COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

A DIY-approach to user-friendly cities

Julia Galef
Jan 25, 2009
Dec 14, 2017

A lot of time and brainpower has gone into making computers and the web "user-friendly": intuitive to learn, pleasant to use, and easy to customize.  But computer systems aren’t the only ones we interact with every day.   Cities are also complex networks that we use to find jobs and goods and homes; find each other; find our way around.  What if we took a cue from programmers and web designers, and made our cities user-friendly too?

At Project for Public Spaces' office on January 14, entrepreneur John Geraci held the first meeting of DIY City -- a collective of programmers, designers, planners, and other tech-savvy urban enthusiasts –- to talk about what that paradigm shift could mean.  "You turn a corner once you start thinking in those terms," said co-founder Anthony Townsend.  For example, you realize that user-friendliness requires channels for user feedback to the system.  Building urban services and infrastructure has been a top-down process for a long time, but with all the new information and communications technology at our fingertips, "now we can build this stuff from the bottom up," Mr. Townsend said.

In theory, there’s already a mechanism to help cities function interactively:  local democracy.  In practice, though, people often don’t know who their representatives are, or what issues they're voting on.  Those citizens who do weigh in on new developments or re-zoning in their neighborhoods -- through their community boards, for example -- are often an unrepresentative minority.  But they dominate the discussion because everyone else finds the prospect of getting involved too intimidating or tedious.  There must be ways, the DIY City group suggested, to exploit new technologies to break down those barriers and allow a broader swath of the neighborhood to be heard.

DIY City’s maiden meeting was deliberately open-ended, geared to produce brainstorms rather than action plans.  But some recurring themes emerged as the group kicked around ideas.  One was that cities need better systems for coordination -- for example, to share bikes, or taxi rides, or parking spaces, all of which could make cities more efficient and less wasteful.  Better coordination could even make us safer; several group members proposed a peer-to-peer, after-hours escort service so that no one would have to walk home alone at night.  

Making information more accessible was another common thread.  There’s so much data that has already been collected but which, the group lamented, isn’t doing us any good -- because it’s either not available to the public, not available all in one place, or not organized in a useful way.  Getting people better access to information could shape their decisions about how they live, work and play, ranging from significant (checking the reputation of local landlords, choosing doctors, or finding after-school programs) to quotidian (which bakeries near me right now have the freshest bagels?).

After coming up with a list of opportunities they saw for improving the current city "interface", the group brainstormed over 30 tools that could be put towards that end.  Ideas ran the gamut from web applications (Twitter, Second Life, Google Maps, Flickr) to information technologies (text messaging, image and sound recognition, RSS Feeds, Bluetooth, GPS), to physical innovations (web cams, bar codes, sensors, stickers, projectors).

Many of the problems the group pointed out were daunting -- air pollution, for example, or dangerous intersections -- and didn’t call to mind an obvious first step.  But DIY City has no intention of trying to solve all these problems themselves; they're also looking for ways to harness other people’s creativity.  That means keeping an eye out for innovations people may have already created for their own purposes, which could be grown into something useful to everyone.  ("Like the guy who used a web cam to monitor how long the lines were at Shake Shack," one participant suggested.)  It means finding ways to connect people who have ideas with people who have the skills and resources to execute those ideas.  And it means being open-source, so that the public can adapt and improve on DIY City’s programs.  "Giving power to the individual user is very much the spirit of DIY City," said Mr. Geraci.

DIY City’s website:

Julia Galef
Julia Galef
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