“Hey NYC! How can we make our city a greener, better place to live?”
That’s the first question that Change by Us NYC, which its creators call “a social network for civic activity,” is asking New Yorkers. The site, officially launched yesterday, is designed to be a forum for ideas and projects, dreamed up and initiated by citizens, that could improve life in a particular place. It’s being used as a more organized version of one of those big, messy cork boards found in coffee shops or on college campuses, where flyers pile up on each other. It’s also more interactive: Neighbors who once met briefly are recognizing each other and posting notes on each others’ projects and people with ideas for projects are receiving not only volunteers but suggestions on how to hone or expand their thinking.
The New York site will be run by the City of New York, but the project’s creators are Local Projects, which had a hand in StoryCorps, and CEOs for Cities, a urban issues think tank. They want the program to be part of the thinking on “reinventing public participation.” Gauging the project’s success will take some time: New York’s Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith suggested that the city will be paying attention to the number of ideas that make it into reality.
But I wanted to see what sort of ideas my fellow New Yorkers were throwing out there in the first flush of excitement about the project. Digging in, I found the inevitable genres of less-than-helpful suggestions: the weird (“Mandate that toothbrushes sold in NYC be designed to fit easily into pre-war bathroom toothbrush holders"); the sarcastic (“Bring the horse back! Sometimes, I’m not in the mood to drive my hummer to the corner. Why can't I just ride a horse? They run on grass and water.”); and the obvious (“MORE BIKE LANES. MORE BIKE LANES. MORE BIKE LANES.”). But I was also surprised how many insightful ideas were popping up.
New Yorkers suggested that the city use vacant lots for community compost sites; that if Times Square lit up its famous billboards with renewable energy it could become a “beacon for conservation” instead of for consumption; that the city’s affordable housing department could save paper and energy by ending its practice of printing physical checks. They proposed very specific local projects, like a pollinator garden for bees and other insects along Newkirk Avenue in Brooklyn. Many people wanted more biking infrastructure, but they had specific ideas for where lanes and bike parking would be most useful. There was also a strong demand for the city to require or urge landlords to make rooftops available and safe enough for rooftop gardening.
Not all of the ideas proposed on the site are realistic. But enough of them are that it’s easy to imagine how an idea posted on the board could grow into a project, which users can then post on the site in order to recruit volunteers and allies. The projects featured on the site this morning were much more discrete, achievable goals: Users wanted to test the soil at a church as a step towards starting a vegetable garden, recruit volunteers for a Bronx River clean-up day in September, find New Yorkers to adopt and care for a local street tree, and raise money to put recycling bins in a school’s classrooms. City officials have said they’ll be paying attention to the ideas and project that the site collects: Some of the strong ideas posted today could grow into projects that city officials adopt, amplify, and make permanent.
Picture via Change by Us NYC