Sharing Cities: Using Urban Data to Reclaim Public Space as a Commons

You may have heard of smart cities that use data to improve urban networks like public transportation systems. In the shadow of this well-marketed story is another narrative around data in the city; a story where the right to the city extends to the digital realm. Here are two initiatives where reclaiming citizens' control over data has enabled practices that run counter to mainstream narratives of market-driven urban development — practices of commoning data and urban spaces, together.

Usually, talking about the role of digital technology in cities brings about the concept of "smart cities." With billions of corporate and public money invested into the concept, the narrative of tech and efficiency is quickly eluding other notions such as equity, participation, diversity, and nature. With its focus on all-efficiency, the smart city narrative is pushing a vision of the city where urban development is decided by planners and algorithms bound by financial capital that are gradually, as Richard Sennett put it, taking away from citizens the possibility to shape the space where they live.

Case study #1: Urban Foraging in Germany

In 2009, Kai Gidhorn was regularly picking apples while cruising on his bike through the backcountry of Berlin, Germany. Because he wanted to remember the good spots, he plotted them on a map. And because he also wanted to share that with friends, he made it a collaborative map online. Slowly, the map grew as people added more fruit trees in public spaces to it. One thing lead to another, and Mundraub ("theft of food") was born. Now the Berlin-based initiative has more than 40,000 registered users in Germany and Austria.

The practice in itself — foraging and gleaning — is not new. Still, it was forgotten, particularly in cities. Thanks to Mundraub's collaborative mapping (or so it seems), the practice is now re-emerging in Germany. People have become used to maps to relate to their environment and find their way. This is not limited to the German-speaking world. Falling Fruit, a similar platform in the U.S. has a global reach and has collected probably the largest data repository of fruit trees globally, tapping on the crowd as well as open data. To sum it up, the idea of urban foraging is to crowdsource a map of growing edibles, reconnect ourselves to our edible urban landscape, and, if possible, get free food. But this isn't just about taking.

Mundraub staff work with children and adults to share literacy about edibles and plant growth. They also offer tours to uncover new edibles, organize collective harvests, and make apple juice and cider, giving people a taste of DIY projects. In December of 2016, in Pankow, a borough of Berlin, urban foragers struck a deal with the local government to plant and take care of fruit trees in a public park.

Fruit trees are usually not favored by municipalities because they require intensive care. While the number is humble — twelve trees — this is quite a ground-breaking achievement when one considers the tradition of top-down management of German city administrations. Consider that in most German cities, in order to pick up fruits from public trees you are supposed to ask permission to the municipality. In Berlin-Pankow, not only have urban foragers received a bulk authorization to pick fruits from any public tree, but also the right to take care of the planted trees, which includes pruning.

"We are currently in an experimentation phase: If it's successful, if citizens take good care of the trees, then we are ready to open more land for such direct involvement of citizens," says Andreas Johnke, director of the municipal service in charge of streets and green spaces of the Berlin-Pankow borough. This is just a start, one borough, twelve trees planted, but Mundraub plans to do the same everywhere in Germany, and many cities already have shown interest. The goal is to get 200 cities by the end of 2017 to open up their tree cadasters and grant bulk authorization to citizens to pick up edibles without needing to ask. And in March, Mundraub also collaborated with a supermarket to let citizens plant five fruit trees in the parking lot, blurring the line between private and public space.


Families planting edible trees for future generations on the private land of a supermarket in Berlin. Photo: CC-BY-SA-NC Adrien Labaeye

Case study #2: Reclaiming Vacant Land in New York City

In 2010, in Brooklyn, New York, Paula Segal started to gather information about a vacant space in her neighborhood. It was empty for years, collecting garbage. After some research, it appeared the vacant, fenced lot was public, and had been planned as a public park — which was never built. After several community meetings and exchanges with the municipality, Myrtle Village Green was born as a community space. It includes a research and production farm, meeting space, and an open-air cinema.

Based on this first experience, Segal and other activists wanted to find out how many such vacant public lots existed. It turned out to be 596 acres, which became the name of Segal's initiative. Over the past six years, the grassroots organization reclaimed, remixed, and opened to the crowd public data about vacant lots through its Living Lots map. The map offers information about each lot and gives an avenue to chat with neighbors interested in doing something with it. "New community gardeners are contacting us because they are using the Living Lots map to explore what city-owned land is potentially available for community gardening," says Carlos Martinez, deputy director of Green Thumb, New York's program for community gardening that emerged to support civic use of land left vacant by the city's fiscal crisis in the 1970s.

However, the true strength of 596 Acres lies not only online: The organization also puts up signs calling neighbors to seize the land for their community. And it works. It has spurred the creation of 32 community gardens on previously vacant public land mostly in underprivileged neighborhoods that lack parks and community facilities. Another reason for the success of the organization lies in the productive relationship it has with local agencies for urban gardening: "With 596 Acres, we work closely with each other, they help us to find key people who have interest to be the steward or the leader of a community garden," says Martinez. As of January, more than 848 acres of vacant public land have been plotted on the map.

Map and Data: Strategic Resources to Inspire Citizen-Led Change

These two examples show that creating a data commons about a shared physical resource may be a critical step in enabling communities to reclaim that resource. In one case, the data is crowdsourced from scratch, and in the other, open municipal data is compiled and given a new life.

As our cases show, data needs to be broken down into digestible bits of information, and the map is a crucial tool in doing that. The mapping interface allows people to make sense of complex information, to visualize vacant lots and fruit trees in the city. It creates a new reality in our minds. Open data alone is not enough to start a social process of slowly and iteratively re-appropriating public space. Data itself needs to be re-appropriated, remodeled, refined into digestible information and collaborative mapping is a powerful tool to do so.

But as Paula Segal found out in Brooklyn, real change happens when people start working together. The point on the map, the sign on the vacant lot is the starting point to collaboration, but it is really on land (i.e. in the physical space but not necessarily offline) co-production, the joy of doing things together that really brings lasting change in communities. It is about pressing apples into juice, planting trees, and so on. Only the sustained and lasting collective action has a chance of reshaping the status quo of local governance towards more collaborative governance of urban resources.

For city administrators, in our two cases, active participation of citizens was viewed favorably: "We find it a good thing that citizens start taking care of a piece of land," says Johnke of Berlin-Pankow. "They switch from being  like passive customers expecting something in return for the taxes they pay to a more active and civic attitude where they feel and act responsibly." This, he continues, has a wider impact: "With increasing participation of the public, the role of city administrators in charge of public land is changing from being simple managers of streets and park to becoming more facilitators, coordinators." But at the same time, administrations are careful about delegating their work to groups of citizens who may fail to sustain action over time. For this, community building and some clear structures and clear rules are essential, says Carlos Martinez, from Green Thumb in New York City.

From Public Management to Commoning Cities

This evolution of the role municipal administrations can play, from being top-down managers to becoming facilitators of citizens' re-appropriation strongly echoes the philosophy followed by the City of New York. "We don't intervene in any decision-making, [community gardeners] decides their own rules," Martinez says. "What we ask them is to have by-laws or some guidelines — regulations on how they manage the garden to reduce the risk of conflicts. In that case we may facilitate the conflict resolution, but, generally, we try to stay away, giving them the tools to resolve the conflict themselves."

Leaving citizens to design the rules to manage shared spaces supports a process of commoning public spaces. This is less about arguing whether green spaces or trees are public goods or commons. It is about municipalities acknowledging and actively enabling the self-organization of public space by citizens. This is what cities like Bologna in Italy are doing at scale to manage the city as a commons. In this process and as we have shown, digital networks offer new opportunities. "With a new generation of gardeners — millennials — there is more room for digital technology to be part of this [community gardening] movement," Martinez says. The coming of age of the digital natives will transform these traditional grassroots practices. Commoning will have to be increasingly understood as a process that manifests across the digital and physical spaces.

In this story of the digital transformation of cities, data in the form of maps, is just a powerful tool among  many others that communities may use in a wider commoning process to co-produce shared spaces — a sharing city. This (messy) reality on the ground contrasts starkly with the narrative of a smart city smoothly planned and managed from the top by the technocratic alliance of the bureaucracy and market that would  thanks to big data — calculate the most efficient solutions, and shape optimal, but stupefying spaces. At odds and in the shadow of the mainstream, initiatives like Mundraub and 596 Acres show us that commoning urban data, making it actionable and accessible for normal citizens may trigger a creative practice of commoning public spaces and make cities more livable. Commoning the city in an age of digital transformation may provide people with opportunities for a convivial use of technology. Commoning, with the use of tools like collaborative mapping, enables urban dwellers to actually own and shape the places where they live. Thus, Sharing Cities could be a powerful antidote at a time when so many feel powerless and overwhelmed by a world that appears to be getting more complex and threatening every day.

These two small stories sound marginal? How can we uncover many more?

Header image is a screenshot of Mundraub's map in Berlin: Each icon shows different fruits or herbs