The Citizen Designer

By Sarah Bassett, Urban Solutions Planning

In her seminal book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs notes that “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” (p.236). In the half century since Jacobs penned these egalitarian ethics, the discipline of urban planning and design has rapidly industrialized; still struggling today to ensure implementation of inclusionary practices. Such critiques often occur due to complex and historicized economic, geo-spatial, and identity-based obstacles. We have come far in recent times with regard to our public relationships. It remains imperative, however, that urban practitioners continue to find tools and practices that can prototype community ideas in an easy, affordable, and interactive fashion that ultimately harnesses the intellectual resources of communities served. Simply put, planning and design processes must progress a dialectic where planners/designers think through problems with communities versus relying on communal input to achieve the aims of the planner/designer.

One such example that is truly blending the ethics of good planning with emerging tools to work with a community is a collaboratively designed and developed “docu-game” in Brownsville, Brooklyn (see collaborators, below). Divided by ongoing rivalry between antiquated public housing developments and city planning, players from both sides of the conflict work together in the game to explore the stories, histories, and dreams of their community. In this way, residents are able to reorient their collective neighborhood with the hope to break down invisible barriers and change their spatial environment for the better. Using software from Mantle, a rapid prototype and simulation software company, and Unity, youth from the community are designing, prototyping, and reiterating their physical world through virtual means. Through this interplay, they are in the early stages of creating truly community-based solutions.


If urban planners and designers are able to sit a room with a community and work toward a shared creation to solve the issues at play, emerging technologies such as Mantle hold the ability to remove hurdles and allow the formation of the citizen-designer. If we wish to fix the real problems that we have inherited through our existing infrastructure, we must invest in bold ideas that can be manifested without institutional boundaries.

The “docu-game” is collaboratively developed with Brownsville Community Justice Center, arts collective Peoples Culture, Mantle, Unity, and Brownsville residents. Tentatively titled Fireflies of Brownsville, see more information about the technology and process at Geoawesomness (a blog about geospatial technologies) here.

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