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Open Source Urbanism: A 5,000-year-old innovation


Coming from a computer science background, and having since jumped into urban planning, for me it was unavoidable to mull over “Open Source Urbanism” sooner or later. As many others, I’m a firm believer in the practical benefits and ethical advantages of the Open Source model. The idea of horizontal collaboration, quick and fluid coordination, and preserving the rights for anyone to access, modify and redistribute the results was appealing to me beyond software production. What if we could produce our cities, our own neighborhoods, in a similar manner?

Of course, this wasn’t a novel idea, at all. When I searched “Open Source Urbanism” online in 2012, I found a few academic papers and journal articles advocating for it. Even so, and surprisingly enough, there wasn’t much discussion around the concept, nowhere near the volume reserved for veritable buzz words like “smart cities” or “open government.” To get an idea of the current state of affairs, I performed the same search today. It returned 5,000 results, a dismal number compared with the 12 million for “open government,” or almost 15 million for “smart city.” How did such an intriguing idea like Open Source Urbanism simply fail to take off?

Among those championing the integration of an Open Source outlook into urban planning, perhaps the most powerful voice is that of brilliant urbanist Saskia Sassen. For her, Open Source Urbanism occurs when the city “talks back” and resists; when citizens gather to protest against sweeping redevelopments, or walk their dogs in large numbers every night transforming an ominous park into a safe place. She points out that the city is a perennially incomplete project. While powerful agents can, and often do, decide what to build next, spontaneous small scale interventions also shape the urban environment and can have a profound impact over time on the evolution of the city. I wholeheartedly agree when Sassen favorably compares the bottom-up, always incomplete Open Source city model with the Smart Cities credo:


“[… the Smart City] 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.”


The conclusion is that to ensure healthy, evolving, living cities we need governments to expose their inner workings, and “leak” their information to the citizenry so they can actively engage in the city-making process. In other words, the prescription is something that very closely resembles the Open Government ideal.

That resemblance of goals and means may partially explain why Open Source Urbanism never gained traction; its incipient discourse was simply absorbed by the Open Government program. But that’s not all there is. In my opinion there’s another reason why it didn’t became more popular: it was not a revealing insight after all. I only realized this once my initial infatuation with Open Source city making was tempered with some reflection. The thing is that cities have always been characterized, much more than any other human habitat, by co-production, fast information flow, and a continuous tension between top-down administration and bottom-up organization. The city has always talked back, and technology has always been a core component of urban life. The city is technology applied and embodied. It still exists because we are always remaking it with our latest tools.

Nowadays, we feel that technology is changing everything faster and deeper than ever before, and maybe we are right. But the problem itself is an old one: we need to make sure our technology works for us and not vice versa. The solution proposed by Open Source Urbanism also seems to be something that we already knew. I don’t mean that this makes it unimportant. Quite the contrary, it’s a pressing matter. It’s just that it doesn’t need to take a name that makes it sound like a recent occurrence.

In her essay “Open-Source Urbanism: Creating, Multiplying and Managing Urban Commons,” urbanist Karin Bradley lists the four main characteristics of places and practices developed under an urban Open Source model:


1. Made possible by contributions instead of the capitalist notion of equivalent exchange (i.e., not necessarily getting paid for the effort);

2. The formats, designs and instructions are publicly available and distributable;

3. The main motivation is not profit but desire to promote societal change and fulfill needs or desires;

4. The development is collaborative, perhaps guided by community leaders but always among peers that don’t follow a strict hierarchy.


What I argue is that all of these traits have always been associated with quintessentially urban phenomena. Cathedrals made to last eons are as good examples as fleeting block parties, not to mention truly revolutionary and disruptive social experiments like the Paris Commune. Our challenge is to keep on experimenting and inventing communal spaces that answer our current challenges by making use of novel tools, and some old ones too.

It’s clear that the present forces us to learn new tricks, continuously adapting to technology driven acceleration, but let’s not forget that city dwellers invented Open Source Urbanism some millennia ago. The good news is that we can still rely on it to improve our cities. The fact that this model ended up being adapted for software development (and not the other way around!) with far-reaching success is a testament to its power and flexibility.



Published On: July 26, 2016 |
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