Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

January 16, 2012

Open-Source City

In Urban Interventions, the Metaphor Matters


Mark Shepard, Matthew Fuller, Open-source, Quilian Riano, Saskia Sassen, Usman Haque

The living city. It’s a phrase or a variation on a phrase you’ve probably heard dozens of times to describe the urban realm. Perhaps we use the living descriptor because we like to anthropomorphize evolutionary processes; take Jane Jacobs’s iconic title The Death and Life of Great American Cities as an example. Or maybe it’s because cities are seething with people—the churn of humanity on the streets. Here, we can look to The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, William H. Whyte’s seminal sociological study of public space for a titular equivalent. For sure, the life metaphor has sparked imaginative discourse: cities walk (Archigram) and go a bit mad (Koolhaas), but as digital devices and technological infrastructures increasingly mediate the way we live in cities, the language by which we describe urbanism shifts accordingly. The city is less akin to organisms and more to software, thus subject to coding, versioning, and hacking, like any computer program.

Looking at the city with this technologically charged metaphor, in June 2011, sociologist Saskia Sassen in an op-ed in Domus Magazine suggested that “open-source urbanism” is a means for the city and its citizens to interface, writing, “We can think of the multiple ways in which the city talks back as a type of open-source urbanism: the city as partly made through a myriad of interventions and little changes from the ground up.” While use of “talk back” reveals how difficult it is to shake the anthropomorphic model, her embrace of the small interventions in urban life, the hacks and grassroots tweaks, opens up the possibility for citizen involvements. Thus the interfacing between the citizen and the city isn’t simply a conversation, a reporting of conditions, or a “smart” collection of data, but an actionable process.

In 2008, Matthew Fuller and Usman Haque created the Urban Versioning System 1.0. (The downloadable document is the second in a series of Situated Technologies Pamphlets edited by Omar Khan, Trebor Scholz, Mark Shepard and published by the Architecture League.) Fuller and Haque’s text looks to the Free/Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS) movement as a model for urban development, crafting a kind of software license for the built environment around seven constraints. The authors deliberately choose the term “versioning” over “evolution” to represent urban change. They directly reference the collaborative software development practice “concurrent versioning system” (CVS), seeing it as a productive and participatory model for architecture and urban design. Or, as they write, “A CVS enables code to be archived and held in a structure of changing parts for the purposes of use and of further work. Pieces of code and accompanying comments are held in a ’tree’ of updated versions. As more coders work on a project these pieces of code may also go through a checking and commenting process. This allows a project to be both conservative of its quality, in a state of rapid development when necessary, and able to modularize to incorporate many participants, not unlike the way cities can grow and adapt.”

Echoing Fuller and Haque’s CVS, last fall saw the development of #whOWNSpace, a collaborative and discursive project that maps issues of ownership and public space. Founded by DSGN AGNC in collaboration with Not An Alternative and DoTank:Brooklyn, #whOWNSpace grew out of conversations about tactical urbanism and Occupy Wall Street. The group’s activities include graphically mapping privately held public spaces, research, and an intense social media presence. But their impact and interests lay offline. In November the collaborators held a class in conjunction with the Public School NYC, itself an open-source educational platform, that discussed the dynamics of three public spaces in New York City: the area near the Goldman Sachs headquarters, Bryant Park and the Bank of America’s privately owned public spaces, and the parks and open space on the Upper East Side. Of course, bridging the real and the virtual, the Twitter hashtag #whOWNSpace documented and recorded the sessions, so that participants not in New York City could not only follow, but also join in the dialogue in real time. The classes build awareness and are designed to inspire future actions.

#whOWNSpace inherently operates as if the city is open-source system. It is a place where small-scale activity—a recoding of conventions within the urban fabric—aggregates into larger impact. It may seem like a persnickety detail, but by changing the vocabulary we use to describe the city from the organic to the digital we change our own interface with it. We’re no longer positioned against a living organism, whose body evolves based on some higher, perhaps unknowable, order. Instead, we act, hack, and react to a mutable and collaborative system: the open-source city.