Urban hacktivism: getting creative about involving citizens in city planning

Urban and regional planning, as an institutional practice, is increasingly criticised for failing to meet ordinary citizens’ needs. Enter “urban hacktivism”.

Fusing hacking and activism, the term has previously referred to using information technology to achieve political goals. While “hacking” often entails malicious attacks on websites, it has another meaning. Hacking also means innovative problem-solving by combining new ideas with readily available materials.

Examples include taking an old DVD and using it as a drink coaster, bending a paperclip to reset a digital device, or twisting a coat hanger to unblock a drain. These are do-it-yourself “hacks” like those of the television character MacGyver.

Essentially, hacking is creative problem-solving. “Hackathons” are a case in point. Hackathons involve the “brainstorming, designing and testing of ideas with change-makers”.

Hacktivism in this sense refers to grassroots problem-solving by like-minded people who are willing to “go round the back” of established institutions to achieve social objectives. Hacktivism reflects a growing disenchantment with mainstream institutions, pervasive neoliberalism, and cultures of consumption.

Hacktivism is different to “place-hacking” by urban explorers. Recent examples of this include guerrilla gardens, pop-up libraries, repurposing infrastructure and even disco traffic lights and street pong.

What’s driving urban hacktivism?

Urban hacktivism can challenge the trend among governing bodies to embrace neoliberal rhetoric about fast-tracking development. Cutting “red” and “green” tape disenfranchises residents.

Debates about urban consolidation are an example. Big developers seem to be able to bulldoze communities into accepting projects, which some residents feel will destroy the places they love, overshadow backyards, reduce privacy, increase congestion and noise, or even ruin neighbourhood character.

These concerns are often dismissed as “NIMBYism” and self-interest.

But streamlined development assessment processes and “consultation” typically limit citizen engagement. Who can blame residents for getting angry?

Citizen groups, civic-minded planners, environmentalists and others are beginning to resist the privatisation of public spaces and the erosion of public functions by offering alternatives. These range from interventions such as the parklets and pop-up venues of so-called “tactical urbanism” to more “activist”-oriented responses such as a Toronto group’ssubversive use of advertising billboards.

Case studies in Australia

In Australia, a small but growing cadre of residents is experimenting with hacktivism in planning. Two recent examples are instructive:

  • Gold Coast Hinterland and Environment Council’s (GECKO) initiative to “hack planning” by producing a community-led climate change action plan; and
  • organised community resistance to the “West Village” development in West End, Brisbane, where residents have developed their own collaborative planning processes to create an alternative vision for the site.

Challenging the developer’s model at a community picnic. Author provided
Challenging the developer’s model at a community picnic. Author provided

West End has a history of community-based resistance to evictions and inappropriate or undesirable development. It also has a history of challenging developers and governments to engage in a more sophisticated debate around best practice in planning and development.

The West Village development proposes seven 15-storey apartment towers and a large supermarket on an inner-city lot. This project highlights the ongoing struggle for social justice in inner Brisbane in the face of rapid development.

Stage 1 of West Village was deemed code-assessable, meaning no provision for public notification and no appeal rights. The full masterplan for the site is, however, impact-assessable.

Many residents saw the development proposal as flawed and creating many serious problems. Building on existing social ties and strengths, a group of residents and interested parties have begun to create an alternative vision (“Instead of West Village”) for the site. The aim is to pressure both the developer and government to engage with their concerns and aspirations.

Residents are using an open, collaborative, community-based planning process, similar to earlier grassroots engagements in the suburb. Community-led draft masterplans have been developed and discussed at various events. These plans are contrasted against community-generated models and images of the proposed development. Public meetings and workshops have enabled input from diverse quarters.

An alternative plan (right) is presented alongside the developer’s model (left) at the community picnic. Author provided
An alternative plan (right) is presented alongside the developer’s model (left) at the community picnic. Author provided

The alternative vision is still being finalised, but the collaboration and spirit of hacktivism underpinning it transcend the importance of the alternative master plan.

This hacktivism asserts a right to the city. It demands that planning be better: more just, more sustainable, more inclusive. In doing so, communities are beginning to “hack” planning itself.

GECKO’s recent Climate Change For Good Conference is a second example. This local non-profit organisation has partnered with the Queensland government to pioneer a new model of local climate-change adaptation.

The process began with a weekend of presentations by a range of experts and practitioners. These were accompanied by community-based problem-solving workshops. The forum closed with an innovative proposal to “hack planning”.

The intent is to devise a living document that crowdsources innovative adaptation ideas from the community to meet challenges such as health, food and water security, emergent business opportunities and place-making. This offers an alternative to Gold Coast City Council’s climate change adaptation plan, which has been shelved.

The community-led plan will enable engagement with diverse groups that are often marginalised in the planning process, such as Aboriginal groups, caravan park dwellers, migrants, youth and homeless citizens.

By giving a voice to real people living in everyday places, and by drawing on citizen knowledge and ingenuity, hacktivism promises action on issues beyond the remit of traditional planning. So, how could you “hack” your city?

Know More: Cities Research Centre

 –  Environmental Planning, Griffith University

 –  Cities Research Centre, Griffith University

This article was originally published in the  theconversation