Open City is a concept that aims to bring open source principles to the placemaking process, helping to democratize and localize it in new and exciting ways. It is NOT intended as a participatory tool for redevelopment. It is instead purposed with empowering community members who have the ideas and drive to activate the space around them, bringing new vitality to their communities.
By bringing a digital layer to underutilized space, and marrying it with a physical presence, it brings together citizens, artists, craftsmen and others to envision and accomplish new uses for the space(s) around them. Channeling community members' (both new and long-standing) energy has the potential to disrupt the standard cycle of gentrification. The initial stages of the revitalization process, which often lead to gentrification, can involve a greater segment of the community and address needs and desires of the existing residents.
As an open source platform, Open City gives access to all the steps and stages to everyone who is interested in making a change in their surroundings. The platform also interfaces with local information made available by cities and state governments as well, to help participants make as informed as possible decisions.
As a web platform and social network, it connects people across walks of life with different perspectives, skills and resources to collaborate, share and create together.
The process consists of four simple steps:
1. Someone initiates the process by tagging a space to be worked on, creating the space as a digital project space. This can be done via the web, sms or through the mobile app.
2. A physical object is then created on the space, so that people who live/work around the spot are made aware of the initiative and have the opportunity to offer their own ideas or help.
3. A discussion is carried out through the online and physical elements and in person. Through this discussion, ideas are refined and people volunteer time, skills and materials on a mutually agreed project.
4. Project is carried out and maintained.
Mike lives in a neighborhood that's had some difficult times lately. For the most part, things are kept up and looked after, but there is one lot on his block that has been abandoned and is starting to collect a lot of trash. Mike has a great idea to make a parklet on the lot, but he's not sure he can pull it off all on his own. He would like to get other residents excited about the project too and see who can offer help in making it happen.
Mike uses the Open City mobile app to note the location of the lot, and mark it publicly as a place of interest. He also describes his idea and writes a question asking whether there is anyone in the area who can help build park benches and simple playground equipment. Using instructions from the site, he sets up an idea board on the lot so people can post ideas and talk about it physically.
Later that day someone in the neighborhood who in interested in carpentry logs on to the website and sees that someone is talking about an area near him. He posts to the location page and a discussion begins. A few days later, someone walks past and sees the idea board. He writes down some ideas including a request for a secure bike rack since there have been a lot of bike thefts lately. Over the next weeks, Mike and the other collaborators are able to volunteer time, skills and resources to all the different stages of transformation, such as clean-up, building and maintenance.
Robin loves where she lives, her friends and family live around her, but there are some things she would really like to change. For one, there are a not a lot of local shops or places where she can get things like fresh food or simple household goods for her family. She has to take the bus quite a ways out into the suburbs to get the access she needs.
Recently, Robin has seen micro businesses being used in different places on her commute for work. Produce carts, food trucks and other mobile shops have been more prevalent recently, and she would like to find a way to get them to her neighborhood on a regular basis.
On a nearby corner there is a boarded up auto shop with a spacious parking lot. This gets Robin thinking, but she knows it's going to take a lot of work and a lot of help to get the spot ready for a mobile marketplace. Using Open City, she is able to solicit help from other people in the area. She doesn't have a smartphone, but she is able to tag the spot via the website, and is very active in curating the ideas and comments that the spaces neighbors post on the idea board. Via the discussion, she is able to discover who owns the property and gain permission to hold a once a week mobile market place. She also engages neighbors in helping to clean up the lot and prep it for use, gaining a new sense of community and getting to know more about them than ever before.
While at its core, Opencity is a technological solution, its aim is to operate and build community in places where technology is not necessarily accessible. Overcoming this barrier is very important to the platform, and so the use of the physical object in each project in the form of an idea board is a crucial component. It brings attention to the projects for people in the community. Passersby who most likely have not heard of Opencity, and might have no idea that someone has plans for making the space better would see a very clear representation that something is going on. Beyond awareness, the board will give opportunity for people to be involved in generating ideas or contributing materials and time. Each project will be assigned a unique number which can be posted on the idea board, and to which people can send text messages (SMS). By sending a text to the number, a resident can contribute their idea/caution/info in short form. If someone writes on the board, a picture can be taken and sent via MMS. The Opencity platform will have text recognition capabilities similar to those in Evernote software. Each project space will be assigned a unique QR code as well so that those who do have smartphones will be able to easily find the Opencity app and the individual project.
Another movement that Opencity will look to lean heavily upon is the Gov 2.0 movement. Cities have been responding to the rapid increase in mobile and personal technology and have begun to make an incredible amount of data available and the workings of city government more transparent. Of course, not every city has gotten on the bandwagon for this, and each city has decided to make different data sets available and they have taken many different forms. Opencity will strive to interface with the available data in each metropolitan region where participants are active, but this will be a large undertaking, requiring constant updating and checking. There will be a need to develop and nurture a community of users that will be willing to contribute time to these elements. This can be done through consistent communication, and perhaps organized events such as hackathons.
We have been mindful of ownership and liability issues throughout the prototyping process. It is a sensitive issue and Opencity will need robust, easily accessible tools to help community members begin a dialog with those responsible for the spaces targeted for activation. Tools like Detroit based Loveland's interactive map: Why Don't We Own This, show the potential to easily and clearly make city information usable for the public. The information gleaned by the designers of Decode the Codes through conversations with local experts and CDCs did fit well with my experience as a planner, in that codes themselves are not generally the sticking point. Rather, knowing the proper steps to take, permits to pull, and the associated costs are the crucial knowledge pieces for those starting projects. We envision launching the platform in a pilot area where we can focus on providing the necessary contacts in the proper city offices. Once that information is targeted, it will be possible to engage interested students in an aforementioned hackathon, or solicit help from an organization such as Code for America to help build the platform interface for public information. That interface will be a question based survey within the Opencity platform that will be easily accessible and clear from the beginning input (project location, details, scope etc) to final output (permit granting office contact, estimated permit costs, local community organizations etc.).
While we are mindful with ownership, we don't want to place too great of an emphasis on project permission. While it would be ideal for project members to gain owner approval for every project, it will not always be so clear cut for space waiting for activation. The process should also be open in this respect, and keep the potential hackabiltiy of spaces. We took a great deal of inspiration from Renew Newcastle's efforts to "hack the urban space." In many, many cases, they were able to think differently about established patterns of usage and come up with new solutions. In their words, they were looking for "access not tenancy [...] licenses not leases." They looked for short-term ways to fill in the gaps and create vibrancy, which over time can bring the kind of sustained development cities like Detroit are looking for.
The Heidelberg Project in Detroit is a great example of why it is important not to limit the scope of possibility. Though the project has never been officially sanctioned, and the city has attempted to demolish it on more than one occasion, the project has served as an amazing catalyst for conversation on urban decay and has gained prominence internationally, bringing visitors from throughout the world to an area that would not see many new people otherwise. Further, the Heidelberg Project is a great example in that it is a project developed by an artist that grew up on that very street, motivated by a personal desire to bring change to a place that means a lot to him personally, and the community around him.