“The Street Hacker, Officially Embraced
EMILY BADGER MAY 07, 2012.
Inside the civic digital space, anyone can download a public dataset, build an app, share it with others. There are no permit fees, no regulations to research, no paperwork to file. You don’t have to trudge to City Hall. Everything is (or at least, it should be) open.
In this way, the digital world is vastly different from the physical one. Want to make use of a transit dataset at a hackathon? Have at it. But want to hack the physical space at the actual train station, maybe plant a few flowers, throw up a bike rack? Well, good luck with that.
The explosive growth of the open-data movement has taught a generation of city-dwellers that they have a right to peek behind the curtain of local government, to identify civic problems and help solve them, too. In the digital world, that means the relationship between city governments and residents has been shifting for a few years now. But what happens when these newly engaged citizens want to have an equally hands-on role with the physical space in our cities, with our streets and sidewalks and public parks? Could cities make it just as easy to hack the physical world as the digital one?
Maybe this sounds a little abstract. But there are many examples – not all of them legal – of creative citizens already tinkering with public space. The most well-known is probably Park(ing) Day. The project started in 2005 when Rebar, a San Francisco-based art and design studio, converted a single metered parking spot in the city into an impromptu public park. Since then, the idea has evolved into an international movement, with citizens reclaiming parking spots in more than 150 cities on six continents for Parking(ing) Day last September. Rebar now calls this “an open-source global event,” borrowing from the language of hackathons.
“A lot of us have one foot in each of these communities,” says Jake Levitas, the research director for the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts in San Francisco. The foundation works primarily to promote creative technology and digital culture, but Levitas often talks with friends at Rebar who might better be described as hackers of the built environment. “I realized how much we were speaking the same language,” Levitas says. “The whole DIY urbanism community, if you change two words out of everything that they say, it’s the exact same as the urban hacker, the civic hacker, the technology community. It’s very much DIY, very much taking the city into your own hands, with new forms of civic participation.”
The open-data movement, from which many of these ideas are migrating, is really only a few years old. But the fact that it has taken root so quickly – with city governments all over the country now welcoming civic hackers and turning problems over to them – suggests we might see the same kind of spreading popularity and official embrace of DIY urbanism.
“Last year, hackathons weren’t on the political agenda, and now we’re hearing from the mayor’s office like, ‘a cat got stuck in a tree, can we have a hackathon to get it down?’” Levitas laughs. “We’re excited to do the same thing for this area, blending the physical and digital as forms of civic participation.”
The challenge, though, is that this is all much harder to do in the real world. Even converting a street into a block party, a fairly old idea, requires in most cities months of of planning and plenty of paperwork. And city code at least understands a “block party.” Most cities have no idea what to do with parklets, pop-up playgrounds, or quirky street furniture.”
Via: The Atlantic Cities
Photo: Rebar Group