Today our cities became a sophisticated structure. There are too many things that have to be taken into consideration when we make a decision.  We understand it now after almost a century of misconception. The last century city planners forgot about people and gave preference to vehicles, buildings and megastructures. They thought they designed the city for a better future. They were so inspired and confident, that they neglected to estimate risks consequently the so-called ‘air-crash’ scenario is happening in present. Air and noise pollution, urban heat island effect, unequal and even dangerous environments, all these became part and parcel of our cities. In the 21 century we have to fix the mistakes of our predecessors. At the same time, these experiences teach us to consider all possibilities and pay attention not only to advantages but also drawbacks. The aim of every city planner is to bring changes in order to create responsive, effective and democratic milieu. So, the question is how we can take the city back for people? 

“It has been almost 50 years since American journalist and author Jane Jacobs published her seminal book The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961.1 She pointed out how the dramatic increase in car traffic and the urban planning ideology of modernism that separates the uses of the city and emphasizes free-standing individual buildings would put an end to urban space and city life and result in lifeless cities devoid of people.”

? Jan Gehl, Cities for People

Decisions from the last century

The decisions from the last century are results of lack of communication. Architects and city planners considered it as an ultimate truth. They were so confident of what they were doing that they never stopped and tried to understand what people really need. People’s opinion did not matter as architects always knew better. They were able to bring to life every crazy idea. A lot of municipalities of those times caved in to this pressure and gave their cities to the ‘masters’. 

For example, after World War 2, one of the most influential American public officials was Robert Moses. People called him ‘master builder’ despite he had never been trained as an urban planner or architect. His decisions favored highways over public transportation. Ideas of Robert Moses proposed to turn New York into a net of bridges, highways and tunnels. Sometimes, he was also given power over public housing and here inhabitants’ rights were touched a lot.  As he never communicated with the public and was not really interested in people’s opinions, he made mistakes that society could not ignore. Thanks to the Committee to save Washington square park Moses’ idea to demolish park and extend 5th avenue to provide access to the planned Lower Manhattan express highway was declined.  This denial of communication leads to series decisions that we had to fix in the first decade of the new century. 

Thanks to these kinds of stories, we now slowly realize how important public opinion is and how it positively impacts urban fabric. If we really want to bring changes, we have to be on the street. We have to listen to people who live on this street as Jane Jacobs did. No one knows better than inhabitants. Architects and city authorities in the 21 century have to forget about making decisions by themselves and actively involve society in the process. Moreover, cities always consist of many complex links and interactions. Architects alone are no longer able to pay attention to all sophisticated processes that appear in a city. A multi-disciplinary approach is required. Specialists such as psychologists, ecologists, economists, and very important – specialists from informative technology have to be a part of decision making. 

Cities back to the citizens

One of the possibilities that potentially can take cities back to its inhabitants are information technologies. Almost every person in developed countries cannot imagine his or her life without being connected. Our smartphones became an essential part of our life. We use it to get services and to be acknowledged for what is happening in the world, we manage our means and living places.  However, the first initial idea of communication is still the most important and valuable one. By using different apps as transportation services, events, maps, deliveries etc. we provide companies and businesses with tons of personal data. These chunks of data gives understanding about people’s behavior and preferences. Many successive companies build their business models around data gathering. This begs the question why city authorities are seemingly avoiding this direction in building a favorable city environment? 

In fact, we are missing a major key element in studying data, and that is human sentiment. Big data is just a number and it does not necessarily represent opinions and feelings. Even a best studied report could be misunderstood. How can we extract feelings from data? How can we estimate the importance of an event or changes that is captured by sensors without the human sentiment? 

We already live in an era where the majority of people live online, sharing their thoughts and opinions twenty-four hours seven days a week. Thanks for social networks we can understand not only movements, purchase preferences and behavior but also real time human attitudes toward events. This can help us to produce actions and immediately reflect on continuously changing moods. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc. go far beyond limitations of just connecting people. Now they are inexhaustible sources of human sentiments. Many activities, actions and even protests started to attract public attention firstly online only after that in the physical world. 

For instance, let’s have a look at London 2011. Massive mob violence started after police shot Mark Duggun. Protestants started to communicate and arrange attacks on the city by using twitter and blackberry messenger. City authorities and police were not prepared and it allowed riots to continue for the next 5 days. This example illustrates how the crowd is good in organizing and how authorities are far from technologies. If the government were able to monitor social media and reflect on them many illegal actions were predicted and prevented. 

Another positive example of implementing social networks for city benefit is openness and frankness of authorities. Cory Booker ex-mayor of Newark was one of the first who used Twitter to communicate and listen to people. He reported to many people ‘s requests online and represented a good attitude from the public. His efforts helped to create a responsible community and made people involved in the process of improving the urban environment. 

Today we also know about different platforms that aimed to collect public reports and their feelings about city conditions. Some cities give inhabitants the possibility to decide where their tax should go. These platforms are a huge step towards giving people more power and making them feel that the city finally belongs to them. 

Internet of people

Under all these circumstances, we can see that communication between people, business and governments is essential and impacts city and society a lot. By only scanning Twitter and Facebook, even one’s mobile data, we are able to understand what people really need and what they are concerned about. By quickly reflecting, we can predict future events and take necessary measures. However, we should not forget to learn from mistakes that previous generations made. As we talked before, all scenarios, even radical ones, have to be considered. Drawbacks of every approach have to be studied.

The biggest issue of using social networks and report platforms is privacy. We all want our private information to be safe. However, when we publish something online, we already become vulnerable. Thousands of people, not to say companies and governments are able to have our identity. This can become a serious obstacle to achieving effectiveness and equality in some places. Many people could refuse to express their opinion openly in order to save privacy. Personal info also could be taken by some dishonest official. So, trust in the government plays a key role in successive system work. Implementation of people reports and sentiment systems is sometimes difficult and depends on social and political aspects. 

If we take those countries as Russia as an example, we will see that the ability to express an opinion operates on the border between desire to be heard and to be safe. As the statistics represent low trust to the authorities, people are not willing to use special platforms and openly discuss their opinions about decisions made for cities. At the same time, setting up special platforms that gather people reports can increase trust to the government and lead to conditions when society will not argue against implementation of a system that collects data about sentiments, opinions, moods from social networks. Otherwise, we will face massive public protests and opposition. To prove the point, we want to provide personal experience. There is a server that operates in Russia where you can pay taxes, get necessary documents, process some deals and even vote. However, in future elections for amendment in the constitution, others would rather choose to go and vote physically than do so online, as they do not want anybody to know their personal decisions. 

Idea of using communications and ubiquitous involvement of the public to decision making seems vital and necessary for us – urban planners. We have to understand that one person cannot decide for the whole community, the voice of everyone is important. Moreover, we are not alone in our mission, people from diverse disciplines are ready to contribute and their experience is valuable. 

As far as we are concerned, there are many ways to make people feel that the city in the 21 century belongs to them. One of them is technology, especially the information technology sphere. Gather people together, share opinions and reports, reflect on sentiments and moods all these can improve our urban environment. At the same time a new generation of urban planners are extremely responsible for what they do. We have to learn from past mistakes and analyze every step carefully to predict different scenarios. This is our mission.


Cities back to the citizens is a project of IAAC, developed at Master in Advanced Architecture, in 2019 by:
Students: Linara Salikhova, Jianne Libunao, Rashid Gilfanov
Faculty: Mathilde Marengo