Web 2.0 for Urban Development

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.

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. The problem with this is that the wisdom of crowds so to speak works well only for broad topics. Meaning a wiki works, despite the problems you mention, because so many participate and some “geeks” take on and handle the hard technical part.

    Yet for the most part, cities and communities appear to be too small to generate enough people participating to propagate and maintain a high-powered wide ranging community information base for a particular, smaller, community. I remember being intrigued by an early cleveland wiki, but it disappeared. In the region, there are wikis for Hyattsville and Riverdale Park.

    Another issue is the gigo issue, the quality of the data. One of the big problems with flickr and “folksonomies” is that people want to develop their own ways of tagging information (which is a powerful thing to be true) but not having a set of common keywords and tagging conventions, at least for stuff that matters, like vacant properties, leads to big problems. E.g., with flickr, why someone keyword tags hundreds of graffiti photos”public market.”

    (Even I modify my tags over time, adding more specific tags like “street sign” “tourist information” or “historic marker” as my sense of the information and topic becomes more specific, and my failure to consult indexes like those used to keyword articles for newspaper databases like Proquest.)

    But yes Web 2.0 technologies can be harnessed and used by more focused, tighter groups, who set data standards, check, etc., and move forward.

    Of course, then there is the issue of the city responding-caring. That’s a whole other issue, one that involves John Friedmann’s work among others… (that’s now my latest academic and real interest transformation, rather than merely innovation or change, of government institutions) Just because the data is there doesn’t mean there is accountability or a desire to respond. Plus the issue of overall responsiveness (such as Capstat programs) vs. individual agency responsiveness and a culture of accountability.

    This drives me almost crazy, especially wrt DC, which has an almost nonexistant accountability culture in local government.

    Speaking of Web 1.0 or really Internet 1.0 pre-web, I seem to see a drop off of participation on local community listservs in favor of blogs. Since a few active participants fuel most of the active discussion on listservs (a corollary of the point made above) losing just a handful of active discussants can cripple a listserv.

  2. Dear Rob,

    thank you for the interesting blog post and your comments about the ourbania web community. We, the ourbania team, are aware of the fact that the community still has improvement potential. The community is still in the beta status of development and we are strongly committed to improving usability and offering more benefits to the users. Therefore, we really appreciate your helpful and detailed feedback in your comments about ourbania.com.

    Currently we are busy updating the site to offer new features so that the citizens get a wider spectrum of activities and improved communication possibilities, as the new profile modules. From now on, you are able to link specific buildings to your profile to show your relatation to the object. Additionally, we are about to re-organize the building and blog categories. The change in categories will make the choice more flexible and less predefined while creating urban items and writing blog posts. In your comments, you also mentioned widgets. This feature is already in our development process. As soon as it will be ready for daily use, the team will publish some more information on the ourbania blog.

    Concerning the number of buildings and projects in the community, we strongly rely on the user’s activity, their professional skills and experience. Currently, we also focus on buildings in countries and continents which are only marginally covered on ourbania.com to this day.

    All the best from Germany


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