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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CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

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Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

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Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.