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Web-Based Crowdsourcing: Power to the People or the Planners?

Web-Based Crowdsourcing: Power to the People or the Planners?

With the growing popularity of crowdsourced funding platforms like Kickstarter or IndieGoGo, many urban planning professionals have begun to explore the potential of a good web-based brainstorm. In 2011, the development firm Renaissance Downtowns partnered with the city of Bristol, Connecticut to solicit feedback on the piazza feature of its mall redevelopment plan. After receiving

For some urban planning firms and government cities, offering web-based forums for citizen-sourced design decisions is the next frontier in urbanism.With the growing popularity of crowdsourced funding platforms like Kickstarter or IndieGoGo, many urban planning professionals have begun to explore the potential of a good web-based brainstorm.


In 2011, the development firm Renaissance Downtowns partnered with the city of Bristol, Connecticut to solicit feedback on the piazza feature of its mall redevelopment plan. After receiving positive reception on the web-based crowdsourcing platform Bristol Rising, the piazza catapulted to the center of Bristol’s entire downtown development plan.

Meanwhile, Washington D.C. real estate developer WestMill Capital has experimented with multiple web-based crowdsourcing approaches. The group is currently using the website Popularise in order to identify new occupants for a convenience store location slated for redevelopment.

Even conference powerhouse TED has jumped into the web-based crowdsourcing ring, by awarding its TED Prize to The City 2.0. The project allows a diverse set of stakeholders – including mayors, citizens, architects, engineers, and urban planners – to contribute specific ideas to their own zip code. Contributors can search by city to see which people, projects, and resources have already been added.

In spite of these recent developments, some find the crowdsourcing approach problematic, arguing that the effectiveness of web-based crowdsourcing is strongly linked to scope. Many of these urban design projects favor objects and small-scale solutions – a program for collapsible bikes, for example, or a mobile app that highlights nearby parking options.

Navigating large-scale urban planning projects with web-based crowdsourcing gets a little trickier. One telling example is the redevelopment proposal for the LowLine, an abandoned trolley terminal in Manhattan. An online funding platform garnered attention, conversation, and some money for the project – but only enough for a set of skylights that will allow citizens to look down at the tunnel. Despite the excitement, a great deal of planning and bureaucracy stands in the way of realizing the full potential of the project.

What do you think – do citizens know their neighborhoods better than any planning firm? And does that mean they should be given the responsibility to shape its future?

Credits: Images and data linked to sources.

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Lillian Mathews graduated from Brown University with a B.A. in Environmental Studies (Honors) and a focus on Food Systems and Urban Sustainability. She has designed and implemented an arts-based gardening site at a neighborhood center in Providence, ...

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