Cities have a lot to learn from one another. New

Cities have a lot to learn from one another. New “Wikipedia for urban planners” GreaterPlaces helps them do just that. Photo by Shreyans Bhansali/Flickr.

Washington, DC recently hosted a Techcrunch meet-up, a Silicon-valley style pitch-off battle for emerging application developers. Amidst contestants like Broomie, which allows people to remind roommates and errant husbands to pick up groceries, and SpeakerBlast, which lets users turn their multiple phones into one speaker, was a little company called GreaterPlaces. This company lets urban planners type in any issue involving cities and gain quick access to ideas and innovative solutions from other urban planners around the globe. Though few people at the event even knew what urban planning was, the company slid into a respectable but relatively unnoticed third place. Though GreaterPlaces might not have reached instant Techcrunch fame, we at TheCityFix are excited about this important tool’s potential to help emerging economies address myriad issues surrounding climate change, transport, economic development, and energy, and must overcome these challenging with limited resources or institutional capacity.

Bringing more minds to the table

GreaterPlaces offers the ability for users to quickly search for policies and programs related to common issues in their area or by topic, like energy efficiency, civic tech, and green infrastructure. The website is constantly adding projects and there are already innovative examples from around the globe. A project from San Francisco shares ways to decrease bike theft through bike registration. Planners from Singapore have shared Singapore’s Master Plan, where community officials use comics to share emerging transport initiatives with citizens.

Slowly, the website is building up a repository of different kinds of projects, which lets users see multiple examples of how to make transit-oriented development (TOD) work, different ways to re-use historical buildings, and methods for designing shared streets.  From Sacramento, California, planners have been able to make affordable houses that are accessible to a broad range of services through creative ways to redevelop brownfields and by working with developers on zoning. On the other hand, in Arlington, Virginia, planners were able to make affordable housing in their area by creating mixed-use developments and using the proceeds from a land-swap with developers to give lower-income residents the ability to live close to public transport. By seeing a range of possible ways to achieve mixed-use, affordable housing with access to services, planners hesitant to take on the challenge of transit-oriented development (TOD) might be more open-minded.

The website will soon have a forum for planners and policy makers to share expertise and support each other on projects. The ability to pull expertise from a wide range of different experiences is vital for cities to get the very best solutions, rather than those most readily available.

The leader in a long race

GreaterPlaces is currently the leader in aggregating urban planning solutions and making them readily available online. This is in part because they are the only website currently aggregating urban planning solutions. Their success as others join the race rests upon many different factors:

  • They need to quickly build capacity so that they are known as the place to go for finding urban policies (think of how Google Plus, even with an arguably better interface, lags behind Facebook because once people have one social network, they don’t need another one).
  •  Their success rests on dramatically expanding the kinds of examples that they have. Although the website proclaims a global reach, in reality the majority of the examples come from developed countries, even as it is emerging economies that are most likely to take advantage of the guidance.
  •   Aggregation is only part of the solution. Once GreaterPlaces has a large body of information in one place, it will need to tackle how to make the policies easily understandable, and provide ways for people to turn their new knowledge into action. This will likely take creativity in re-imagining what urban planning policy looks like and will demand creating partnerships with other application developers. Applications like Kickstarter can help cities turn their new policies into real-life reform, while applications like Gobblebox, a location-based social messaging platform can bring these online discussions into real-life communities.

GreaterPlaces is worth checking out both for those who have urban planning questions and those with urban planning expertise. Although it is still in the early stages of implementation, what it lacks in content, it makes up in potential for new users to join in and contribute to its direction. Comment below with what next steps you think GreaterPlaces should take!