Crowdsourcing The City

Businesses and entrepreneurs know that if they want their product or enterprise to be successful, they have to listen to the people using it. Customer testing, focus groups, crowdfunding, multi-disciplinary discussions, cross-departmental workshops and expert consultations are all strategies used to increase knowledge about their audience and find ways to deliver the best products and services for them.

But when it comes to designing one of the most important services for the public – the place in which they live – planning has historically been done without their input. This is despite us knowing that when something is effective and has longevity, it tends to be because people have had some kind of input, and as a result are emotionally and logically invested in it.

For businesses, stakeholder engagement is deemed to be a prerequisite for success. Stakeholders, according to the UN/Habitat, are those whose interests are affected by the issue, who have expertise, information and resources that can inform the case, and who control implementation. It’s clear that London’s residents can be defined as such.

London is a city that contains so much expertise – environmental, technical, economic as well as creative, educational and personal. So why don’t planners listen to it?

Areas where the individuals using them have an emotional and practical investment with them are often, quite simply, far nicer. Individuals look after things that they care about. Think of your own home. Emotional, physical and economic investment make it matter. People naturally want to engage with their locality, and this positive interaction with both physical environment and those in it builds a sense of belonging that cannot be planned on a drawing board.

When combined together, different perspectives and creativity create a stronger network of ideas and outputs – “collective intelligence” as philosopher Pierre Levy phrased it. This approach is not only more democratic, but more responsive, and outcomes more resilient. When people understand something and feel a part of it, trust is built and opposition is much less likely. The possibility of subsequent changes and their financial costs are therefore reduced. This clearly isn’t just about soft outcomes but has some real tangible benefits, including financial.

Whilst the benefits may appear obvious, there seems to be a general agreement that there’s not enough happening. It’s not easy to challenge and change both the existing structures and prevailing philosophy. Empowering citizens to both co-design and care for their cities requires a strategic rethink. It’s not only about space and design, as Charles Landry and Phil Wood discuss in The Intercultural City: Planning for Diversity Advantage, a city sees people as an asset where every individual contributes to shaping and making their habitat. They say “it derives from a central notion that people are developing a shared future, whereby each individual feels they have something to contribute in shaping, making and co-creating a joint endeavour”.

London is one of the most diverse cities in the world. According to the 2011 census, 22.1% of Londoners list a language other than English as their main language, and 41.6% per cent of non-English speakers live in the capital. More than a third of Londoners were born outside the UK. As a whole, the city is younger, with 7.2% being aged 16-24, compared to a national average of 6.2%, and 10.7% over 65, versus the UK at 16.4%. Islington is nearly six times more densely populated than Havering. Unemployment in leafy Richmond upon Thames stands at 3%, but in Barking & Dagenham, almost geographically diagonal, it’s 7.2%.

A dynamic hub of interdependent communities with many different backgrounds and interests, it’s a place in which individuals can thrive. Yet this is only if they are integrated into the place that they call home. A crowdsourced city seeks to represent everyone, including those usually marginalised – women, ethnic minorities, and those with disabilities, among others.

Yet most planning boards, council teams and official bodies are still dominated by middle-class, white, educated males. Consciously or unconsciously, their knowledge and ideals are therefore reflected in the work produced – regardless of the profile of the city they are planning. Knowing who the city dwellers are and harnessing their local knowledge can help create a healthy and flourishing space. A sense of being detached from local places and neighbours risks segregating communities, restricting diversity, and halts the power of the community to transform the city.

Accessibility is a big issue in the bustling metropolis and impacts people who find movement limited in all sorts of ways. Parents with pushchairs or those with disabilities may not be formally restricted, but ease of travel can make it seem this way – many places are still almost impossible to access with a wheelchair or pushchair. Huge improvements have been made, and are promised to increase, with many driven by the London 2012 Olympic Games. Called ‘Inclusive Design’, the approach sounds laudable, and should be applied to all design projects and include all individuals.

Young people are too often considered to be a problem in a city, not a solution. Challenging preconceptions that keep them marginalised, those involved in the Young Londoners Manifesto for a Better City Open-City project have developed a well thought out set of criteria for a city that allows them to build their futures in. Many of these are not just for young people. Better public transport in the boroughs, safer neighbourhoods with lighting, wider paths and clear views, green space and well-maintained areas all matter. Crucially, they want to be “involved in the design of the places that they call home”. This makes sense. Who doesn’t want to have the place in which they live feel like home?

Ethnically diverse and multicultural, London doesn’t have a “typical” citizen. One in three Londoners were born overseas, with many more second or third generation, and as a result there are numerous different understandings of what makes a place a home. New build homes might be getting smaller and smaller, but some families would prefer larger accommodation in which extended families can live together. Average household size varies from 1.4 in the City to 3.01 in Newham – where only 13.5% of residents are White British. Suburban streets clean and free from shops and markets might look cleaner, but mean there are fewer people around to keep individuals safe. Inner city markets offer a way for people to meet and mingle with communities, at the same time learning the language and engaging with wider society. Due to effective transport systems that developed after the second world war, and a growth in migration, Toronto has been cited as one of the most inclusive cities for all – whether less affluent, of an immigrant background, or less mobile. Being able to move has improved access to opportunities across the population.

Inclusive cities don’t just focus on individual aspects, but the whole spectrum. Street design, pricing and efficiency of public transportation, management of schools, local service availability, public spaces, housing availability – these issues affect everyone, and will also be influenced by personal circumstance and background. A holistic approach to urban planning involves a holistic approach to people.

Guerilla gardening, community forums, local food banks are all great and thriving in London. But it all happens within an infrastructure. As brilliant as citizen activism is, alone it does not build cities. Long term examples of engagement still require physical and bureaucratic structures at some point. Alizee Marceau, from the Sustainable Food Cities Project, believes that while individual groups are doing great work, there needs to be a “systems-approach to policy-making locally, looking at the challenges as a whole and addressing them as such”. Citizen involvement has to be part of this whole.

So, whilst we need organisational institutions to facilitate and construct places, projects and policies that initially seem promising can fail later if not cared for and managed. Planning with the community can help mitigate such events.

Take Lewisham. The borough has 18 local assemblies, each with a steering group, elected by the local community. Through debate and cooperation, initiatives or improvements for the neighbourhoods can be suggested, and plans on where to invest their £50,000 locality fund money developed. The draft version of the Council’s Lewisham Regeneration Strategy 2008-2020, “People, Prosperity, and Place”, was read and adjusted by representatives from small local entrepreneurs, representatives of public organisations, local clubs and associations, and many suggestions incorporated into the final document. A longer-term approach that combines discussion and economic influence has helped engage and maintain the community in the planning process.

Having a broad set of group input to a project is one way to do this. Back in early 2011, before the Localism Act came into force, local pressure group Kentish Town Road Action decided to look into preparing a neighbourhood plan. Support from Prince’s Foundation, Planning Aid England, Groundwork UK and independent planning consultants enabled them to create a feasible, effective, and representative plan that would regenerate existing sites and buildings for both employment use and housing. Walkabouts, forums, debates, public meetings, workshops, communications, and websites were all used to engage the public and develop a holistic approach to explore all avenues.

New economic, cultural and social conditions require new organisational models, and engaged individuals create these structures. Civic engagement and participation fosters that sense of belonging and ownership, enhancing quality of life for all. There’s certainly a growing interest in this, as the upcoming Future of London Place Making Conference indicates.

Community Planning Specialist Nick Wates bases his company’s core philosophy on the idea that places work better if the people living and working in them are involved in their creation and management. Building a place using the “participatory approach – by all, for all and with all” creates a better future according to Dr Deb Upadhyaya of the Home & Communities Agency. For them, a “shared vision” is not just nice to have, or a buzzword, but an absolute necessity in order to “ensure successful representation of ideals and aspirations that leads to better ownership of outcomes for a long term”.

It’s not just a case of being attentive at the start, asking a few questions and informing a vision that is soon veered away from. Instead, it’s necessary to work through the initial plans through to building management and maintenance. Early discussions and consistent interaction will help maintain momentum and enhance longevity. National Charity The Glasshouse work to support local people and organisations to engage in the design of their built environment. Louise Dredge, Head of Creative Development, states that it is important that this is “not only to improve the quality of those spaces but help build community connections and relationships and empower people with enhanced skills, confidence and agency”. Again, it’s about the people who make a place, not just the physicality of it.

To quote Landry once again, the “operating dynamics of the 21st-century bureaucracy that is responsive to its citizens and users and that provides fulfilling lives for those that work in them will be different in significant ways from what we are used to”. Things are changing. Times are different. And it will be difficult to shift such embedded practices and entrenched institutional approaches. But it can happen.

London should be a place for Londoners. Wise Londoners who know the kind of city that they want to live in now, and in the future.

It all starts with listening.

About Francesca Baker

A writer, reader and explorer with a passion for creativity, communication and connection.

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