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Citizen Power Should Change How Cities Operate

You’ve heard of wikis, mass collaboration and open source. Now major cities want to bring those concepts to the streets in a trend destined to revolutionize urbanites and the politicians who govern them.

Digital Journal — Does your city celebrate you? Not in a birthday-party way, but in a way that say, “We appreciate your ideas and we’re willing to collaborate on projects you propose.” Urban centres around the world are increasingly turning to the theme of “openness” that attracts passionate citizens hoping to enrich the city experience with pedestrian-oriented space, wiki sites, mash-up tools tailored for the Web-savvy resident.

Just like the Web’s evolution as a user-powered platform for mass collaboration, this new movement to transform urban life might as well be called City 2.0.

Breathing New Life into Old Cities

It begins with a desire to want more from your city, to jazz up residential life with a community vibe extending past the street party. To many cities, this means art projects initiated by the public but applied to the private sector (like New York City taxis adorned with colourful decals painted by children); or it could mean merging tour guides and cellphone technology (like murmur’s project in Dublin); or it could apply to something as simple but monumental as a city wiki, where residents can post information and insight on areas around town, like a Wikipedia for urban living. Bloomingpedia, a city wiki of Bloomington, Indiana, is one of the fist city wikis to gain attention.

By allowing the public to voice their ideas to city officials, or by encouraging artistic interventions, a powerful wave of change can sweep over societies burdened by routine. Forget about being told what to do; people can now have direct input into what their cities look like and how policies are shaped.

It all comes down to making cities more “open,” a concept gaining traction in many major metropolitans around the world. What does that mean? “A place where diverse ideas are embraced,” says Mark Kuznicki, co-founder of the Open Cities Unconference in Toronto. “Politically, it entails a structure that allows people to participate in co-creating their home.”

Cities are more than just hubs of financial growth and endless skyscrapers; cities should empower people to help influence the policies that affect them every day. – Photo by Digital Journal

Kuznicki cites a Toronto event as an ideal example: the Toronto Transit Camp pooled IT and new media experts to meet with the city’s transit officials in order to brainstorm ways to revamp the website for the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC). This wasn’t a town-hall meeting where authorities simply listened to concerns and complaints; instead, the public suggested site redesigns with laptop in hand, overlooked by the TTC chair and other execs. The geeks had their say and received instant feedback. It was almost reminiscent of posting a message on an online forum and watching the comments roll in.

“We want campfires burning throughout the city,” Kuznicki says, referring to the meeting-of-minds that bridges the gap between the politicians and the citizenry. “We want to invite government players to the table to consult with the public so they can learn how being a peer with a resident is more beneficial than being an authority figure.”

It’s an idea promoted by other experts on urban policy. Nurturing homegrown talent helps foster a sense of community in any city, big or small. According to [url= t=_blank]Patrick Luciani of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a creative city should begin by:
…funding local artists — and here we mean everything from book publishing to hip hop bands — through an array of subsidies and government support programs such as rental accommodation, designating certain areas of the city as artist colonies, promoting city aesthetics, and so on.Using public space to its full potential is another area sorely needing attention. Kuznicki points to another Toronto grassroots project other city councils should look for inspiration. On the last Sunday of every month in the summer, the city’s Kensington Market area celebrates Pedestrian Sunday, a day-long event of street performers, games, music collaboration and civic pride. The Market’s streets are blocked off from traffic, an unusual concept for die hard urbanites accustomed to vehicular clogs on the weekend. In its fourth year, Pedestrian Sunday’s motive was simple: Give the streets back to the people and allow them to enjoy what the city has to offer beyond skyscrapers and billboards.

In fact, the notion of happiness over commerce has stuck with countries looking for innovative ideas to reshape city life. The small country of Bhutan (population 700,000) measures progress not by Gross Domestic Product (GDP) but by Gross National Happiness, a policy put forth by former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck to reflect the true quality of life in a more realistic way. So instead of studying corporate earnings and trade wealth, Bhutan examines healthcare facility upkeep, school dropout rates and forestry preservation. Gross National Happiness is doing what it intended — a recent article reported 72 per cent of the country is still forested, health care is free, and a study conducted by the University of Leicester in Britain ranks Bhutan as the eighth happiest country, ahead of the U.S. and Canada.

Is this a concept ripe enough to blossom in other parts of the world?

Opening Closed Doors

While adopting an index like Gross National Happiness may not be at the top of a mayor’s agenda, other projects can branch off from the “open” meme.

An open economy is worth exploring for myriad reasons, Kuznicki says. “I would like to see Web developers in a city work on global open-source software projects,” he points out. “People can be brought into collaborative communities, like Mozilla, where the local works with the global. Innovation is delivered at a reduced cost, business is developed at a grassroots level and employment numbers increase.”

Website mash-ups are also strengthening the public role in private enterprise. For instance, a New York City Google Maps mash-up lists movie locations for quick reference; another mash-up identifies the liquor and beer stores open in downtown Toronto; and Canada’s CBC has used Google Maps to report on what Canadian municipalities are doing for climate change.

But imagine if mash-ups were placed even further into the hands of citizens. “User-generated material lets passionate people apply their skills,” Kuznicki says. “That kind of material has more authority than packaged marketing window-dressed with editorial criticism.”

Also under-valued is a neighbourhood’s dedication to its own streets. Beyond community parties and garage sales, residents can bring people together with innovative projects few city councillors would initiate, Kuznikci says. He points to Portland’s City Repairs group as a shining example — these social activists “create a public square out of an intersection” by helping residents paint the street, build a mini-café or install a community bulletin board. Portland’s drivers recognize this new community-oriented project and drive slowly around pedestrians congregating around these funky public squares.

City Repairs has all the elements Kuznicki admires in an urban-reclamation organization: artistic expression, openness to family involvement, government response and bottom-up structure. Who would think Portland would be a role model for other regions looking to put the “I” back in city?

As part of an Open Cities concept, Toronto’s transit authority recently received input from IT experts to revamp its website, taking redesign suggestions directly from the public. – Photo by Digital Journal

What Should Politicos Do?

I ask Kuznicki what he would request from Toronto’s mayor if only one request could be fulfilled. He offers an answer similar to the guy who asks the magic genie for three more wishes. “I want the city’s facilities to be more open to unconferences where ideas can be exchanged on how to change urban centres,” Kuznicki says. Basically, instead of asking for one concrete change, he would like more platforms for people to voice their insights and inventions. Open Cities Unconference occurs annually but he would like to see city-reforming ideas coming out of the closet on a regular basis.

It’s a discussion everyday people rarely engage in. Cities are known as hubs of financial growth and mortar stretching to the sky. They are known to entertain, to distract, to entice fat wallets. But it’s often forgotten how cities are not merely an architect’s canvas. Buildings and shopping malls shouldn’t be the main focus. Cities are awash with people, and those people are the players who can revolutionize the municipal policies touching every corner of their lives. It’s not enough to live in a city; the next step is to turn that city into an urban paradise where everyone has a say beyond the ballot box.

Mark Kuznicki’s Open Cities Unconference will take place June 23 + 24 at the Centre for Social Innovation (215 Spadina) in Toronto. Visit for more information.

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