Web 2.0 seems to have permeated – admittedly a little slowly – to neighbourhood management and urban development. Amsterdam housing associations recently launched the Buurtleven website (www.buurtleven.nl), a digital bulletin board where residents can post all their ideas, notices, activities and complaints. For some time municipalities, too, have been using Google Maps so that residents can lodge complaints about street furniture, full bins and abandoned shopping trolleys. The municipality of Smallingerland in Friesland is going a step further and has opened a Web site for the interactive planning of a neighbourhood near the village of Opeinde.
Entirely in line with the logic of Web 2.0, people can submit plans and discuss them with other people on the Wijbouweneenwijk site. It’s a well designed site with online films and polls for the ‘project of the month’. A collaboration between the municipality of Smallingerland and the Amsterdam media firm Crowds, the project was launched in October 2008 and runs until March this year. The municipality will then decide which plans and ideas should be included in the actual development of the neighbourhood. The lucky winners are guaranteed immortality, for not only will their proposals be implemented but they will also have a street named after them in the new neighbourhood. Who wouldn’t want that?
A brief glance at the Web site tells you that the results, after four months, are pretty meagre. Even the most popular proposals, a concept based on the board game The Settlers of Catan and another project resembling a home for hobbits, have provoked just a few responses. One wonders whether the municipality has overplayed its hand and will soon be stuck with a limited number of unfeasible ideas. With that, the usefulness of the Wijbouweneenwijk site would, at first glance, seem to be limited to a clever but cautious marketing strategy to put Opeinde on the map. But it is, of course, of value even as an experiment in itself.
The most important question that projects of this sort raise is what the role of the Internet could be when it comes to participation in urban development. The Wijbouweneenwijk site praises itself as an example of ‘the way in which plans will be made in the future’. We’ve heard it all before: Web 2.0 heralds a new era of community spirit and citizen participation where democracy is fun again. No half-empty halls with indifferent bureaucrats and a hard core of complaining neighbourhood residents. Now you can influence politics straight from the comfort of your armchair. Web 2.0 has not yet been able to fulfil these democratic ambitions, however. A growing group of critics has denounced the superficial character of participation on Web 2.0 sites, which in the end are always controlled by editors who edit and censure. With Wijbouweneenwijk, too, it’s the municipality that ultimately decides what to do with the ideas, and so it differs little from the standard open architecture competition.
Architect Dennis Kaspori wrote a relevant article about this issue in which he argues for an ‘architectural open source practice’. Open Source is the name given to a work method that forms the basis for the Linux operating system. Unlike Windows, for example, and most Web 2.0 sites, where content posted almost always becomes the property of the Web site (at Wijbouweneenwijk they remain property of the authors), no copyrights apply in the case of open source. Knowledge is shared as much as possible. This facilitates a group process in which people develop products in a productive network of producers and users. Kaspori proposes something along these lines for architectural practice and goes much further than Wijbouweneenwijk, where ideas always remain the property of their authors. By opening up the whole process and taking the architect down off his pedestal, Kaspori hopes to give architectural practice back the relevance it once had.
If we translate the online work methods to material reality, then political representation raises its head. One of the fundamental qualities of open source production is that it’s ‘non-rival’, so to speak. If you have a difference of opinion with someone in your software project, then you can easily switch to another project. The same applies to users: if you don’t like a program, you can switch to another. The digital world is capable of endless diversity and reproduction. In reality, however, scarcity always reigns; there is usually just one location, one building that has to be built, or one piece of land available. That immediately raises the question of political representation. If you disagree, then who makes the decisions and who determines the outcome of the vote?
The next step, sharing information, is perhaps even more fundamental. The idea of a collaborative practice is based on a complete reversal of the current organisational model in which knowledge is suddenly shared rather than anxiously concealed. Wijbouweneenwijk is a non-existing neighbourhood, and that means that political decision-making is relatively simple. But just imagine that you wanted to apply a participative working method to an existing neighbourhood or a huge controversial project, or a neighbourhood with residents whose homes are earmarked for demolition and where few alternatives are possible owing to a lack of funding, or projects like the Zuidas or Betuwelijn. If you really want to facilitate open source participation, and not the symbolic Web 2.0 stuff, then the requirements are drastic. It means, for example, that housing associations and the government have to be completely open about their funding, costs and possibilities so that both architects and residents can make realistic proposals. In light of the current situation in which planners often hide behind a smokescreen of incomprehensible jargon and in which projects are often pushed through in backrooms, that really would constitute a revolution.
Dennis Kaspori, A Communism of Ideas, Towards an open-source architectural practice, in: Archis, 2003, Vol. 3