Crowd-sourced urbanism sounds like it might bring out the worst in people: either pie-in-the-sky dreams of boroughs connected by monorail, or parochial desires for more trash pickup on Court Street. But the Institute for Urban Design's By the City/For the City, which asked New Yorkers to share and map ideas for fixing their city, has produced a fair number of concrete, pragmatic suggestions. Reading them, as I did, via the Institute's Twitter feed (#bythecity), I felt proud of the scale of my fellow citizens' thoughts. The project cleverly employs what I would describe as a Twitter-like interface which, for those who tweet, makes contributing almost impossible to resist.
"Wouldn't it be great if..." it says. And the results will form "an atlas of possibility," a nice phrase, both practical and utopian.
My contribution was a plea to fix the access to Brooklyn Bridge Park at the end of Atlantic Avenue, wrapping the BQE overpass in neon or greenery, and purging the pigeons. The ravages of Moses-era freeway building was the locus of many suggestions, imaginative ways to knit the city back together. But people also wrote in about transportation, vacant lots, and an abandoned LIRR line to Rockaway Beach that could be another High Line (who knew?). Submissions officially ended May 8, but you can still write in. The Institute is posting the results, in themed groups, on their Tumblr.
This week the Institute has put out a call for designers to visualize these ideas, with entries due July 14. The jury includes MoMA's Barry Bergdoll, Thom Mayne and Denise Scott Brown. Because once you have asked for suggestions, you had better do something with them. I hope there will be displays of the results at specific sites during Urban Design Week (September 15 to 20), so that the residents of neighborhoods that prove to be interventionist hot spots get a chance to react and expand on the proposals.
OK, so maybe it is a little pie in the sky after all. But what artist wouldn't want an Atlantic Avenue showcase? One of the aspects of the current state of Detroit that most intrigues me is the sense that the city is so down, almost anything could happen. (This was well captured in Mark Bittman's recent column on urban farming and fresh food in that city. The situation in some areas sounds like the homestead laws of old: if you work the vacant lot, you can have it.) Residents don't need an atlas of possibilities, because possibilities is all many have got. New York is nowhere near that state, but it shouldn't have to be for ideas to bubble up from the block. A little optimism never hurt a city.