The Street Hacker, Officially Embraced

Inside the civic digital space, anyone can download a public dataset, build an app, share it with others. There are no permit fees, no regulations to research, no paperwork to file. You don’t have to trudge to City Hall. Everything is (or at least, it should be) open.

In this way, the digital world is vastly different from the physical one. Want to make use of a transit dataset at a hackathon? Have at it. But want to hack the physical space at the actual train station, maybe plant a few flowers, throw up a bike rack? Well, good luck with that.

The explosive growth of the open-data movement has taught a generation of city-dwellers that they have a right to peek behind the curtain of local government, to identify civic problems and help solve them, too. In the digital world, that means the relationship between city governments and residents has been shifting for a few years now. But what happens when these newly engaged citizens want to have an equally hands-on role with the physical space in our cities, with our streets and sidewalks and public parks? Could cities make it just as easy to hack the physical world as the digital one?

Maybe this sounds a little abstract. But there are many examples – not all of them legal – of creative citizens already tinkering with public space. The most well-known is probably Park(ing) Day. The project started in 2005 when Rebar, a San Francisco-based art and design studio, converted a single metered parking spot in the city into an impromptu public park. Since then, the idea has evolved into an international movement, with citizens reclaiming parking spots in more than 150 cities on six continents for Parking(ing) Day last September. Rebar now calls this “an open-source global event,” borrowing from the language of hackathons.

“A lot of us have one foot in each of these communities,” says Jake Levitas, the research director for the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts in San Francisco. The foundation works primarily to promote creative technology and digital culture, but Levitas often talks with friends at Rebar who might better be described as hackers of the built environment. “I realized how much we were speaking the same language,” Levitas says. “The whole DIY urbanism community, if you change two words out of everything that they say, it’s the exact same as the urban hacker, the civic hacker, the technology community. It’s very much DIY, very much taking the city into your own hands, with new forms of civic participation.”

The open-data movement, from which many of these ideas are migrating, is really only a few years old. But the fact that it has taken root so quickly – with city governments all over the country now welcoming civic hackers and turning problems over to them – suggests we might see the same kind of spreading popularity and official embrace of DIY urbanism.

“Last year, hackathons weren’t on the political agenda, and now we’re hearing from the mayor’s office like, ‘a cat got stuck in a tree, can we have a hackathon to get it down?’” Levitas laughs. “We’re excited to do the same thing for this area, blending the physical and digital as forms of civic participation.”

The challenge, though, is that this is all much harder to do in the real world. Even converting a street into a block party, a fairly old idea, requires in most cities months of planning and plenty of paperwork. And city code at least understands a “block party.” Most cities have no idea what to do with parklets, pop-up playgrounds, or quirky street furniture.

Should a pop-up ice-cream parlor, for instance, be treated like a permanent restaurant, like an ice-cream truck or like a hot-dog cart? Can cities figure out how to react more nimbly to these impromptu, unclassifiable ideas when they clearly benefit the community?

“We would love to see experimentation in the public realm that’s creative and productive for the city to be as easy as uploading a video on YouTube,” says Blaine Merker, a principal at Rebar.

The San Francisco city government is on the front edge of this, and it’s no coincidence that the city also happens to be home to innovators like Rebar. The city planning department in fact had Park(ing) Day in mind when it created its Pavement to Parks program in 2009. The city designed four public plazas in unused road space around town using found materials from the Department of Public Works’ own yards. All four are now destined to be permanent. That idea then expanded into a parklet program, in which residents and community groups are now invited to apply for permits to convert one or two adjacent parking spaces into repurposed, semi-permanent public parks (the permits must be renewed each year). The city expects to have 75 built within the year, with each project paid for by private money.

“When we started doing this, it seemed so obvious to be able to do it, both the plazas and the parklets, that I was shocked that the city kept the way that the public could interact with their streets so limited. You could plant a tree, and that was about the only involvement you had in it,” says David Alumbaugh, the director of the City Design Group within the San Francisco Planning Department. If people can plant a tree, why can’t they plant a garden, or build a planter box, or set out a bench to enjoy it? “We’d hear ‘because the regulations don’t allow it,’ and then we’d hear ‘well why don’t the regulations allow it?’ There was never a really good reason why you couldn’t do that, it was just that you couldn’t do it.”

The city wound up creating a new permit class for parklets. The same could be done elsewhere with flexible, easy-to-obtain permits for pop-up restaurants or urban farms. Designated zones could be established within cities for just this kind of prototyping. Jay Nath, San Francisco’s chief innovation officer, even envisions creating platforms for public-space experimentation, just as Apple did with the ready-made platform that allows anyone to build an iPhone app. What if, Merker suggests, the city kept a rotating stock of pre-approved shipping containers available for conversion into pop-up shops, so that each person with a great pop-up plan didn’t have to build and permit the infrastructure from scratch?

“The purpose of the Pavement to Parks program and the parklets that grew out of that wasn’t really to create plaza and parklets; it was to create the dialogue that would have people say, ‘what can I do to my street?'” Alumbaugh says. “It was like disruptive technology in a way. Here’s something you can do, but in that seed there are so many other things you can do.”

As a next step to enabling people to actually act on all these ideas, the city of San Francisco plans to roll out on May 15 a single website that will curate in one place all the possibilities, permits, and guidelines for engaging city streets, from how to apply for a bike corral to who to work with in city government to get one. The idea is not unlike the one-stop online data portals that many cities now have to facilitate citizen participation in the digital world.

“We’re still learning how to have that dialogue take place in public space,” Merker says. “People rightly feel they’re not quite sure whether things are legal often or not. But they have a sense it’s going to be very complicated for them to try things. That sense more than anything is what we need to change.”

Emily Badger is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities. She also writes for Pacific Standard, and her work has appeared in GOOD, The Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in Washington, D.C.

by Emily Badger