WikiCity – How Citizens Can Improve Their Cities & On Washington Square

Mexico City

Buckminster Fuller said: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

Following in that spirit is the WikiCity movement, which I just learned of, happening in cities across the world. At the end of this post, I address how this relates back to Washington Square Park and its redesign.

From the Sustainable Cities Collective:

When governments don’t build infrastructure, citizens usually complain, but can’t do much about it. They pressure public officials and protest against proposed projects, but that’s as far as citizen participation in city building usually goes. It’s reactive, not proactive.

However, this model of citizen participation is being rethought by citizens around the world. They are taking control over what happens in their cities. … Local groups all around the world are taking the initiative and are building the infrastructure that governments refuse or are slow to do. …

In Los Angeles, several different groups have tried to address the lack of seating in the streets. They designed the SignBench and the SignChair that can be attached to existing street furniture to provide a place to sit. Another group designed a whole set of wood benches and planters for a bus stop that lacked any kind of street furniture. …

However, what is most important about this actions is that they open a discussion that hadn’t existed previously about who owns the city and who can improve it. This actions empower citizens to think about their environment and act on it, and that is ultimately more meaningful than the mere creation of infrastructure.

And this can go beyond infrastructure, as this piece, “Welcome to the City of Voice” by Tekijä Roope Mokka illustrates:

UN estimates that by 2050 half of the world’s population will live in “self-built cities” – informal settlements, slums. I hope they’re wrong. I hope we all live in cities that we design and create ourselves. If slums can be built by people with access to almost no resources, imagine what we in the developed world could do.

There is tons of research into why some people feel happier than others. In the all the answers one thing keeps coming up: the ability to guide your own life. We are happy if we feel that we have power over our lives, if we have a voice. Our greatest urban problem is not spiraling property prices, nor the ageing population nor safety. It is not zero tolerance, queues for clubs and bars, it’s not chain restaurants nor is it ugly buildings or clone towns. These are merely symptoms.

The core issue is that cities no longer enable us to live out our dreams. We have changed, but the cities haven’t. They remain the final bastions of modernistic design where users are seen as the masses and individuals are an obstacle. Even suburbia (on the surface a tasteless, mundane, hypermarket-bound high-carbon lifestyle) offers more potential for self-expression. That is why we fleeing cities.

To lure us back we need cities that give us a voice. We need to take democracy to the next level, where it recognises our individual needs and dreams.

How this relates to Washington Square Park:

The problem with Washington Square Park’s redesign is that it’s an example of a city that had a concept that totally negated the value of park users’ and community input. There was a Parks Commissioner, as directed by the city’s Mayor, who pretended that having “listening sessions” was the same thing AS listening.

The problem with Washington Square Park Redesign Phase II isn’t that it doesn’t look nice. As commenter Angela wrote: “the park looks pretty and all but rather generic and bland.”

The problem is that everything about the previous design that the community very much liked was obliterated. It was the ultimate in a slap in the face, a statement: ‘we don’t care what you think,’ we want this park to represent the Bloomberg model, to be homogenized, and to reflect the city WE envision, not the one you want, not the one you loved.’ By their actions, city officials were blatantly saying, ‘this isn’t the ’60s or even the ’70s and we WILL prevail.’ Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. The park will always be special. It’s just a bit tainted now. Unfortunately, there’s no way to get around that fact.

I think that there will be a way, one day in the future, for people to reclaim what was lost at Washington Square or create something new within the design, as people are doing in WikiCity movements, which will provide the lost “voice” in the process. That there will be a way to somehow right what was done and build a new model of governance for the future; a future where the Bloomberg model, in which real estate, Wall Street and corporate interests reign, will be looked upon with disdain, and people will say “This is ours. Don’t mess with this.”

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