Online Public Participation: Wave of the More Creative, More Democratic Future

I just came across an intriguing idea that the Balitmore Office of Promotion and the Arts has been running for the last six months. In January, they used a Flickr photostream (FREE, by the way), the Baltimore Infill Survey, to upload a stock image of a vacant Baltimore lot between two derelict buildings. The photo is reprentative of many parts of the city that have seen a decline in population and subsequent problems in recent years.

The survey invites anyone anywhere to participate by downloading the stock image and creating another image illustrating an idea about how to revitalize the vacant lot and surrounding neighborhood. After participants have completed their images, they send them to BOPA, who then uploads them to the Flickr site.

BIS stock image, courtesy the Baltimore Infill Survey

BIS stock image, courtesy the Baltimore Infill Survey

The results? Well, so far there are about 50 images submitted from architects, designers, artists, and thinkers from all over the world.  Even some from people who live right in the neighborhood and obviously aren’t trained engineers or designers.

It’s a wonderful mix of radical ideas and simple concepts. There’s the downright crazy (the tightrope and the fishtank), the avant garde (the mirror globe and the glacier), and the practical but visionary (the powerplant playground and the vertical farm).

I’m sure it’s no surprise that my personal favorite is the eco-city concept:

BIS proposal no. 33, courtesy the Baltimore Infill Survey

BIS proposal no. 33, courtesy the Baltimore Infill Survey

Pretty, isn’t it?

Urban gardens seem like one of the more practical, logical and cost-effective concepts for revitalizing decaying inner cities. Actually, in this case I’d suggest something even bigger. Given that Baltimore has seen a population decline of a few hundred thousand in the last fifty years (according to this article), I’d propose razing derelict buildings–even whole blocks–and consolidating housing (new and/or renovated buildings), leaving much larger tracts of land available for urban agriculture,  something on the scale of what’s happened in Cuba.

But, of course, I don’t live in Baltimore.

What interests me about this project is how it represents one of the most exciting aspects of living in this time: online public participation. The following quote from Jon Popham at sums up exactly what I’ve been thinking about this concept over the past couple of years:

Online projects such as the Baltimore Infill Survey provide a glimpse at the new, democratic role ideas from the general public can play in urban planning, public policy and nearly unlimited areas of human endeavor simply by allowing an open exchange over the Internet.  No longer do the ideas of government–or other institutions for that matter–need to be limited to what a few civil servants sitting around a creaky old conference table can muster up.  In this instance architects, designers, urban planners and thinkers from numerous countries, backgrounds, and approaches have brought the City of Baltimore a wealth of ideas as to how to revitalize some of its most impoverished spaces that would have cost thousands upon thousands of dollars if the City had commissioned them outright.  The truth is that people, in all sorts of professions, do care about the world and community around them and are willing and even happy to devote their time and talents to come up with good ideas for causes that interest them (emphasis mine, click here for link).

To be honest, this is a concept I hope my own community decides to embrace, but we’re a long way off from it here in Madison, SD. I think it’s a pretty common perception that to get your ideas heard in this community, you need to own a prominent business, hold a major title in a prominent business, or have someone else with money and influence backing you–not unlike countless other communities across the nation (and Madisonites, if my perception is off-base, feel free to set the record straight). If you have an idea, the proper channels for communicating it are unclear, and rarely do we see the solicitation of or open discussion of ideas from the community at large by those in charge of making and implementing policy.

I think a lot of this boils down to not realizing that the true stakeholders in a community are every last citizen, not just those with political power or financial clout or even the right education. So we tend not to hear from the people who lack that type of influence.

But we lose out tremendously when we fail to listen to those voices. We lose the perspectives of artists and other creative types, of young people, of blue-collar workers, and others. These people have ideas–good ideas–and viewpoints to add to the conversations about how to shape our community and its future.

Online public participation is making it more and more difficult to ignore those other voices. It’s now possible to take advantage of absolutely free options like WordPress, Blogger, and Flickr (free, of course, once you have Internet access) to express opinions, offer up ideas, and tell stories. There’s no guarantee that the powers that be will pay attention, but online public participation definitely broadens and deepens the conversation.

Further reading–two great examples:

Reimagine Rural, the blog of the Rural Learning Center, just a few miles down the road in Howard, SD. from Northfield, MN:  “Community news, citizen produced”


About EMH

Forty-something. South Dakotan. Mother to 11-year-old K.L. Wife to Cory. Lutheran pastor. Novice organic gardener. Sustainable living aspirer.
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2 Responses to Online Public Participation: Wave of the More Creative, More Democratic Future

  1. Steph says:

    Erin, I am intrigued by this! I think so often the average citizen feels disenfranchised from the direction and planning for their own community. We’re good at lament, but have few outlets for creative problem solving. Wouldn’t it be incredible if the kind of thing happening in Baltimore was the “pattern” for how community leadership and community action worked?

    In tinier towns like where I am living now, there is a common perception that the average Joe’s ideas can be heard, and you can have definite impact, but there is little or no money to make much happen. I think the opposite happens in larger communities…money is available but only the few get the say. How do we combine the best of both worlds?

  2. Mike says:

    I couldn’t agree more: Social media offers tremendous potential for citizen participation. We created the ReImagine Rural blog to encourage conversation about the future of rural communities. In our first ten months, we’ve talked about and heard from a lot of smart people with great ideas about future of rural places.

    We’ve also been exploring how to use other tools like Flickr and Facebook within local communities. For instance, we’ve worked with Briana Hoffman over in Deuel County set up both a blog and Facebook account for her community. If you haven’t seen them, I highly recommend you check them out. (see links below)

    But what you hit on with the Baltimore example is a level up in participation. That’s where we need to go. Engaging, inviting, and creative. Thanks for sharing.

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