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’s up with Wakanda’s trains? On public transport in Black Panther

The Black Panther promotional poster. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Black Panther is one of the best reviewed superhero films of all time. It’s instantly become a cultural touchstone for black representation in movies, while shining a positive light on a continent almost totally ignored by Hollywood. But never mind all that – what about the trains?

The film takes place in the fictional African country of Wakanda, a small, technologically advanced nation whose power comes from its main natural resource: huge supplies of a magical metal called vibranium. As is often the case in sci-fi, “technologically advanced” here means “full of skyscrapers and trains”. In other words, perfect Citymetric territory.

Here’s a mostly spoiler-free guide to Black Panther’s urbanism and transport.

City planning

It’s to the credit of Black Panther’s crew that there’s anything to talk about here at all. Fictional cities in previous Marvel films, such as Asgard from the Thor films or Xandar from Guardians of the Galaxy, don’t feel like real places at all, but collections of random monuments joined together by unwalkably-wide and sterile open spaces.

Wakanda’s capital, the Golden City, seems to have distinct districts and suburbs with a variety of traditional and modern styles, arranged roughly how you’d expect a capital to be – skyscrapers in the centre, high-rise apartments around it, and what look like industrial buildings on its waterfront. In other words, it’s a believable city.

It’s almost a real city. Image: Marvel/Disney

We only really see one area close-up: Steptown, which according to designer Ruth Carter is the city’s hipster district. How the Golden City ended up with a bohemian area is never explained. In many cities, these formed where immigrants, artists and students arrived to take advantage of lower rents, but this seems unlikely with Wakanda’s stable economy and zero migration. Did the Golden City gentrify?

Urban transport

When we get out and about, things get a bit weirder. The narrow pedestrianised sand-paved street is crowded and lined with market stalls on both sides, yet a futuristic tram runs right down the middle. The tram’s resemblance to the chunky San Francisco BART trains is not a coincidence – director Ryan Coogler is from Oakland.

Steptown Streetcar, with a hyperloop train passing overhead. Image: Marvel/Disney.

People have to dodge around the tram, and the street is far too narrow for a second tram to pass the other way. This could be a single-track shuttle (like the former Southport Pier Tram), a one-way loop (like the Detroit People Mover) or a diversion through narrow streets (like the Dublin Luas Cross City extension). But no matter what, it’s a slow and inefficient way to get people around a major city. Hopefully there’s an underground station lurking somewhere out of shot.

Over the street runs a *shudder* hyperloop. If you’re concerned that Elon Musk’s scheme has made its way to Wakanda, don’t worry – this train bears no resemblance to Musk’s design. Rather, it’s a flying train that levitates between hoops in the open air. It travels very fast – too fast for urban transport, since it crosses a whole neighbourhood in a couple of seconds – and it doesn’t seem to have many stops, even at logical interchange points where the lines cross. Its main purpose is probably to bring people from outlying suburbs into the centre quickly.

There’s one other urban transport system seen in the film: as befitting a major riverside city, it has a ferry or waterbus system. We get a good look at the barges carrying tribal leaders to the ceremonial waterfalls, but overhead shots show other boats on the more mundane business of shuttling people up and down the river.

Transport outside the city

Unfortunately there’s less to say here. Away from the city, we only see people riding horses, following cattle-drawn sleds, or simply walking long distances. This is understandable given Wakanda’s masquerading as a developing country, but it makes the country very urban centric. Perhaps that’s why the Jabari hate the other tribes so much – poor transport investment means the only way to reach them is a narrow, winding mountain pass.

The one exception is in freight transport. Wakanda has a ridiculously developed maglev network for transporting vibranium ore. This actually follows a pattern seen in a lot of real African countries: take a look at a map of the continent and you’ll see most railways run to the coast.

Image: Bucksy/Wikimedia Commons.

These are primarily freight railways built to transport resources from mines and plantations to ports, with passenger transport an afterthought.

A high-speed maglev seems like overkill for carrying ore, especially as the film goes out of its way to point out that vibranium is too unstable to take on high-speed trains without careful safety precautions. Nevertheless, the scene where Shuri and Ross geek out about these maglevs might just be the single most relatable in any Marvel movie.

A very extravagant freight line. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Perhaps this all makes sense though. Wakanda is still an absolute monarchy, and without democratic input its king is naturally going to choose exciting hyperloop and maglev projects over boring local and regional transport links.

Here’s hoping the next Black Panther film sees T’Challa reforming Wakanda’s government, and then getting really stuck into double-track improvements to the Steptown Streetcar.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray tweets as @stejormur.

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