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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To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.

Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.

But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.

A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.