A Brief History of P2P Urbanism

by Federico Mena-Quintero and Nikos A. Salingaros

P2P (peer-to-peer) Urbanism joins ideas from the open-source software movement together with new thinking by urbanists, into a discipline oriented towards satisfying human needs. P2P-Urbanism is concerned with cooperative and creative efforts to define space for people’s use. This essay explains P2P-Urbanism as the outcome of several historical processes, describes the cooperative participation schemes that P2P-Urbanism creates, and indicates the possible outcomes of applying P2P-Urbanism in different human environments.

Recent history of urbanism.

The general form of urbanism implemented during the 20th century and the beginning of our own 21st century was large-scale, centrally-planned development. The most prominent “moral leaders” of architecture and urbanism have been the “starchitects”: widely-known designers whose buildings have notorious visual characteristics, and which are heavily marketed for the sake of novelty alone. Different methods of design have come into vogue during this time, which explicitly try to avoid traditional building forms and techniques that have been used for hundreds, if not thousands of years. This is done just for the sake of “not doing the same that we did in the past”.

Separately from the architecture of buildings, post World-War-II planners implemented formalist ideas regarding the “city as a machine”, setting a legal foundation in urban codes that guaranteed the Modernist transformation of cities. Mass industrialization during the 20th century led to car-centric development, where walking from one place to another is not feasible any more. Money-oriented development unrestrained by any controls produced building forms whose disadvantages have been widely discussed: skyscrapers with plenty of sellable floor space but whose form destroys the urban fabric, cookie-cutter housing that does not really fit anyone’s needs, office parks that are not close to where the workers actually live. Those environments have been amply criticized by scholars such as Jane Jacobs, Christopher Alexander, Léon Krier, and others.

New Urbanism in the USA started as a way to build better environments and better buildings; the official start was in 1993 with the founding of the Congress for the New Urbanism (1). The New Urbanist movement began as a human-scaled alternative to Modernist city planning: while the latter is based upon distances, spaces, and speeds that accommodate machines and the needs of industry, the former considers instead the very different needs of human beings. Among other things, New Urbanism promotes walkable communities (where people can live, work, and socialize without being totally dependent on cars), and non-rigid zoning that allows a mixture of work, industry, and housing, all done with well-proportioned buildings that borrow heavily from traditional forms and techniques.
In Europe a similar movement is known simply as “traditional urbanism”. Both groups of urban practitioners share a willingness to involve the community in the planning of their neighborhoods; in contrast with centrally-planned “hit and run” development that creates large complexes of buildings with little to no input from the final dwellers or users.
Nevertheless, New/Traditional Urbanism is still centrally planned and done on a large scale, instead of allowing the initiative for construction to be taken by the final users themselves. This is more or less an accident of the times, since existing practices for how construction is financed tend to favor large-scale development. A bias towards top-down implementation is also due to the very pragmatic wish of New Urbanists to “plug into” the existing system rather than to start everything from scratch.

As of 2010, New Urbanism has been successful in creating many new and regenerated environments fit for human needs. However, its reliance on central planning and financing is far from ideal. New Urbanists realize this and have tried to promote decentralized development, mainly with the publication of the Duany-Plater-Zyberk (DPZ) “Smart Code” for free on the Internet in 2003 (2). The ties between the DPZ Smart Code and P2P-Urbanism will be discussed later in this article.

There is evidence that people in several places of the world want to end the domination of Modernist thinking. Political movements in Europe have finally stepped in to play an active role in urban renewal. Monstrous tower blocks have been demolished, replaced by human-scaled urban fabric designed by local groups, and we have such examples occurring all over the world. This has necessitated a sharp break from the Old Left power base that still clings to a top-down bureaucratic (and authoritarian) worldview. In many places, however, the law has been abused to classify inhuman buildings as “monuments” and thus to indefinitely prolong the symbols so beloved by professional architects and planners. (This will be further explored in the section “Potential detractors of P2P-Urbanism”).
Many of us working in the disciplines of urbanism and architecture feel that it is time to drastically change the way we design and build our environment. This resolution comes after a century of modernist top-down and energy-wasteful planning. We wish to give everyone the tools to design and even construct their own physical space.

Open-source software and P2P concepts.
Software by companies such as Microsoft, Apple, and Adobe is usually proprietary and commercial: you pay a fee to acquire a license to use the software (you don’t own the software per se), and the license states what you may and may not do with the software.

In particular, you are not allowed to make copies of the software you paid for; for example to give them to friends. You may sometimes not use the software for specific purposes, such as for commercial use. Moreover, you may not modify the software: you effectively cannot, as the software is distributed in binary form, not as the original source code written by human programmers for later execution by computers. Source code is a closely guarded secret. Software that is distributed with source code generally comes with substantial restrictions (e.g. “for educational purposes only”), so that people may not redistribute the source code itself, nor modified versions of it.

In 1983, a movement against this kind of restrictive licensing for software was started with the name of “Free software”, with free as in freedom, not as in free beer. Nowadays this is commonly called open-source software. Curiously enough, before the 1970s software was generally free in both senses: it came as a necessary component of the expensive computers that were sold (as they would be useless without software), and users were actually allowed to modify it. Software was shared freely among people, who mostly did research in those days, just like other kinds of science. Thus, the concept of “freely redistributable and modifiable software” is not new after all.

Free or open-source software allows you to make copies of the software and give them away, or even resell them. You are given the original human-written source code and are encouraged to study it, modify it, improve it, or to reuse portions of it in other software that you write. You are allowed to redistribute modified versions. Finally, you are not restricted in what you can use the software for, and you may use it for commercial or military purposes.

Since 1983, free or open-source software has greatly increased in availability and sophistication, mainly thanks to the Internet. When people can copy software and source code easily and at nearly zero cost (as opposed to the “old days” of copying bulky magnetic tapes and shipping them to their recipient!), it is natural for people to do so, and to actually embark upon modifying the software to adapt it to one’s individual needs.

The free or open-source software community, as it is called, has in turn created many tools for electronic communication and collaboration: blogs, wikis, mailing lists, shared live documents, and other tools that are doubtless familiar to people who spend a large part of their time online. The first wiki, created by Ward Cunningham, was in fact a repository of knowledge of computer programming topics (3). Later, Jimmy Wales thought that such a system would be suitable for creating an encyclopedia, and thus Wikipedia was born (4). Nowadays, of course, Wikipedia is a tremendously useful source of information for the whole world, and which has been created entirely by volunteers.

Peer-to-peer concepts.
Early systems for global communication saw the rise of groups of computer-technical people with other special interests. For example, a large part of Usenet (a mostly-defunct system of online newsgroups) was devoted to computer topics, but it also had a large section for movie fanatics, arts and crafts enthusiasts, etc. It was the first time in the history of the world where one could easily find other people with similar interests, potentially anywhere in the world.

Over time different systems for online collaboration and communication appeared, and these were used by people who were not mainly interested in computers. This opportunity greatly enriched the quantity and quality of information available, and different online communities have been formed as a result, each with different interests and conventions.
Scholars have studied the behavior of these online communities, and have found that they all have aspects in common. They share knowledge profusely, they tend to be meritocracies rather than rigid hierarchies, and they are geographically widely distributed. Peer-to-peer communities occur when people are able to share information quickly and easily. People start by “finding” each other on the Internet due to their common interests. What begins as a contact with some personal e-mails among strangers could end up in self-acknowledging groups of people with a common purpose. Subgroups of people in actual physical proximity may get together to work on “real-world” issues, not just to engage in virtual conversation. The primary organizer of the wide variety of developing P2P concepts is the P2P Foundation, headed by Michel Bauwens (5). Thus, P2P itself is a movement that began in spheres different from urbanism: the web, economy, free technologies, manufacturing, open-source materials, etc. These developments were and are driven by different impulses from architecture and urbanism, and which we are belatedly joining. There are some parallels we can draw from the history of adoption of free/open-source software, and which will be explored in the next section.