Others have written—and I’m sure will continue to write—with more enthusiasm and hyperbole about the ways that new web portals and mobile apps are changing the landscape of public participation and responsive city planning: it seems that we are constantly being showered (or perhaps barraged?) with fun new social media tools to engage citizens and activate urban sharing networks – for everything from reporting graffiti to mapping public murals (yes, the irony is noteworthy), from finding a parking space to avoiding being mugged, and so on. Whether or not these apps will ever wind up being the “game changers” we are often promised remains to be seen, but the level of excitement and activity they are generating is undeniable, especially after so many years of resignation and inattention to urban problems.
That said, despite the energy that has been thrown behind developing—and promoting—these new weapons in our urban information arsenal, one aspect of these tools has been noticeably overlooked: the potential they provide to facilitate regional collaboration between municipalities, an as-of-yet-unfulfilled dream of urban planners in the past century.
For starters, consider the unremarkable case of permits for “open burning” in Massachusetts. Regardless of whether one supports the concept of open-air burning of brush, clippings, forest debris, and agricultural waste (and there are many reasons to oppose the idea), the law in most states still allows this practice, with all sorts of regulations and permitting requirements. In Massachusetts—where, famously, “all politics is local”—it is not surprising to learn that while the State Department of Environmental Protection has established a broad policy framework for the issue, actual permits must be obtained from one on the state’s 351 different municipalities, typically from the local fire chief. (And, of course, 351 different municipalities means 351 different addresses, 351 different forms, 351 different hours of operation, and so on.)
If you’re an old-timer (and chances are, most open-air burners are), this probably doesn’t strike you as all that unusual — just head down to the fire station, grab a cup of coffee, chat with some of the other old-timers, and maybe pick up a permit while your there: it sounds rather civilized, in fact, and quite communal. That said, it is nonetheless a pretty inefficient system: why can’t we just do this from home, via some on-line interface?
Well, if you’re lucky enough to live in Berkshire County, you probably can. Residents in 12 of the county’s towns can visit the Berkshire County Online Application for Open Burning Permits to read the regs and apply in real-time for a permit. The site is simple—crude, even—without any bells or whistles, and the process is still a bit arcane (permits are only available between 8:30 AM and 1:00 PM; if you live in the Town of Dalton “you must first visit the fire station between 8 am and 2 pm and pay a $5 fee for the season,” and so on), but it gets the job done. And more importantly, this single little unassuming website represents a major step in regionalization, breaking down 12 little principalities of permitting power to deliver simpler, more consistent, and more efficient municipal services across the county.
Indeed, one of the real strength of apps and online portals is their potential for scalability: once one agency creates a tool to solve a common problem (such as issuing burn permits), there is little cost to sharing it with others. If it’s done well and widely-adopted, it can even help set the standard for entire urban information networks, which is what we are beginning to see on the other end of the state, with a tool called Commonwealth Connect. This mobile app (originally known as Citizens Connect) was developed by the coders at the City of Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics to help empower residents to “be the eyes and ears of the City,” reporting potholes, vandalism, missing street signs, graffiti, and the like. Recognizing that the virtues of this “participatory urbanism” do not stop at the city border, the state’s Community Innovation Challenge Grant Program provided $400,000 in funding to expand the program, which now seamlessly serves over 40 cities and towns in the region.
Stories such as these bring new hope to the vision of metropolitan regionalism. As always, the devil is likely to be in the details of implementation, but by starting small, scaling up, and working incrementally through the challenges of cooperation to improve the delivery of some of these basic services—and in the process, recognizing some cost savings and economies of scale—we are starting to see the inklings of a quiet revolution. And, in time, I expect that this sort of “regionalism from the ground-up” is likely to result in more lasting change than the top-down approaches of the past.