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Where Moses, the ‘Master Builder’, took a highly centralised and top-down approach to city planning and renewal, Jacobs was the 'non-expert expert' who proposed a more humanised understanding of the city that acknowledges the collective intelligence of the city’s diverse inhabitants. While certainly impressive in terms of the scale and output of his urban projects, Moses' firebrand approach had complicated outcomes for the city. Certain people living in the ‘slums’ he cleared ended up in better homes, but his projects came at a high human cost, especially for marginalised communities. Jacobs was critical of figures like Moses - the architects, planners and businessmen who sought to impose ‘order’ on the city and remake it to fit their own abstract concepts. For Jacobs, better urban design started with understanding the small, local actions and interactions taken by city residents in their daily lives.

Experience has taught us that imposing controversial large-scale urban projects on citizens without their input or involvement is an invitation to vicious backlash. While offline consultations, co-design workshops, surveys and other methods have helped architects and planners understand and involve communities, innovation in technology and online platforms is enabling new ways of using the collective intelligence of whole cities and communities in the urban planning and design process.

In this article, we look at three different opportunities in this area for smart cities:

1. Enabling more people to get involved in urban planning and design

Many of us have some experience with FixMyStreet, an app which enables citizens to report localised information about problems such as potholes to their local authorities and many councils are already using it to better target their efforts. Since the pioneering work done by FixMyStreet, a range of collaborative platforms and projects have been developed that go beyond information-gathering; to better involve citizens in consultation and collaboration around urban design and planning challenges.

One example from 2015 is the remodelling of the Plaza de España in Madrid. The city council created the Decide Madrid platform which consisted of a 10-step participatory process to involve citizens in all stages of redevelopment from identifying the needs and ideas for the redevelopment of the square which shaped the invitation to tender through, to commenting and voting on the proposals submitted by architects. The successful proposal for remodelling the plaza was selected after it received 183,476 votes from citizens giving the authority a huge mandate for the work.

Decide Madrid website

The Decide Madrid project homepage

Other examples have used gamified approaches to involve citizens in planning and design. In Australia, the online platform Plan Brimbank dispenses with planning jargon in favour of simple concepts and visuals to solicit input from the local community on their views about planning schemes. Brimbank City Council successfully used the platform to carry out its strategic review. Through a blended process of online and offline engagement, it reached nearly 2,000 users aged 15-80 and was particularly popular among typically harder to reach, younger age groups.

Another well-known example is Block by Block which enables citizens to be actively involved in consultation, collaboration and solution-seeking processes. It uses the Minecraft platform (an easy-to-learn 3D digital modelling game) as a community participation tool for visualization and collaboration to actively engage neighbourhood residents who don’t typically have a voice in influencing spatial planning and design of cities. This enables residents, many of whom with little prior experience using computers, to have a role in transforming neglected urban spaces into vibrant places that can improve quality of life for all. In the Gaza Strip, the programme allowed the incorporation of women and girls’ ideas in reconstructing key public spaces that have since benefited around 100,000 people. Once project ideas are completed in Minecraft, stakeholders from local government, the mayor's office, planners and architects listen to presentations by people who were part of the design process.

Palestinian women using Minecraft as part of the Block by Block project

Palestinian women using Minecraft as part of the Block by Block project

Other collaborative technologies emphasise the important role of user-oriented design so citizens can meaningfully engage with urban planning processes, without requiring prior expertise or knowledge.

In 2016, the Mayor of Hamburg launched the ‘FindingPlaces’ initiative to develop a community-led participation process to identify accommodation for the predicted ~79,000 refugees that were expected to arrive in the city. The project was developed using MIT CityScope, an urban modelling and simulation platform that makes complex urban questions accessible and tangible to various audiences.

Prior to this, the experience in many German cities had been that accommodation facilities tended to be concentrated in certain neighbourhoods while others received little to no refugees at all, sometimes resulting in civil protest against the refugees.

The project addressed this by incorporating citizens’ personal experiences and local knowledge into the political and administrative evaluation of potential locations, using their insights and ideas to inform political decision-making.

More than 400 people attended the 34 two-hour public participation workshops, each focusing on one of the city’s seven districts. The project helped to successfully identify 160 accommodation locations that were widely accepted by Hamburg’s citizens, out of which 44 were approved by the authorities.

2. Using novel and citizen-generated data to better understand cities

New, and often citizen-generated, data can help city planners better understand different needs across the city and provide a more flexible alternative to cumbersome traditional master planning processes.

In India, the Bhuvan project has been set up as a geoportal which provides a single platform where different stakeholders can collaborate and produce city master plans. Bhuvan integrates crowdsourced local infrastructure data with satellite data to create maps that help cities with effective land-use management and responsive planning. Urban base layer data including transport infrastructure, natural features and land-use data, is taken from satellite imagery and combined with utility data including water and sanitation, power and gas. Additional information can be added by local citizens through the ‘Point of Interest smartphone app’. Based on these maps, draft master plans are published on the Bhuvan portal for review and feedback, providing a mechanism for engaging citizens in urban planning. Today, 121 city master plans have been published using Bhuvan and work is underway on 143 more.

Bhuvan India map

Bhuvan India map

Citizen-generated data around people’s activities and behaviours is also being harnessed to facilitate and encourage greater diversity and equality of place. Many built environments are fostering inequality, while data shows that in big urban areas, people tend to cluster by income, even at the micro-level (i.e. in restaurants, cafes, bars, and shops). Such clustering exacerbates segregation and leads to a loss of diverse interactions, which itself leads to increased feelings of disconnectedness and anxiety.

The Atlas of Inequality emerged in the context of growing residential income inequality in Boston to harness data to encourage greater inclusivity and equality of place. It allows policymakers and business owners to intentionally plan for greater diversity in interactions between city residents of different income levels. It uses aggregated, anonymised location-based data and various datasets to create a picture of where people with different income levels spend their time. So far, based on the findings around how individuals in a city on average spend their time and where they go, the researchers found that changing just 1% of an individual’s daily movement patterns can result in a 5% increase in the diversity of their encounters in a city.

At present, the Atlas of Inequality is in early stages, but there are clear indications of how it could be used in future. For one, urban planners and city officials could use its data to better understand local inequality and segregation, planning public spaces and venues that encourage diversity of interactions. It could also be used to audit inclusivity or place-based development policies to understand whether or not they are working overtime.

Elsewhere, open mapping (geo) technologies are giving communities the means to map urban issues that matter to them using technologies that build on OpenStreetMap’s open software.

HOT (Humanitarian OpenStreetMap team) leverages the technology to improve equality, resilience and quality of life for urban communities across South Asia and Africa. Its open mapping approach enables ‘slum dwellers’ and those living in unplanned settlements to engage directly with government, donor agencies, the private sector, universities and civil society groups on city-level challenges. In doing so, it creates usable information through community mapping techniques to build applications and tools that inform decision-making, and develop the networks of trust and social capital necessary for these efforts to become sustainable. The initiative has now scaled South Asia to over 11 Sub-Saharan cities, where it’s tackled various city-level challenges, including making Brazzaville’s poor neighbourhoods safer, collecting data, raising awareness and putting people at the centre of city planning and infrastructure projects in Pointe Noire (Republic of Congo).

Meanwhile, the Geochicas’ #LasCallesDeLasMujeres project demonstrates how open mapping is being used to discover and visualize the gender disparity and historic absence of female figures in street names in Latin American and Spanish cities, promote the mobilization of communities (such as Wikipedia) and highlight the historic role and socio-cultural contributions of women. As of 2019, Geochicas has more than 190 participants from 22 different countries and have presented their work at more than 20 events, conferences and panels in more than 10 countries.

Geochicas map

Geochicas map

Collective intelligence and new approaches to historical data can also be used to help cities understand the roots of inequality. US-based Mapping Prejudice is one example of this. In the 1900s, racial housing covenants (zoning laws) were used by real estate developers to prevent people of colour from buying or occupying property. In Minneapolis they blocked home sales to minorities. To understand how this still contributes to inequality in the city today, Mapping Prejudice used a digital library to map all of the old restrictive covenants in Minneapolis. To analyse the large volume of data, the project solicited help from more than 3,000 Zooniverse citizen science volunteers to review thousands of pages of deeds. To date they have identified 30,000 properties with covenants restricting sales to minorities. Patterns they’ve identified include a trend in restrictive covenants forming a ‘racial cordon’ of white neighbourhoods around public parks, blocking access to these public amenities for minority communities. This Citylab article covers the project in detail.

3. Using collaborative technologies to manage and share assets

Another opportunity lies in using collective intelligence-based approaches to change how local places and assets are managed and governed once they have been put in place. This can help ensure that places continue to reflect the needs of the community, even if the needs change over time.

Crowdfunded community investment and ownership, where communities buy shares in local pubs, shops or sports clubs and in return get a say in how they are governed is just one example of this. Cities and local authorities are seeking to support this form of community ownership, so greater community involvement in local places can reflect local and changing needs. In Manchester, local residents invested in turning an underused and derelict space under a motorway into the Projekts Skatepark. This created a new use for an underused public space and brought people together to provide opportunities for disadvantaged young people.

In Sheffield, Portland Works raised over £300,000 from 500 investors to save a closed down metal factory from residential conversion and renovate it into a centre for small manufacturing, independent artists and craftspeople, which is now home to more than 30 small businesses. Working groups formed of users, workshop tenants and community shareholders participate in directors and board meetings and can in many cases make decisions on different themes from renovation work to finances. Going beyond individual places there is also an increasing interest in whether higher degrees of community ownership could be one of the solutions faced by high streets around the world.

Portland Works shareholders outside building

Portland Works shareholders

When integrated effectively, these examples show how collective intelligence can support Jacob’s vision for more democratic, responsive urban planning and design. There are some obvious caveats: these still tend to be limited to the implementation of individual interventions or experiments than to a comprehensive smart city strategy, and it still tends to only be larger and resourceful cities tend to exploit the advantages of more ambitious, digital methods.

At the moment, the use of smart city strategies still tends to be limited to larger cities with more resources. However, when integrated effectively and in combination with collective intelligence approaches that enable citizens to have a bigger say in shaping their cities, they can support more democratic, responsive urban planning and design at all levels of government, something we badly need if we are to rise to the challenges and opportunities of our post-pandemic world.

A version of this was first published in The MJ