Software Lets Citizens Help Design Cities they Live In

The Radical Democratization of Urban Planning

Just as every person should have a say in how their government works, so should every resident have a voice in creating his community’s built environment. Buildings, roads, parks, art installations, etc, comprise the concrete fabric of daily life in a given community — and yet, thus far, there have been few elegant ways for the average citizen to register his vote on what all of it should look like.

In smaller towns, citizens can attend town hall meetings, and vote directly on major changes to the community. In larger cities, there are avenues by which it’s possible to attempt the same, but the process can be complex and off-putting to the layman. And the sheer number of new projects that arise in cities like New York can overwhelm residents, and leave folks with the impression that they have no voice.

Enter Betaville, an open-source urban planning program that could change the entire process by which architectural projects move from design to reality — by offering local communities a better way to envision proposed changes, and an opportunity to give more of their input in a simpler manner than ever before. Betaville renders, in 3D, the entire community; in the prototype version of the software, this is lower Manhattan. Floating icons denote newly proposed projects, and users can click on them to see what it would look like if it were implemented. The rendering above is a radical plan to add pier-like parks to the southernmost tip of Manhattan.

Users are then free to comment, and the comments are saved and read by architects and city-planners, creating an unprecedented dialogue between designers, developers, and local communities. Urban Omnibus put together this video explaining the concept: (that’s Betaville developer Carl Skelton interviewed)

This is really pretty revolutionary stuff. Nobody likes attending stuffy city hall meetings — but just about everyone likes to peruse interactive 3D renderings of their own cities. Betaville could cultivate a much more vibrant conversation about urban planning — and therefore make the entire process more friendly, and more democratic than ever before.

This has important implications for a few reasons: First, it would surely bolster the contentment of folks living in dense urban areas, and perhaps give residents a venue to reject unwelcome corporate projects or sprawling condos.

Second, it may also eventually help people to envision the ambitious kind of smart growth necessary to build more sustainable cities. There’s no question that cities must become more efficient going forward: resources are growing scarcer, populations are booming, and majorities of those booming populations are moving to urban areas. But urban planners’ visions for smart growth aren’t always smiled upon, especially by Americans — it seems too gray, too reminiscent of a Soviet mindset. Betaville may help communities see firsthand that sustainable design doesn’t have to be grim — and allow residents themselves to suggest further ways to keep such cities livable.

As long as you believe that more democratic communities are better, more egalitarian ones, then any lever that delivers greater decision-making power into impacted citizen’s hands is welcome news. One that does so as gracefully and in such innovative fashion as Betaville could be powerful indeed.

About Brian Merchant

Brian Merchant is a founding editor of the Utopianist.. When he's not helming the Utopianist, he is TreeHugger's politics writer, contributes the Getting Samy Out of Burma column to, and freelances for the likes of Salon and Paste. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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