For Involved Urbanism

I’ve responded to a recent post entitled “Against Kickstarter Urbanism” by Alexandra Lange over at Design Observer and the response is included in full below. Before getting into that, however, I wanted to propose that “kickstarter urbanism” is not a thing, really. What Lange writes about is not a site enabling or creating a movement so much as it is evidence of a collective frustration on behalf of people who want to affect the world around them but no longer know how to. How do I add a bench in that place down the block that would be perfect for one? How do I nominate my region for a wind farm? How do I get a co-working space in my neighborhood? People increasingly desire to be involved in shaping the world around them, but the pathways to do so are obscure. The flares of urban/community activity on Kickstarter, the prevalence of popup projects around the world, and the general interest in crowd-funding & sourcing are all evidence of this. People want to be involved: but how?

Nice to see Brickstarter mentioned here as we’ve started the project to address some of the concerns that you bring up, Alexandra. Brickstarter is attempting to work through a set of inter-related issues: dark matter, collaboration, and shared value decision-making.

Dark Matter

There is often no obvious path for individuals or small groups to propose ideas about the world around them, particularly in the advanced economies of the developed world that have well defined regulatory and legal frameworks that are more or less adhered to. When someone does finally decide to muster up the gumption to propose a new park bench (for example) it tends to be unclear who they need to propose it to, who will fund it, who will OK it, and how these may be appealed or contested. That’s enough to quell the entrepreneurial spirit right there! Wouter Vanstiphout, from Crimson architectural historians in Rotterdam, calls this stuff the “dark matter” and it’s incredibly opaque to most of us.

One of the reasons it’s dark is because the kinds of things that people are interested in doing today are not necessarily the same things that our governance structures we established to support. This leaves many of the twists and turns that a project like the High Line must navigate to be discovered and muddled through. Much of the knowledge is tacit. From the outside it can be hard to distinguish why one project works and the next fails. And this is frustrating, not just for individuals for but us as a society. The reason we build cities (and societies!) is to do things together, so when the structures we established to keep it all humming along are not able keep up, it’s time to shine a flashlight into the dark matter.

Mind you, this sort of approach does not lend itself to quick results. In contrast to pop-ups, interventions, and other small-scale efforts, Brickstarter is interested in creating a safe place for the dark matter questions of permits, regulations, liability, financing, maintenance, and more to be sorted through together. Pop-ups are nice… until they pop-down. Personally, I think we owe it to ourselves to be more systematic than that.


During our ongoing research for Brickstarter, one of the things we’ve heard again and again from groups who successfully pull off projects (community or otherwise) is that they had to make it up as they went along. And part of this is making up, adjusting and recalibrating, the project team itself. We’re starting to learn some of the more general qualities of successful projects and will use these on Brickstarter to encourage participants who use the platform to embed that intelligence into their own work.

One important aspect of this is pitching. There are some comments above which are a touch derisive of the “glossy” video pitches on Kickstarter. I’d like to ask what’s wrong with being convincing? Bear in mind that convincing does not necessarily mean misleading or frivolous. Those are valid concerns, but separate from the effectiveness of a pitch.

The Gulick park example is a good one: how do I, as a private citizen, become convinced that the project team have the passion necessary to stick with the project through to the end? How do I even know who is behind it, since there are no names mentioned on the project page? How do I know that my money is being put to good use, since there’s no indication of the costs involved? Compared to the LowLine or +Pool, the Gulick park ping pong table proposal is miserable!

With Brickstarter we recognize that not everyone will have the same ability to put together a nice video (or have a friend do it), but we also strongly believe in the necessity of face to face meetings when dealing with community issues. When your platform is being used to create things in the built environment, there’s always a community who can come together. And so we don’t see a necessary divide between online and offline. Rather, the question is how an online platform may facilitate offline meetings and how representation of those offline meetings can easily find their way back into the online platform. This too is something that very good organizers do naturally (c.f. Obama campaign).

Shared value decision-making

Perhaps the hardest part of all of this is making it easier to debate ideas from a shared-value perspective: keeping in mind financial, ecological, and social capital as the source of both costs and income. At Sitra, our specific interests here are to encourage longer-term thinking which we think tends to enable decisions to more easily open up to ecological and social questions. Or put another way, we want Brickstarter to encourage people to see projects as investments in the future of the community, rather than short term costs. Our hypothesis is that the arduous and lengthy development process of, say, a wind farm is one that can maintain community interest/support if there is a strong project narrative. Again, this is something that the best organizers (and business people [and politicians]) are good at. With Brickstarter we’re looking at ways in which the platform encourages the ongoing construction of a project narrative.

These decisions happen within the project itself (should the park bench be on Main st. or Park st.?) but also external to the project when it comes to funding and permitting. We’re interested in these moments because they are where the project comes to life.

Having a good idea is important, of course, and there are sites like Neighborland which are doing good stuff to collect the desires of a community. With Brickstarter we’re primarily interested in what’s next. After you have a good idea, what’s the infrastructure that helps you bring it into the world?

Read the rest of the comments here.

Why do I blog this?

It’s great to see Brickstarter popping up on various sites now, and we’ll do our best to respond to those articles. But when we do that, the comments stay there and might get lost unless we replicate here. So we will! With that procedural bit out of the way, the real reason I blog this is because it prompted me to dig into why Kickstarter, et al are getting more and more play for urban projects, and why they’re still not quite right. In that sense, I think we really can read the use of these sites as an expression of a desire to have new ways to engage in a constructive dialog about the world around them—a desire for platforms like Brickstarter. The moral question of promotion that came up in this thread is an important one. We will come back to that in a subsequent post, though I did dip into it on the Helsinki Design Lab blog while discussing Germany’s move towards renewable energy and the role that a coherent narrative played in making that possible.

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3 comments on ‘For Involved Urbanism’

  1. rena says:

    I see a potential for apps like Pinwheel and Neighborland working together to help give people a space to ask these questions. “What’s up with this abandoned building? It would be great to have a cafe there.” or “80 bikes an hour whiz by this corner. Let’s set up an air pump there and chain it to a tree.” These little projects make people feel good about getting involved – small steps. However, what happens when neighbors disagree? http://www.missionmission.org/2012/01/13/fun-hating-grinch-cuts-down-valencia-swing/ Again, this isn’t as arduous as establishing a wind farm, but you can find similar problems even on a micro level that nobody has a good way to resolve. I think people can get disheartened by that and then feel even more powerless to act on the big picture.

  2. Bryan says:

    Rena, my favorite part of your example is this line, the officer “admitted he was unclear about tree swing laws in San Francisco”. Umm, yeah, don’t expect there to be many people who know the Tree Swing laws inside and out!

    One of the challenges today is that the kinds of things people are interested in doing, do not always map onto the laws and regulations that structure our civic life. The food truck craze has some similar issues. Unless a city has specifically written regs to address mobile food vending, when food trucks show up in a city it’s not clear who has the oversight. Who says whether they can stay or go, where they can stay, and what sort of permits or license they require? Is a food truck a vehicle or a restaurant or both?

    It’s a classic innovation dilemma: do you ask for permission or ask for forgiveness?

    The people who created the swing opted to ask for forgiveness. And in the meantime a grinch disagreed with them and cut it down. But because the swing was an intervention and not as a properly vetted thing that was worked through official channels, the city lacks the capacity to respond to the incident in a satisfying way i.e. quickly and with a pro-swing decision.

    In a parallel universe we can imagine the grinch still cuts the swing down, but the city police officer responds differently. Some sense of justice in the situation would help the community, but it would not restore the swing. For that we need the swing to be replaced by insurance, the city (using a fine levied against the perp?), or a new round of community funds.

    These positive outcomes all require different levels of engagement from the city. *If* a swing were covered by insurance, it’s likely to be on a city policy… or perhaps a Business Improvement District. A tall if, of course, since a tree swing is likely to be under the deductible, but let’s continue to use the tree swing as a stand in for something more significant. Cities these days tend to be strapped for cash, but we could imagine a way in which they at least have the responsibility to replace an element of street furniture that has been vandalized or stolen. Again, this works better if the city also has a potential income stream attached to successful prosecution of crimes against said street furniture. Finally, the viability of a second round of crowd funding to replace something which has already been vandalized is a dim prospect, and it would strongly benefit from official support from the city.

    Democracy is a messy experience. Depending on your ideological leanings, humans create institutions to support and encourage the version of society that they aspire to, or to enforce the lowest common denominator of the society that they find acceptable.

    Popups, interventions, and temporary actions can bring charm and even needed functionality to the neighborhood but the everyday heroism of these efforts often blinds us to the fact that they tend not to do anything in the way of rewriting our institutions. Until that happens, we’ll have to muddle through the celebrations of new tree swings and the swing-cutting grinch episodes alike with as much grace as we can muster.

  3. [...] and Alexandra’s comments on that piece, and Bryan’s reply on the Brickstarter blog, “For Involved Urbanism”. This entry was written by rholmes, posted on August 3, 2012 at 6:00 pm, filed under asides, [...]

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