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On 'Cities as Software'

BY Nick Judd | Monday, May 23 2011

Marcus Westbury, the festival organizer who led an effort to reinvigorate the downtown in his native Newcastle, Australia, by filling it with small businesses, art installations and temporary uses, shares an article he wrote for the Dutch architecture/design journal Volume which he's titled "Cities as Software:"

We stepped outside the default legal framework in which most property in Australia is managed and created a new one. We used licenses not leases, we asked for access not tenancy and exploited the loopholes those kinds of arrangements enabled. While such schemes are institutionalised in many European countries they have little precedent in Australia – in Newcastle, the entire scheme was devised, brokered and implemented directly from the community without the involvement of a government or formal development authorities still grasping at hardware based solutions. Only after the first dozen buildings had been activated did any funding appear. More than two years later any changes to rules and regulations – to the operating system – are yet to transpire.

He describes the nonprofit he founded, Renew Newcastle, almost like a software company. Renew Newcastle's model, "the legal templates, the contracts and the thinking" have become "shareware" that people in other cities are putting to use, he writes.

Cities aren't software, and falling too much in love with a good metaphor can induce the myopia that comes with wanting to reject ideas that don't fit neatly within it. But there is a certain way of thinking when it comes to computer code — how do I make something built to do X actually accomplish Y, how do I change the way a system is built to affect its outcomes — that seems to work in a novel way when applied to governance and to cities.