19 January 2012

Open Source Urbanism – The Hacking City

There exist various different notions of Open Source Urbanism and in recent years various – sometimes crucially different - approaches to conceptualise phenomena in the contemporary metropolis have been developed under this terminology. Saskia Sassen’s talk on Talking back to your Intelligent City at the BMWLab last summer was recently put online and has been inspiring this post.

I first came across the term of Open Source Urbanism through following the work of Urban Catalyst, a Berlin-based research and consultant group. In their article in the architecture magazine Arch+ dating back to the year 2007 entitled ‘Open Source Urbanismus: vom Inselurbanism zur Urbanität der Zwischenräume’  they explored the principle of open-source analogous to the development of computer software. Targeting alterations in urban policy, Urban Catalyst’s planning concept proposes to encompass a multiplicity of actors with diverse backgrounds to participate in the planning process.  Open Source is therefore used as the metaphor for manifold ideas that should get involved in working towards a more socially sustainable approach in urban governance and planning. Also the concept of considering the urban landscape as a “palmipsest”, where new layers do not obscure all traces of their predecessors would maintain a particular sense of place, that is often lacking in contemporary planning. According to Urban Catalyst it is very important to allow for modifications and ameliorations during this process. This may also result in altering the initial planning goal. The issue of participation and taping the resources inherent to the urban human fabric by far is not a new concept, although urban policy makers have been advertising this approach extensively the last decade. Urban Catalyst further suggest to hack the city through modes of meanwhile uses and use the existing infrastructures as sources for urban change. In fact, I would argue that this definition of Open Source Urbanism dates back to the Situationist city of Unitary Urbanism, where urban dynamics would no longer be driven by bureaucracy and capitalism but by participation. Adaptability and the flux, favouring process over goal, as well as participation are ideals that are vital for this way of urbanism. Nevertheless the concept is not new, these topics are still highly topical in contemporary urban discourses.

'Fassadenrepublik' by raumlabor berlin as part of the project Zwischenpalastnutzung by Urban Catalyst (image source)
The connection of Open Source Urbanism and the Situationsts have also been explored by more technologically driven approaches, that I will not go deeper into herein. What will probably be the most influential debate on this terminology would be Saskia Sassen’s. She understands Open Source Urbanism as a type in which the city ‘talks back’. The city can also be understood as an assemblage of myriad interventions and little changes from the ground up (urban protests like the Stuttgart). The power lies not so much in each single one of those interventions, but more in the assemblage of those. Together they add meaning to the incompleteness of the city and the city talks back in a dynamic manner. And this very incompleteness, according to Sassen, is the power of the city, something which cannot be achieved by planning the technological intelligent city like Songdo or Masdar. With her understanding of Urban Source Urbanism Sassen combines the understanding of Urban Catalysts approach that what should be strengthened is that the city is constituted by the existing materials and the existing human fabric with the technological approach towards urban Source. She understands the city not only as consisting of hardware – like the Intelligent City – but also as the software of people’s practices. Intelligent cities are closed systems who will become obsolete sooner. 
Sassen draws on the example of New York’s Riverside Park, which developed from a no-go area to being a park for all those who wanted to use it, partly because dog-owners started to walk their dogs in large numbers. Dog keeping was a reaction of feeling insecure in the neighbourhood. And the city talked back: get a dog, of course you need to walk your dog, many others do, and therefore your recover the territory of the park. Similarly the increasing amount of farmers’ markets is also an example where the city talks back. It has not been a top-down decision. It’s a result of various conditions, but primarily the desire of city resident to have access to fresh produce. What becomes apparent here is that a thousand individual decisions enabled the possibility for creating a viable farmers’ market.

Riverside Park dog run (source)
Sassen sees in Open Source ‘a DNA that resonates strongly with how people make the city theirs or urbanize what might be an individual initiative (…) Recovering the incompleteness of cities means recovering a space where the work of open sourcing the urban can thrive’.


Emile Hooge said...

Nice post! Saskia Sassen's recent talks about smart cities and open source urbanism are a great inspiration to me, as they are to you apparently...

According to me, there is a really important point raised by the open source urbanism approach: it is a collective approach to managing the commons, not a hierarchical or a market-based approach (very individualistic). That is why, I believe, Saskia Sassen talks about the "City as a Hacker", not about "hacking the city"... It is the city as a whole, as a human collective, that is talking back!

Looking forward to reading more from you.