Excerpt from City as Commons from Flint to Italy, August 2017
Data needs to be broken down into digestible bits of information, and the map is a crucial tool in doing that. The mapping interface allows people to make sense of complex information, to visualize vacant lots and fruit trees in the city. It creates a new reality in our minds. Open data alone is not enough to start a social process of slowly and iteratively re-appropriating public space. Data itself needs to be re-appropriated, remodeled, refined into digestible information and collaborative mapping is a powerful tool to do so.
But as Paula Segal found out in Brooklyn, real change happens when people start working together. The point on the map, the sign on the vacant lot is the starting point to collaboration, but it is really on land (i.e. in the physical space but not necessarily offline) co-production, the joy of doing things together that really brings lasting change in communities. It is about pressing apples into juice, planting trees, and so on. Only the sustained and lasting collective action has a chance of reshaping the status quo of local governance towards more collaborative governance of urban resources.
For city administrators, in our two cases, active participation of citizens was viewed favorably: “We find it a good thing that citizens start taking care of a piece of land,” says Johnke of Berlin-Pankow. “They switch from being like passive customers expecting something in return for the taxes they pay to a more active and civic attitude where they feel and act responsibly.” This, he continues, has a wider impact: “With increasing participation of the public, the role of city administrators in charge of public land is changing from being simple managers of streets and park to becoming more facilitators, coordinators.” But at the same time, administrations are careful about delegating their work to groups of citizens who may fail to sustain action over time. For this, community building and some clear structures and clear rules are essential, says Carlos Martinez, from Green Thumb in New York City.
This evolution of the role municipal administrations can play, from being top-down managers to becoming facilitators of citizens’ re-appropriation strongly echoes the philosophy followed by the City of New York. “We don’t intervene in any decision-making, [community gardeners] decides their own rules,” Martinez says. “What we ask them is to have by-laws or some guidelines — regulations on how they manage the garden to reduce the risk of conflicts. In that case we may facilitate the conflict resolution, but, generally, we try to stay away, giving them the tools to resolve the conflict themselves.”
Leaving citizens to design the rules to manage shared spaces supports a process of commoning public spaces. This is less about arguing whether green spaces or trees are public goods or commons. It is about municipalities acknowledging and actively enabling the self-organization of public space by citizens. This is what cities like Bologna in Italy are doing at scale to manage the city as a commons. In this process and as we have shown, digital networks offer new opportunities. “With a new generation of gardeners — millennials — there is more room for digital technology to be part of this [community gardening] movement,” Martinez says. The coming of age of the digital natives will transform these traditional grassroots practices. Commoning will have to be increasingly understood as a process that manifests across the digital and physical spaces.
In this story of the digital transformation of cities data in the form of maps, is just a powerful tool among many others that communities may use in a wider commoning process to co-produce shared spaces — a sharing city. This (messy) reality on the ground contrasts starkly with the narrative of a smart city smoothly planned and managed from the top by the technocratic alliance of the bureaucracy and market that would, thanks to big data — calculate the most efficient solutions, and shape optimal, but stupefying spaces. At odds and in the shadow of the mainstream, initiatives like Mundraub and 596 Acres show us that commoning urban data, making it actionable and accessible for normal citizens may trigger a creative practice of commoning public spaces and make cities more livable. Commoning the city in an age of digital transformation may provide people with opportunities for a convivial use of technology. Commoning, with the use of tools like collaborative mapping, enables urban dwellers to actually own and shape the places where they live. Thus, Sharing Cities could be a powerful antidote at a time when so many feel powerless and overwhelmed by a world that appears to be getting more complex and threatening every day.
Sharing Cities: Using Urban Data to Reclaim Public Space as a Commons