Peer to Peer (P2P) Urbanism

Definition prepared by the “Peer-to-peer Urbanism Task Force” consisting of Antonio Caperna, Michael Mehaffy, Geeta Mehta, Federico Mena-Quintero, Agatino Rizzo, Nikos A. Salingaros, Stefano Serafini, and Emanuele Strano.

Part A. Problems with existing urban implementations

1. Centrally-planned urbanism doesn’t address anything but a big-picture view, and misses all the local details that significantly affect the solution. This centralized approach invariably works through large-scale destruction of existing structures (either man-made or natural), followed by the construction of lifeless non-adaptive solutions.

2. Money-centric large-scale development occurs when developers buy up huge pieces of land, then build cookie-cutter buildings (e.g. houses, offices). Alexander, Duany, Krier, Salingaros, and many others explain why the present top-down approach is a terrible way of doing things. A new generation of urbanists has demonstrated that the solution involves user participation and Smart Codes. P2P-Urbanism is not centrally-planned: it is built on evidence and real science, and it channels the forces of money together with human-centered considerations so that the outcome turns out to be more economically sound in the long term.

3. Small-scale projects are ruled out. Developers owning most of the land make it hard or impossible for “normal people” to buy small lots and build their house; to fix the place they rent; or to have authority to fix a small part of their street. The accompanying loss of local crafts and knowledge about vernacular building leads to people hiring an architect or builder and letting him loose. Since those professionals don’t know all the details of the local environment (and have in fact been trained to ignore locality), they usually create something that doesn’t quite work, and is built badly. The solution here relies upon the dissemination of knowledge, including building crafts.

4. Lots of people have big ideas that may not work (e.g. “they should make all of downtown pedestrian!”), yet everyone has small ideas that are almost certain to work (“that derelict sidewalk could very well be a tiny garden”; “that bus stop could really use a simple roof”). It is hard to find like-minded people who, once grouped together, may actually turn thought into action. It would then be useful to know about similar projects that have succeeded or failed. The dissemination of knowledge would tell everyone the current state of the practice of urbanism, where lots of central planning is invariably bad, academia is fixated on improvable philosophies, and money-oriented development rules without any controls.

Part B. Definition and solutions

P2P (PEER-TO-PEER) URBANISM is an innovative way of conceiving, constructing, and repairing the city that rests upon five basic principles.

1) P2P-Urbanism defends the fundamental human right to choose the built environment in which to live. Individual choice selects from amongst diverse possibilities that generate a sustainable compact city those that best meet our needs.

2) All citizens must have access to information concerning their environment so that they can engage in the decision-making process. This is made possible and actively supported by ICT (Information and Communication Technology).

3) The users themselves should participate on all levels in co-designing and in some cases building their city. They should be stakeholders in any changes that are being contemplated in their environment by governments or developers.

4) Practitioners of P2P-Urbanism are committed to generating and disseminating open-source knowledge, theories, technologies, and implemented practices for human-scale urban fabric so that those are free for anyone to use and review.

5) Users of the built environment have the right to implement evolutionary repositories of knowledge, skills, and practices, which give them increasingly sophisticated and well-adapted urban tools.


The Demise of the “Expert”

A new generation of urban researchers has been deriving evidence-based rules for architecture and urbanism, using scientific methods and logic. These rules replace outdated working assumptions that have created dysfunctional urban regions following World-War II. A body of recently derived theoretical work underpins human-scale urbanism, and helps to link developing architectural movements such as the Network City, Biophilic Design, Biourbanism, Self-built Housing, Generative Codes, New Urbanism, and Sustainable Architecture. Open-source urbanism allows active users to freely adapt and modify theories, research, and practices following proven experience and based upon their specific needs and intuitions. This collaborative scientific approach based on biological and social needs supersedes the twentieth-century practice where an “expert” urbanist determines the form of the built environment based upon improvable and “secret” rules, which are often nothing more than images and ideologies. Unfortunately, those improvable rules were claimed to be “scientific” since they maximized vehicular speed and building density, even at the expense of the residents’ quality of life.

Peer-to-peer urbanism is applicable across a wide range of implementation scenarios benefiting from various degrees and forms of user participation. The most “formal” instance assigns the responsibility of constructing urban fabric to professionals, who however apply open-source guidelines and work together with end-users to develop the design. Even in this instance, which is most congruent to existing practice in the wealthier industrialized nations, design is carried out jointly and collaboratively. We avoid the current practice where a centralized power concerned only with ensuring that each part is working according to a rules schedule eliminates all external input. The other end of the peer-to-peer spectrum occurs in “informal” building, where professionals who are trained in open-source urbanism act mostly in an advisory capacity to guide citizens primarily responsible for both design and construction.
Researchers working within New Urbanism have developed the Duany-Plater-Zyberk (DPZ) “Smart Code” and other versions of comprehensive, open, form-based urban codes that can be legally implemented and can replace the post-war modernist codes now legislated into practice in almost all the developed countries. These codes are free for downloading. The DPZ “Smart Code” is also open-source, since it requires “calibrating” locally, a task of adapting it to traditional (i.e. pre-war) urban dimensions for those who wish to implement it. Unfortunately, many regions refuse to revise their modernist urban codes that are the opposite of the “Smart Code”.

The Importance of Human Scale and the Problem of Gigantism: Patterns as Solutions

Throughout history, human-scale urban fabric was always designed by people to fit their bodily dimensions, to accommodate their everyday movements, and to feed their sensory system and basic human need for socialization and interaction. With industrialization, architects and planners turned away from these geometrical mechanisms for building social structure to instead impose a visually empty, banal, and lifeless environment built with spaces and dimensions that are far larger than the human scale. The traditional ergonomic modules have been forgotten and the knowledge of how to build them lost. Since then, a visually sterile gigantism has become the goal of a false urban modernity.

P2P-Urbanism begins with spontaneous owner-built settlements. Rather than being a threat to formal urbanism, user participation contains an essential ingredient of human-scale urbanism. The architect and software visionary Christopher Alexander anticipated P2P-Urbanism in the book “A Pattern Language” in 1977. He and his co-authors launched the idea of the right of citizens to have a say in designing their own environment, and also gave an open-source methodology for doing so: the 253 “Patterns”. These Patterns were not offered as a final word on design, but as working documents that could be adjusted and supplemented as needed after further research. So far, the Patterns have helped in two ways. First, as a diagnostic tool for judging whether a design — proposed or built — is adaptive to human use by whether it satisfies or violates the relevant Patterns. Second, in providing an essential tool that, when combined with an adaptive method of design, will help to produce an adaptive end result. (The Patterns are not a design method per se, and their application is described in “Principles of Urban Structure”. Also, despite their original intention of being “open-source”, the Patterns have remained unchanged since their publication).

Participative Planning and its Foundations

Similarly, communicative-action planners have sought to re-discuss rational, scientific urban planning by advocating the need for better and truly engaged democratic participation. Rather than being only a science — and one that was badly misapplied up until now — urban planning should be understood as a communicative, pragmatic social practice where planners need to get their “hands dirty” so as to facilitate intercultural dialogue and implementation.

Even in a large project such as a hospital, airport, or Art Museum, it is very often the case that the design is arbitrary and sculptural rather than functional. The users were not sufficiently involved in the design, nor were Patterns developed and applied towards the appropriate uses. This is the reason why some of these extremely expensive buildings range from being not optimally functional, to downright dysfunctional, and detract from instead of contributing to the urbanism of the region in which they are inserted.

A separate strand for reflection comes from urban activism and transdisciplinary urbanism. Here, innovative thinkers have sought to contest classic and market-led urban planning and policies. Moving beyond the purely physical form-oriented aspect of urbanism, we are beginning to emphasize the political and social interpretations of urban environments. Artists, designers, and activists have cooperated with local stakeholders to claim alternative forms of democratic participation (full citizen participation, etc.) and improve the human quality of urban living.