I’ve written before about potential applications of Web 2.0 to the field of urban development. On Planetizen, I described some of the ways the new tools could be used to inform and engage the public in urban planning issues. On this blog last August, I described how a well-designed interactive website could help the city keep track of vacant buildings in the city and also perhaps coordinate community response and ultimately redevelopment.
One of the most powerful potential applications of the technology to urban issues is to collect information about individual buildings. Much of the popular interest in planning issues comes not in the general categories used by planners (housing, open space, etc) but in reaction to specific existing or proposed buildings in the community. Projects generate controversy and evolve over time, and at Rethink College Park we’ve tried to adapt the blog format to do this by creating categories for projects and creating a project map on Google Maps, imperfect solutions at best. A private developer went so far as to posting information about an iconic building the company recently purchased on the Facebook.
While topical blogs can provide great forums for information, they’re not well suited to allowing groups of people to aggregate information or creating neutral community information resources. On a blog, the authors generally do the heavy lifting, and the public is relegated to the secondary role of commenters. Some have advocated creating hyperlocal wikis, however I find most wiki platforms to be still too technically intimidating and not structured enough for the purpose.
However, a new website launched by a German entrepreneur could bring the accessibility and ease of use of Web 2.0 technology to the urban environment. On Ourbania.com, the site’s users (they prefer “citizens”) create entries for urban items (generally buildings) with descriptions, tags, and links to Flickr photos. Thus far the site’s generally been used by European users to post profiles of their favorite buildings and stadiums and post comments about the design. However, I see some additional possible uses. The site could serve as a common resource for people discussing nuisance vacant buildings, monitor proposed new buildings, or even debate controversial public investments. Before this happens the site will have to overcome several problems: the taxonomy for several of the categories is too rigid, the site structure is biased towards entering newly constructed buildings, and the site will have to reach a critical tipping point of users in new cities to sustain long-term interest. The site founder suggested in recent interview they would create widgets to view and upload entries. If the site developed a set of widgets allowing users to display various information on private websites and blogs, it is possible it could become something of the lingua franca of the real estate blogosphere. However, before that happens in Washington it’ll need entries for more than a few buildings.