Cities for the people, by the people
In line with the aspirations of great urban activists like Jane Jacobs and Lewis Mumford, there remains a pressing need for city dwellers to become more engaged with their surroundings. As Jacobs said herself, “cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everyone”. Creating a legitimate model which facilitates citizen interaction within decision-making arenas is not an easy task, however. Local planning authorities often revert to tokenistic participation methods; where the views of citizens are noted, but rarely given prominence. This is not to say that all urban areas are planned in such a top-down, nondemocratic manner. This notwithstanding, enhancements in the power given to citizens remains an important issue of consideration. Therefore, the main point of argument which this article presents is that the barriers between science and the public must be opened. The concerns of citizens have to be taken seriously and their knowledge used and valued.
Reconnecting humanity with urban environments
“There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans” (Jane Jacobs). Contra to this message, however, urban environments across the world have not consistently developed with such a focus upon citizens. Throughout the second half of the 20th century, in particular, neoliberal influences regularly led planning approaches to focus more upon the physical and functional aspects of development, as opposed to their social facets. Many cities appear to primarily focus upon appealing to a large global flow of people, not necessarily catering for the needs of local inhabitants. In more recent times, this approach to urban planning can be exemplified via a discussion of urban waterfront regeneration projects, where previously working-class strongholds have been transformed into up-scale, exclusive quarters. These design-led approaches, where the societal effects of development are often somewhat undervalued, are particularly reminiscent of urban planning throughout New York during the 1950s, 60s and 70s. At this time, Jane Jacobs made herself the bane of New York’s powerful city planners, and, in particular, the nemesis of the city’s master builder, Robert Moses. Moses is most notable for his neighbourhood clearance approach to urban renewal; once termed “negro removal” by activist and author James Baldwin. Through a combination of grassroots activism and persistence, however, Jacobs and her comrades extinguished several of Moses’ proposed developments.
One of the most notable examples of this was the protests which eventually lead to the cessation of the proposed running of Fifth Avenue through the historic Washington Square. The plan included tearing down much of SoHo and Little Italy, to make way for a billion dollar, six-lane highway along Manhattan’s west side. Jacobs warned that such large scale infrastructure developments would only bring social dislocation to the poor and remove all cultural ties to local environments. Jacob’s harsh criticism of ‘slum-clearing’ and high-rise housing projects were instrumental in discrediting these once widely supported planning practices. Subsequently, she played a huge role in Robert Moses’ fall from power. Of course Jane Jacobs did not initiate nor facilitate this citizen movement on her own and worked in tandem with many supporting figures. Likewise, she did not live without detractors. Not only was she the bane of many planners, her activist approach angered many local citizens who felt she was under qualified to advise them on the future development of their neighbourhoods. What serves as her lasting legacy, however, is her encouragement to view cities as ecosystems, which, overtime, would function as dynamic organisms, changing in response to how individuals and communities interact with them.
Learning from these assertions, it is important to move beyond the idea of ‘space as a container’. Instead, it is time to realise that it is people who shape spaces, not spaces who shape people. In this way, space is conceptualized as a social construction which shapes social action and guides behaviour. Spatial boundaries, identities and meanings are negotiated, defined and produced through social interaction and conflict. In times of such ‘hyper-consumerism’, city inhabitants appear to be classified, and, to a degree, treasured, as consumers, as opposed to producers. They are, however, much more than this. They are, first and foremost, producers of space. As Sir Patrick Geddes poetically put it, “a city is more than a place in space, it is a drama in time.” It is this idea, of viewing citizens as the centre of cities, which is needed now more than ever. It is time to reconnect humanity with urban environments.
Why citizen science?
As discussed in the introductory paragraphs, citizen science is effectively seen as a means of opening up science to allow for citizen interaction. It has been advocated by a range of multi-disciplinary academics and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), as well governmental bodies in an increasing amount of countries, as an approach to knowledge production which incorporates diverse local views, addresses community-driven questions and bridges management planning with local interests. The narrative of citizen science is that collective management leads to collective awareness, which leads to collective action. Examples of citizen science in practice range from species counts and biological sampling and monitoring, to training and education programs, workshops and focus groups, submissions of historical accounts and assistance with spatial management tasks. Predominantly run and managed by NGOs and charity bodies, citizen science projects are becoming increasingly common throughout a range of environments.
Such approaches to data collection are not new, of course, as volunteers and non-scientists have recorded scientific information for centuries. There has, however, been a recent rise of citizen engagement with research due to advancements in technology. The use of smartphone apps and the internet have broadened the scope of citizen science, making it possible to engage volunteers regardless of their physical location. Enabled by technology and empowered by social change, curious laypeople are transforming the way science gets done. With this increasing volume of knowledge and data being generated, it is then dependent upon policy makers to endorse and sanction such information, ensuring it leads to material changes in the planning of the relevant environment.
Supporters of such an approach to knowledge production assert that it can reclaim two dimensions of the relationship between citizens and science; i. that science should be responsive to citizens’ concerns and needs; and ii. that citizens, themselves, can produce reliable scientific knowledge. It is this active engagement in scientific work which differentiates citizen science from other forms of public participation, where participants often take less active roles. While it is perhaps more evident that citizen science projects can generate multitudes of previously undocumented knowledge to the benefit of the wider field of interest, it is also important to realise that the project participants themselves can benefit. By encouraging citizens to take an active role in collecting, processing, and applying information – and encouraging new groups to participate, especially those who have previously been marginalized or excluded – they can begin to feel part of a knowledge production process which legitimately values their knowledge.
It is important, however, to be aware of two critical concerns regarding citizen science, both of which can significantly hinder its implementation as a legitimate source of knowledge production. Firstly, uncertainty remains regarding the technical capacity of citizen science. The potential for error, inaccuracy and subjective partiality amongst project participants remains a perennial danger. Secondly, particular relations of power can heavily dictate the degree to which the knowledge produced from such projects is consistently integrated into the realm of decision making. Thus, frustratingly rendering citizen science an unfulfilled concept. Evidently, it is impossible to guarantee that the setting up of a project will lead to local knowledge having a genuinely beneficial influence upon policy and legislation, in an environment where unequal relations of power exist. While the insights and values of participants may be considered, this is no guarantee that they will be used by decision-makers. There is, as such, a danger that citizen science will simply be considered as another tokenistic and unfulfilling form of participatory research.
This notwithstanding, however, with thoughtful study design and under the right circumstances, it appears citizen science can be successful on a massive scale. It appears to provide a means of removing, or at least lessening, the barriers between science and the public. If a deeper recognition of the power relations at work can be understood, perhaps carefully constructed citizen science projects, tailored to the conditions of the relevant environment, can play a major role in democratizing and alleviating exploitation within such spaces. Using the example of urban environments, citizen science appears as a well suited method of involving residents with their surroundings, engaging with their community, sharing their knowledge and views, and, ultimately, playing their part in creating environments shaped by the residents themselves. Be it via workshops, focus groups, training courses or questionnaires, the voices of citizens must be heard, allude and recognised. “Forget the damned motor car, build the cities for lovers and friends” (see Lewis Mumford in this short documentary).
Intergenerational Knowledge Sharing – Nuu-chah-nulth
To exemplify the potential of citizen science, I will briefly shed light on an intergenerational knowledge sharing project, along the Pacific Northwest coast of Canada. While the project looked into the sustainability of marine environments, there are many lessons which can be learnt and transferred to an urban setting. Set up, managed and coordinated by two members of Uu-a-thluk, the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Fisheries Council, the project investigated intergenerational knowledge sharing of conservation values in indigenous communities. The project explored a disconnection between (i) elders and youth and (ii) youth and the environment; highlighting how such relationships are fundamental to the health of aquatic resources.
Some innovative methodological approaches were employed throughout the operationalization of the project: (i) story telling workshops, (ii) mapping sessions, (iii) species counts and monitoring and (iv) participant-driven photo-elicitation. The project created an open space between generations of residents and led to significant enhancements in community building and togetherness. Not only was this a successful project in terms of the data and knowledge which was collected, which was then translated into policy and legislative recommendations to the benefit of the indigenous residents, but it also led to a much deeper connection between the researchers and the community members themselves. This is a central component of citizen science, one which further differentiates it from many other participative research approaches. The participants are placed at the centre of the project and the researchers simply act as observers. Added to this, of course, the citizens were empowered as knowledge producers and felt that their views were finally being appropriately heard and valued.
The outcomes of the project not only represented a change in the governance of the Nuu-chah-nulth tribal areas, a change which placed more emphasis upon the conservation of such spaces, but also led to enhanced levels of environmental awareness within the participants. The innovative methods of storytelling and participant-driven photo-elicitation could easily be introduced into urban community planning processes. It provides local residents with a more relaxed arena to discuss what their environment means to them, how they use it, what they view as successful and unsuccessful planning approaches and how they envisage future change. Citizen science clearly uses a wider concept of the ‘resident’, seeing them as the central component of the city making process. Hence, making it possible to include, rather than exclude, people in shaping the city.
The full potential of citizen science
There is evidently much work to be done. Primarily, citizen science needs to become a legitimate and recognised means of knowledge production in the eyes of researchers, NGOs and governmental bodies. The data which it produces needs to be valued and understood by decision-makers at the legislative level. Citizen science needs to become a central means of participative community planning and, from here; it has the potential to place local residents at the centre of future urban development. After all, we are all already citizen scientists. Everybody is curious, concerned & interested in the makings of our surroundings. To have a just and sustainable world, we need to adopt a new cultural norm: one in which we observe our surroundings with the intention to share what we see, smell, hear and, most importantly, feel. Citizen science can create a network of information, knowledge and insight. And with this, a new type of scientist can be created. Not one separate from us, but, instead, among us.
In my current research, I am investigating the degree to which citizen science can also be viewed as a practice of political consciousness and as a means of decoupling power and truth. Political consciousness, which can be linked to Marx’s ideas regarding an individual’s political self-awareness, starts from the idea that our understanding of power, wealth and self are shaped by ideological forces which hinder our understanding of the forces at work in society. By investigating the world around us, can citizen scientists increase their understanding of the seemingly natural and inevitable restrictions constructed by wider processes? By taking part in knowledge production projects, can participants enhance their awareness of the relations of power at play in society? Gaining an understanding of how such relations facilitate the inclusion of some knowledge into the realm of policy making, while simultaneously neglecting others: all in the interest of benefiting some actors, to the detriment of others. It may seem an unusual coupling; viewing citizens as scientist and the teachings of Marx. But, perhaps, there are stronger links than one would assume. At its core, citizen science is a socialist movement; emphasising community and innovation. It is critical of the traditional thoughts regarding ‘the expert planner’, who will create areas which will benefit all residents. Added to this, it has the potential to be viewed as a means of enhancing political awareness and consciousness amongst participants, bringing to light the relations of power which are continuously creating undemocratic environments.