Tomorrow’s Cities are Shaped in the Web

Technological advancements are transforming urban planning from an artistic endeavor towards a scientific discipline. As the focus is shifting from what we design to how we design, we need a more experimental approach towards new technology.

Citizen participation has long been considered a torrent of complaints and an abhorrence to the bureaucratic machine; this is simply because a better alternative has not been available. The web and social media have made a direct medium like Restaurant Day possible. It shows not only in the digital form but also in how the physical cityspace is changed: at last there is real, concrete discussion on how to make the city a better place to live in.

Urban environments, whether in the sense of their physical attributes or the experience they aim to create, have traditionally been built based on the notions of experts. The inhabitants are left without a chance to take part in developing their surroundings already in the zoning stage, even when it is considered as one of the central processes that shape the structure and character of a city.

Zoning means – at least the simplified version of it – defining the purpose of use for an area, deciding how many buildings will be constructed there and determining their exact location. A zoning plan, or a master plan, is usually prepared by the municipality’s zoning architects or outside experts. In the hearing stage land owners, inhabitants and other stakeholders are allowed to comment on the plan. In the end, the finalized plan gets the approval of the city council or other such a deciding group.

I take part, therefore I oppose

The Land Use and Construction Act, that was last updated in Finnish legislation in 1999, aimed to increase the role of interaction in zoning. One of the central goals of the change was to expand the possibilities of the inhabitants to influence how their everyday environments are developed.

Now, over a decade later, many of the zoning architects admit that they loathe the public hearings. The hearings always generate complaints, which will lead to extra work for the planners, over and over again. Every little detail seems to lead to a disagreement – the most glaring of these issues leading to legal processes. Worst case scenario is that the zoning plans get finalized with cordial assistance from all levels of the Finnish court. It is easy to see public participation as nothing but resistance.

There is, however, a very simple explanation to this process of influence by resistance: there is little to no systems or channels for presenting shared public views or for people to submit their own initiatives. The model of participation is based on the traditional legal process: someone files an accusation or a claim and then the defendant is given the opportunity to defend himself or herself. Thus, a citizen’s only avenue of making a difference is to file a complaint.

A factor that further perpetuates this culture of resistance is the diversity and sheer number of different governmental agencies: there is one to oversee the infrastructure, another for industrial politics, a third for produce hygiene, and so on and so forth. Very few people can construct a proper and whole picture out of all of this and whenever complaints do arise, the easiest way to keep your own desk free of trouble is to come up with bans and restrictions of different sorts. Because of the arduousness of the complaints process, it is simpler for the authorities to just ban things instead of finding out the facts on the situation.

Zoning is just one of many urban landscape shaping processes where resistance is the one single official way of trying to make a difference. Even though cities are traditionally thought of as being the buildings that make up the landscape, more and more of a city’s character is nowadays manifested through other things than just its physical constructs. New phenomena of urban culture are as much a part of city design and development as building houses.

For example, there have been hardfought battles recently over what to do about urban festivals: a small number of people living in nearby areas have lodged complaints regarding noise and other disturbances. Another sad example of a well-meant project turning sour is when the city of Helsinki removed a strip of asphalt from around a sculpture meant for skateboarding, simply because of a few complaints about the noise made by the skateboarders.

Don’t you need a permit for this?

Restaurant Day is an exception to the rule of resistance. There is not a single regional, commercial or any other kind of official organization behind the phenomenon. It is culture created by city people for city people, bypassing the system entirely – a food carnival where anyone can host their own restaurant for a day.

It began as an effort of a handful of volunteers in Finland, later spreading to other countries. The idea of Restaurant Day began to move through social media in April-May 2011. “We started thinking about it since we were frustrated with the bureaucracy revolving around alcohol and food in Finland”, explains Antti Tuomola, one of the primus motors of Restaurant Day. “A co-worker of mine once said how great it would be to have a day without having adhere to all the ridiculous regulations.”

Word started spreading and within a few weeks almost 40 restaurants from Helsinki to Lapland had signed up for the first Restaurant Day ever. Now, less than two years down the line, the phenomenon has brought together hundreds of thousands of connoisseurs around the world. Held every three months, the event has seen over 3,000 restaurants from nearly 40 different countries.

Restaurant Day is a concrete example of city people’s frustration to how limited their chances for making a difference are. The event has brought forth a new kind of urban culture and form of communality that people are enthusiastic to get on board with. If opportunities are given, people seem to have genuine will to change things.

In Finland Restaurant Day has received praise from various directions, ranging from culture circles to the tech industry and even politicians and officials. The flipside is the criticism leveled towards the event. Time and time again restaurant owners seem unsure of the phenomenon as well as amazed by its persistence. Can you really do that? Don’t you really need a permit for something like this?

It is surprising how many initial reactions are linked to the issue of having a permit for this sort of action. Somewhere deep down there still reigns a way of thinking that says anything taking place within the city limits must be licensed and blessed by some official agency. This is not just a Finnish mindset but similar messages have been heard worldwide.

The permit dilemma puts the people in a weird position. It is as if they are being treated as lodgers in their own urban area. Why couldn’t the people who dwell the city and live in it together shape the place to their pleasing?

Going from ideas to phenomena

As the example of Restaurant Day clearly shows, digital channels are changing how the traditional designer-decider-participant process works and how power is shared within it. Taking part no more equals merely either invisibly going with the flow or loudly protesting. Passive participants have morphed into active initiative makers and opinionated users of power.

In the case of the skateboarding sculpture mentioned above, the asphalt that was stripped got re-paved when the masses voiced their opinion online and in social media. It became clear that far more people were for the idea of skateboarding in the area than there were people against it; this forced the officials to reconsider their actions.

Restaurant Day is a textbook example of the power shifts. Although it was initially about standing up against strict food regulations, it came about very differently compared to the traditional model of ‘an expert presents the topic – people voice their objections – the council comes up with a decision’. The idea born in the minds of a few common citizens went online and grew into a carnival that united and activated a whole nation even before the first event had taken place.

The media sped up the circulation of the message and the phenomenon began to feed itself. The amount and location of registered restaurants could be checked anytime in the web. The threshold to involve oneself in the event became lower as new impromptu restaurants started to appear on the map.

Digital communication has become a bottom-to-top way to enable and facilitate development and improvement of cities. When an idea has its own webpage and representation on social networking sites, it can easily grow into a phenomenon – without the use of maps, folders of shared photos and other such things, Restaurant Day would probably have remained a local and isolated event. Thanks to digital documentation, it became a concrete and permanent phenomenon: its development is tracked through the number of restaurants and cities it is held in, the number of website visitors and other such methods.

Going from phenomena to practices

According to a column piece by Teppo Moisio (Helsingin Sanomat 19.2.2012), the mayor of Helsinki Jussi Pajunen stated how “the city organization should learn from the Restaurant Day”. What he exactly meant by this is not made clear. It is clear, however, that there is no need anymore for the interaction between a city and its people to be based on the current model where the system first makes a proposition to have it later rejected by the people. Reaching shared opinions and creating own initiatives are both very much possibilities as long as we have the right policies in place.

So what should such policies be, then? This is fundamentally a question of how various actors see their own role and power in developing the city. Architects and designers have grown accustomed to being active and creative players here, whereas citizen participation has been viewed as the polar opposite, even a distraction of sorts. On the other hand, citizen initiatives have been seen as the opposite of official decision making: without formal permits, any new activity in cityscape seems to be a defiance of the existing system, whether it broke any rules and laws or not.

When developing new design- and decision making policies, interactive digital media finds itself in a key position. It filters the good ideas up form the white noise and refines them into turning point phenomena. It harnesses the power of the masses and changes the city both as a social and physical space. First and foremost, it turns the traditional power relations upside down and breaks up familiar processes: people become producers of information and city planners take on the role of interpreting and making use of this information.

City planning is no longer just placing a building here and another there – it is the understanding and controlling of the environment, digital systems and human interaction.


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With kind regards,

Signature of Jyrki Vanamo