Participatory citizens have been around for millennia and have shaped governments and cities, their role is especially relevant when we think about how organically cities grow. Cities that have evolved through millennia have done so out of the efforts of millions of inconspicuous and powerless citizens, mostly with a little grain of salt from each. Sometimes obvious and powerful actors change things drastically in cities, such as Robert Moses in New York, Baron Haussmann in Paris or Ildefons Cerdá in Barcelona. However, if looking at the city in a long-run perspective, most city transformations are incremental and led by millions of individual worker bees all working on the same beehive.
Democracy is structured around the idea that the worker bees select their representatives and they then enable collective decisions. What has changed in the last few years? Technology. We now have the technology to keep everyone connected and engaged in real-time to the decision-making.
Much has been said about the power of crowdsourcing in planning cities, there are recent examples such as the Chilean City of Concepción, that have taken this concept to practice in an unprecedented way. The city´s unexpected destruction meant that the planning was to be done expediently and the public was engaged in almost every aspect of it. So far, it has been one of the most successful crowdsourcing examples in planning.
However, I would like to take crowdsourcing a level further. What if we used this technology and system of collective collaboration not only to constructing ideas about cities but to building cities? Would this be possible? What if governments in the developing world accepted they don´t have enough resources to build and maintain the entire city, and at the rate they are growing they won´t in the future either. What if governments invited citizens to help them build the city, help them maintain public goods and with tiny efforts from the worker bees, the beehive would be improved and pristine constantly.
There is a recent example that could be taken further. Mexico, like many developing countries has copied the U.S. planning model since around the 1960´s, which has resulted as you all know, in horrible car-oriented infrastructure. Even though the Mexico City government has made many efforts to re-introduce pedestrians and cyclists to the streets, such as the public bike system, creating pedestrian streets and focusing on other sustainable transportation options; citizens continue to struggle with the infrastructure. Since the government has few resources to re-purpose the entire car-oriented infrastructure created, some citizens have taken it upon themselves. Colectivo Haz Ciudad created the #wikibanqutea (wiki sidewalk) a sidewalk created by group of concerned citizens.
Could this type of simple infrastructure be built by citizens? I believe so. Why not ask neighbors on certain streets to take off one Sunday morning to paint a bike path on their street? With the pantone and dimensions of bike path and buffer areas given to everyone, the task would be quite simple. Instructions: Paint the 1.5 meter strip of street that is in front of your house next Sunday in green (pantone 7479 C) and buffer lines in white (pantone 11-0601 TPX). Technical volunteers will be there to guide you through it and create markings for left turns and specific signals. Government would only touch up and create the pedestrian islands in concrete.
Hundreds of new bike lanes within hours. This could apply for street trees, sidewalks, bike parking and much more.