Open Source Urbanism

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Michel Bauwens:

- the requirement of open input by all stakeholders and affected citizens, including outsiders with innovative ideas

- the requirement of participatory governance and decision-making for the final outcome

- the requirement for the accumulated knowledge to be put in a knowledge commons for future use and remixing in other projects


Excerpted from Saskia Sassen:

"We can think of the multiple ways in which the city talks back as a type of open-source urbanism: the city as partly made through a myriad of interventions and little changes from the ground up. Each of these multiple small interventions may not look like much, but together they give added meaning to the notion of the incompleteness of cities and that this incompleteness gives cities their long lives, thereby outlasting other more powerful entities.

In sharp contrast, I think that the model of "intelligent cities" as propounded by and the telepresence efforts of Cisco Systems misses this opportunity to urbanize the technologies they mobilize, and futilely seeks to eliminate incompleteness. The planners of intelligent cities, notably Songdo in South Korea actually make these technologies invisible, and hence put them in command rather than in dialogue with users. One effect is that intelligent cities represent closed systems, and that is a pity. It will cut their lives short. They will become obsolete sooner.

Beyond the imagery of open-source urbanisms, can we strengthen this positive scenario of the city's incompleteness by actually deploying open-source technologies in a variety of urban contexts?. Can we urbanize open-source technology?

As a technological practice of innovation, Open Source has not quite been about cities, but about the technology. Yet it resonates with what cities have and are at ground-level, where its users are. The park is made not only with the hardware of trees and ponds, but also with the software of people's practices. How can we forget the turnaround of New York's Riverside Park from being a no-go zone to being a park for all those who wanted to use it in part because dog-owners started to walk their dogs in large numbers. Having a dog was itself a function of feeling insecure in a city of high murder rates and much mugging. But the city allowed people to talk back: get a dog, walk your dog, go in groups, and you recover the territory of the park. The proliferation of farmers' markets was also not a top-down decision. It resulted from a mix of conditions, primarily the desire of city residents to have access to fresh produce. Here we see that a thousand individual decisions created a possibility for viable farmers markets.


Technologists, urbanists and artists are beginning to "urbanize" technology (see the Network Architecture Lab at Columbia, the SENSEable City Lab at MIT, and much of the work gathered at the Design and the Elastic Mind exhibit at MoMA). When this happens, the city becomes a heuristic space: it talks to the average resident or passer-by, it can make the most advanced applied technologies that can be used in cities visible. The city also makes visible the diversity of spatial forms through which these technological applications work, becoming legible even to the passer-by. I have long thought that all the major infrastructures, from sewage to electricity and broadband, should be covered by transparent walls and floors, so if you are waiting for the bus, you can actually see how the city all works and begin to get engaged. Today, when walls are pregnant with softwared capabilities, why not make this transparent? All our computerized systems should become transparent. It creates its own public shared domain.

Yet Open Source is different from those technologies and technological applications. I see in Open Source a DNA that resonates strongly with how people make the city theirs or urbanize what might be an individual initiative. And yet, it stays so far away from the city. I think that it will require making. We need to push this urbanizing of technologies to strengthen horizontal practices and initiatives. Leading urban civic institutions tend to verticalize this work of making the urban. But they do matter. Here the appropriate technology is more akin to developing an urban Wikileaks—vertical institutions that begin to leak and thereby enable citizens to work with at least some of what is useful in those leaks in the ways they see fit. This is akin to horizontalizing what is now vertical, imposed by top-down authority.

There is much work to be done. Recovering the incompleteness of cities means recovering a space where the work of open sourcing the urban can thrive. Developing an urban Wikileaks would take cities in a very different direction from the intelligent city model—and for the better." (


"David recalled Sassen’s reference to a group of residents near Riverside Park in the late 1970s who gradually discovered that simply by walking their dogs at the same time of night they could make the park theirs, creating a safer environment. “Without realizing it, they were organizing themselves,” said David. “This was basically open-source urbanism before people were thinking open-source urbanism.”

Maria soon came up with another example, also from Sassen’s lecture: “She was talking about the power of the abuelas, the power of the grannies. And I thought that was fantastic, because that was there before. They all sat, you know, in their little square with their four chairs, and talked for hours, and knew what everyone was doing in the neighborhood or in the building.

“But it was not captured anywhere, and it was not augmented in volume anywhere, and now you have the power to do that. So long as you do it in a meaningful way, it’s making something traditional powerful through a new platform.”

That platform of course is digital technology, with its unprecedented capacity to receive and transmit data, to map and measure, to provide a channel for expression, to coordinate and communicate and bear witness to public action.

Based on what they learned at the Lab, Maria and David have defined open-source/participatory urbanism as a dual phenomenon: a trend toward community groups and neighborhoods as the starting point for urban change; and growing recognition among governments, academics, and professionals that crowdsourcing and open-source data can be powerful tools for creating new city designs, solutions, and ways of governing.

The basic principle, David said: “As long as there are enough people speaking up about something and getting themselves organized, it can result in change.”

When I asked for examples of open-source urbanism in action, David and Maria cited a number of them: the wildly successful Urban Garden Registry begun by the group Futurefarmers in San Francisco, for instance; or Mayor Enrique Peñalosa’s campaign to change the perception of public transportation in Bogotá; the mobilizations in Tahrir Square, in Madrid, in Zuccotti Park and elsewhere; the proliferation of transportation and other apps designed to augment our use of public systems; and, to an extent, the Lab itself.


While in Mumbai he met with Sheela Patel, founding director of SPARC (Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres) an organization that works to organize slum dwellers around India and the world.

“Sometimes it is through the Internet, other times it’s through telephones,” said David. “In some cases it is really about bringing people together physically and organizing the funding. And I thought it was quite fascinating: slums do not need to be isolated situations. If slum dwellers organize themselves tightly—and even between different cities—they can become quite effective in getting their voices and ideas heard. To me, it is inspiring to see technology and media be used this way.”" (

P2P Commentary

Sam Rose:

"Up until very recently, "peer to peer" systems have been "democratized" (in cities and elsewhere) largely in the technical realm. Physical resources in urban areas (like co-working, hackerspaces, etc) have typically been governed by a minority of leading participants. The non-rival and non-excludable resources created through group production (designs, software, knowledge) are typically released under a license that allows re-use and keeps the resource in a commons. Those non-rival and non-excludable resources are able to be "forked" or taken elsewhere to make a whole new project at any time. Forking does not usually happen, however. What typically happens is "branching and merging", where people temporarily "fork" the goods, and then improve them and submit them back. This activity represented the one of the only currently existing truly democratized dynamics in "p2p urbanism" with people oriented around "p2p" systems. Recently, the "general assembly" of occupy movements also became another major example (borrowing many ideas from open source and wiki culture conventions). General Assembly is, in short, a consensus process around all decision making for people participating in occupations, which were happening mostly right in the heart of cities worldwide. Otherwise, the constraints of modern cities force urbanites to comply with regulation that is often very restrictive, forcing people into pre-defined roles in relation to resources and other people and entities in the city.

A notable exception are some of the midwestern industrial cities in the US, which are experiencing a de-population phenomenon. Due to this condition of decreasing people, the governments of these cities are being more lenient about what is possible, and so we see farming, and technology/manufacturing cooperatives, and housing cooperatives starting to emerge in some of these cities, many organizing around sharing, alternative currencies, and communities of co-governance. This is typically more possible in the inner city residential and industrial/commercial areas. Downtowns and "flagship" parts of cities are still off limits via regulation to these experiments, usually." (email, Jan. 6, 2011)

Research Project

By Rory Hyde and Scott Mitchell:

"Cities are the physical manifestation of flows of people, material, money, and increasingly, information. The city is both a product and a generator of these flows. Much of this information – such as temperature, train delays, population density, accident locations and stock prices – is mapped, recorded and broadcast in real-time through the Internet. This data is superimposed on the physical city as a dense digital cloud.

We believe designers need to identify the opportunities this emergent context offers, beyond the current dependence on handsets, interactive façades, and form-driven ‘expressions of the age’.

This research project examines the changing role of public space in the context of increased information flows. It explores the way data networks affect our notions of community and investigates the potential this holds for the formation of communal space. Rather than viewing the physical as a mere backdrop for the delivery of data, the research project seeks to develop crossovers where physical form and digital information directly inform and shape our urban environment." (