Urban Design Next: A Conceptual Framework for the Open City

Timothy Smith, AIA, AICP & Wilfred Pinfold, PhD

Abstract: Technology is remaking urbanism and enabling citizens, business, government and institutions to have access to a wide range of services, relationships and tools. Smart applications help develop a sharing economy and create more efficient design practices and new ways to live, work and play. This article explores whether or not these outcomes are aligned with citizens’ present needs and future interests. The authors outline an urban design process that synthesizes their work with smart city technology and a participatory urban design framework known as Civic Ecology. As an outcome, the authors propose an open city framework for enabling more effective and democratic ways of placemaking.

Keywords: urban; design; open; city

Introduction and Overview

Imagine a city where…

Citizens access their needs within an easy walk of where they live or work; where safe, clean and affordable transportation options integrate to take people where they need to go; where neighbours share childcare, tools, food and space; where information options enable residents to track local events, emergency alerts, and education opportunities.

Imagine that local entrepreneurs have access to workspace, support services, mentorship and customers; citizens can buy local to enhance their community’s shared wealth; a local stock exchange enables community members to invest in local buildings, their neighbourhood commons or local food system; health and wellness options are accessible via a seamless platform. Utility use, carbon footprint monitoring and more are possible through technology that enables safe, accessible and secure transactions using data platforms built for and owned by the community.

This is the open city.

Technology is remaking urbanism and enabling citizens, business, government and institutions to have access to a wide range of services, relationships and tools. Smart applications seed a sharing economy and create more efficient design practices and new ways to live, work and play. Currently, tools exist to simulate future environments and, through digital modelling, evaluate likely impacts of traffic, land costs and behaviour choices on climate, community form and the local economy. But are such outcomes aligned with citizens’ present needs and future interests, or are they merely empowering those who control data, information flows and ultimately decision making?

Citizens in the open city of the future will use technology as a tool to help them envision, create — indeed celebrate — urban living. Rather than a pathway to centralized data control in the service of laudable goals — cleaner, safer and more sustainable environments — what if technology enabled a participatory urban design process by which citizens, experts, developers and city governments co-created an open city?

This article outlines such an urban design process, one that synthesizes the authors’ work with smart city technology and a participatory urban design framework known as Civic Ecology. As an outcome, the authors propose an open city framework for enabling more effective and democratic ways of placemaking.

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Figure 1: The Circular Economy. Image courtesy of the MacArthur Foundation.


Cities drive state, national and global economies. Technology-driven transportation and e-commerce impact mobility, retail and services, while the Internet of Things facilitates smarter, more efficient living and work. Climate change, economic disparity and desires for greater equity have spawned discussions about localism, developing greater grassroots empowerment opportunities through sharing, circular and trust economies.

The complexity of urban issues discourages many governments from involving citizens in local design and planning. As many cities control more and more of the development process, citizens want their voices heard and their issues addressed.

What is an Open City?

An open city is one in which organic small-scaled growth and change is encouraged through a process of co-creation among city government, citizens, business interests, the non-profit sector and development professionals. The open city rests on the foundation of an open society — one in which all people are free to participate in civic, cultural, economic and ecological life though a free and independent media, an accessible political system and access to public spaces. Democratic placemaking is baked into open city culture, a mindset with local knowledge, a history of transactions with the community’s civic ecosystem, creativity and social capital.

In Building and Dwelling, Richard Sennett describes two types of urban change: rupture and accretion (Sennett 2018, 278). Rupture, what Jane Jacobs (1961, 293) described as cataclysmic change, results from top-down approaches to information exchange, design and implementation. Accretion is the slow, organic growth that evolves through experimentation and learning (Jacobs 1961, 293). Rupture is product driven, accretion is process driven.

In the closed city, citizens may be informed, even consulted, about urban design but are not its co-creators. Information flows and data management are used by experts in power to ensure equilibrium rather than to invite the open-ended, adaptability best effected by citizens of a place.

The open city recognizes cities as “open-ended places of experimentation, shared civic endeavours, creative milieus, and above all, problems of organized complexity” (Seltzer et. Al 2010, 25). In an open city, citizens, experts, local government and other actors are in a co-creation partnership that endures continuous cycles of community change. Community intelligence platforms are open and accessible and drive the process-driven change of accretion.

Sennett describes the outcomes of an open city process as highly flexible and adaptive — places that feature permeable open spaces, highly adaptable buildings, communities made legible by locally-meaningful markers and urban fabric and infrastructure intentionally designed for change. Since the open city views change as a constant, it is porous, intentionally incomplete, rich and adaptable (Sennett 2018, 240).

The open city evolves organically through “superficial civilities”, (Sennett 2018, 141) the civic competence that is key to managing social and ethnic differences. This skill set enables citizens to transcend personal differences and work through the complex, ambiguous and ill-defined problems that typify urban communities. Sennett advocates co-production of plans by experts and publics until the moment when the professionals ‘exit’ and the community take over. The open city is thus a place of both doing and belonging.

Fundamental Principles Underlying This Approach

The goal of an open city urban design framework is to help a community determine what it collectively cares about and then provide the expertise, tools and strategies to guide systemic change. Placemaking must reflect a holistic approach that integrates development “hardware” in response to climate, land use/form, ecology, transportation, open space and built form with community “software,” the existing and emergent resource systems (i.e. energy, water, nutrient, food, economic, cultural and information flows. (See figure 2)

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Figure 2: The axis of holistic, integrated placemaking. Figure courtesy of SERA Architects, Inc.

The Civic Ecology framework provides such a systems-based urban co-design framework.

Civic Ecology is the integrated web of energy, nutrient, resource, financial, information and cultural flows and interactions that are envisioned, created and managed by citizens acting for the common good within a geographically-defined community and its city-region. It is a human ecology of place, intimately integrating both natural and social/cultural systems (Seltzer et. Al 2010, 37).

The open city integrates citizen-led smart, data-rich platforms and operating systems into the Civic Ecology placemaking framework. Three fundamental principles inform this approach: systems thinking, co-design and strong democracy.

Systems Thinking — Resource flow systems — community “software” — constitute the life-blood of a community. Energy, water, food, organic nutrient flows, mobility patterns and local economic exchanges develop from user preferences expressed through transactions. User data generated from this activity records behaviour patterns, constructing a baseline for improving community systems. In an open city, urban co-designers use data to improve resource allocation systems. For example, transportation data recording how people move about and where they go can also be used to test desired future mobility patterns. Thus, citizens bring their opinions and desires as well as their record of transportation use to the co-design of future mobility. The same could be true for energy and water use or food systems and economic exchanges. User-truthed citizen feedback enables continuous systems evolution.

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Figure 3: Community food system. Figure courtesy of SERA Architects, Inc.

Co-design — Fundamental to open city placemaking is a commitment to integrating citizen knowledge with specialized expert resources. This will require technology platforms that engage and value the input of citizens, private interests and public-sector experts. This process could be messy and chaotic unless roles are clarified from the beginning: The community co-creates a shared vision, the private sector builds the vision, experts advise on feasibility and local government creates the policy, processes and funding to enable the vision to be realized. Co-design aims for a process that is much smoother and less confrontational than the current top-down, NIMBY-driven process.

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Figure 4: Civic Ecology Flow Mapping Process. Figure courtesy of SERA Architects, Inc.

Strong democracy — Fundamental to the above principles are two agreements: (1) a social contract between citizens and their community that embraces participatory placemaking and (2) a digital contract ensuring that citizen participation and personal data are secure.

Humans have traditionally viewed community building as an act of co-learning through associational life. In an era of growing complexity, democratic placemakers will need the advantages technology affords. Bringing objective personal data to public design discussions offers the ability to model existing systems, analyse emerging use patterns, discover leverage points and guide systemic change. Objective user data will aid shared decision-making about resource allocation.

Strong democracy requires strong institutions. The open city urban design framework requires a new democratic institution — the Civic Public Private Partnership (CP3) — to represent the interests of all the actors in the continuing process of community change and capacity building. The CP3 will “own” the design and feedback process and measure progress toward resilience, equity and liveability.

Data-driven Urban Design Challenges

Data is the currency of an open city. Since many decisions can now be data driven, control of what data is collected and how it is analysed establishes power. In an open city, control is in the hands of the citizen who is encouraged and enabled to collect data and bring it to discussions about how to improve city services. In a closed city, the city and its agents collect data and make decisions about city services.

There are therefore fundamental conflicts between open and closed cities. The open city enables better decisions as the volume and detail of information collected about its citizens’ experiences increases. Data collection in a closed city undermines the citizen’s feeling of wellbeing and control conjuring images of an Orwellian 1984. This conflict is absent in an open city. Some data may record systems transactions while other data may be more experiential. Both types are valuable for urban design. Enabling citizen-collected data, ensuring privacy and building trust are essential for success.

Collecting Data

An increasing number of citizens carry highly sophisticated sensor packages in their smartwatches, exercise bracelets, smart phones and cars. These devices can monitor every detail of their interactions in the urban environment — delays, exertion levels and expenditures for example. Citizens are comfortable collecting this information because they have a reasonable expectation that it will remain private. There are tools available today to ensure this security and technology is available to strengthen protections where necessary (Montjoye 2014).

In an open city the community doing the planning needs to be assured that (1) the individual bringing the data is a resident of that community and is who they claim to be, and (2) the data the resident brings to the planning process is correct and has not been modified to make a point not supported by the data. The individual can be identified through a digital identity and the veracity of the data can be secured using a blockchain. A blockchain is an immutable sequence of transactions secured both by encryption to make changes hard and then by creating multiple copies that check one another and eliminate any tampering. If an identified entity enters data into a blockchain as it is created, it will remain unchanged when retrieved.

Ensuring Privacy: The digital contract

The blockchain can also be used to eliminate the need for a trusted entity to oversee system integrity. Any transaction of value requires a third party — a lawyer or bank — to keep records of transactions. Immutable records enable the removal of these entities from the system with enormous implications for the digital economy. This enables the creation of (1) Digital Contracts — contracts that self-execute, (2) Self Sovran Identities — Identities that cannot be erased — and (3) Immutable Data Records.

With these three items any individual can come to a transaction, identify themselves, share data that is of the highest integrity and make binding agreements with other similar entities. Further, any individual who chooses not to engage in a transaction can be assured that her identity cannot be forged, her data cannot be used without permission and that no agreements can be falsely entered into in her name.

Finally, we need methods for conducting analysis without violating privacy. The measure of what violates privacy is subjective and needs to be in the control of the citizen. The planner will be able to access more data if she offers strong privacy protections and delivers good incentives. Again, there are tools and processes for anonymizing data, for conducting secure analysis and producing anonymized results (Montjoye 2014). By employing all these techniques, the citizen is encouraged and enabled to fully participate in the urban design process without loss of privacy or security.

An open city would expose its city’s services (utilities, transportation, parks usage) or its commercial services (restaurants, food markets, apparel shops) through common application programming interfaces (APIs) that offer a directory of services and a common transaction platform. At the time of a transaction a digital contract would be executed through the city’s transaction platform that stipulates the terms, time and costs of the use and shares only the data necessary for the transaction. Note that in this operation no sign-up operation is needed. Records of the user and provider are validated in the background and payment is only made once service has been provided.

The above transactions can be completed securely using distributed ledgers, privacy can be maintained through advanced encryption techniques and speed of transaction can be achieved by distributed processing. To discourage hoarding of private data, the service provider’s reputation can be linked to any loss of private data by applying stiff penalties to any such loss as is done by Europe’s GDPR legislation.

The data collected by both the city and the citizen now becomes the basis for future planning. A resident’s profile can be more highly tuned to their service preferences in that city. The resident can use such an open city framework to express needs for services that are not currently available such as day-care, a food market or transit service. Many such requests will highlight service needs to government and private suppliers that, properly monitored, will enable public and private entities to deliver new and improved services.

An Urban Design Process

An open city urban co-design process must consist of six steps: Convening, Investigating, Visioning, Implementing, Charting Progress and Sustaining. The present perfect tense indicates that these activities begin and continue indefinitely. The following hypothetical case study illustrates an application.

A number of major developments are underway in Portland, Oregon as the City addresses growth in its urban core. The City’s “Central City 2035” plan provides a framework with high-level goals related to safety, equity, climate impacts, job creation and congestion relief. There are many who have a stake in the plan outcome including people who live, work and visit in the city for commerce and entertainment as well as those who provide their services to the City. Gathering and correctly interpreting data from these communities and using this data to make appropriate planning decisions is a daunting task.

The authors are part of a team participating in central city development and will advise the City on the impacts of deploying a wide range of emerging technologies for future urban design in these central city communities. The work will address such questions as how do we rethink transportation corridors, intersections, vehicle pick-ups/drop-offs, the interaction with existing and future transit stations, stops and lines, and other aspects of the public environment to ensure equitable pedestrian access and comfort? Longer term, what might be the impact on community form if there is less of a need for parking facilities? How to redevelop surface parking lots and to re-purpose existing structured parking in a sustainable and equitable way? Do these redevelopment opportunities offer possibilities for housing and employment densification, and a more equitable city?

Toward these ends the authors proposed to conduct a series of Civic Ecology workshops in target communities for technology experts, citizens, the City and developers to engage in designing future urban systems. These systems could include such ideas as deployment of air, water and traffic sensor systems in the community, mobility concepts integrating public transit and last-mile shuttles and how to deploy district scaled utilities. The workshops will provide training to citizens in the use of mobile devices, sensor and communication networks. Designers will work with business leaders, residents, office workers and community members to develop an integrated urban systems approach that relies on community-expert co-design and user data as valuable inputs to the process and product. The intention is to set a solid foundation of participatory placemaking that will not only ensure a vibrant community but will establish a continually evolving process that tracks progress and provides opportunities for feedback and improvement.

Convening — The first step will be to bring the community, local government and development interests into a long-term trust relationship through a Civic Public Private Partnership (CP3) chartered for implementing a shared vision for the community. Convening will include:

  1. Citizen-based training on systems thinking;
  2. Socializing the variety of ways to participate in the process of open city design;
  3. Creation of a database of community members; and
  4. Agreeing on roles and time commitments.

Investigating — This step consists of on-going discovery where citizens, local government and development interests co-learn about issues, shared core values, community needs, opportunities, constraints, problems, goals and aspirations. The CP3 will draw upon citizen, city and regional data to get a detailed understanding of community and city context and oversee creation of a community database that will inform the co-design process.

Visioning — The goal of this step will be to create a citizen-driven and shared vision that integrates energy, water, nutrient, material, information, cultural and economic systems and that informs a land use/mobility concept and resulting urban form. Central to this step will be citizen-led mapping to identify the community resource flow systems necessary to realize the vision consistent with the community’s shared core values. The outcome will be vision statements and a community resource flow map which will underpin land use/mobility, open space, habitat, local economic development and urban form to inform detailed framework plan and development policy.

Implementing — In this step co-designers will describe development programs and projects embedded within the systems maps. Implementation activity will focus on identifying barriers to success and community assets, forging commitments, creating implementation platforms (i.e. business plans, pro formas, policies, guidelines) and securing funding.

Charting Progress — This step will identify meaningful progress indicators and the mean for shared expert-citizen data collection. Energy performance, changes in the local economic multiplier, equity, air quality, water quality, food system quality, community health indicators, job creation and a variety of other meaningful indicators will be measured and a process for analysing feedback and implementing course corrections outlined.

Sustaining — In this step a data driven platform will be put in place to support the participatory urban design process and ensure ongoing citizen, local government and development interests are shared and projects continue to be defined, implemented and tracked. In this way we establish the desired accretive process to ensure relentless, but slow, organic growth that evolves through experimentation and learning continually adjusting to the needs and desires of the community.

It is anticipated that the urban co-design process will result in:

  • accessible deployment technologies through training on mobile device and communication networks,
  • small business entrepreneurial opportunities,
  • integration of charging stations into community fabric,
  • integration of bicycle, transit and other existing mobility systems,
  • urban food systems,
  • neighbourhood scaled energy, water and waste systems, and
  • local economy initiatives and may others to be determined.


The open city urban design process requires citizens, local government and other stakeholders to co-design a shared future using smart technology made accessible to all members of the community. The design process must account for participants with varying economic means and degrees of comfort with technology and must ensure that personal data offered to the design process be securely shared. Harnessing technology to benefit such a grassroots approach will be a challenge, but one that can be met through current technology.

The greatest challenge may be changing the attitudes toward participatory placemaking. In moving from confrontation to co-design, citizens must come to trust their local government and the private sector developers, city governments must come to value the input of their citizenry and development interests must realize the advantages to opening the “black box” of development to the voice of community needs. The result of this collaboration will be the places, services, policies, platforms, hubs and infrastructures of the open city — the foundation for the vibrant cities of our imagination


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