax increases in house prices, so discourage homeowners from treating them as effectively free money.

Sorry, I’m just being silly now, aren’t I?

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason.

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