Fewer Regulations, More Open Source and a Broader View
This is what Mark van der Net thinks can uncover new perspectives for architecture and urban planning.
CA: Mark, you created OSCity – a free online platform that combines cutting-edge technology, open source and spatial planning. Can you briefly explain what it is and how it started?
MvdN: It started about two years ago. Around that time I became intrigued by the changes in the availability of open data that had begun to grow and the development of the Internet itself, which started to allow us to geocode all sorts of spatial components, such as postal codes, street names, cities and so forth. I noticed that the existing planning system was not responding to the possibilities offered by this technology and I wanted to do something about it. With the help of a subsidy I received, I started OSCity that at first focused only on gathering urban data. Later, I created a semantic way of generating GIS analysis that allowed the platform to respond to geographical questions. This is what OSCity is able to do now and ever since then I have been using it to develop a number of projects aggregating spatial data to address specific urban questions.
CA: What are you working on at the moment?
MvdN: Currently, I have taken up a project that aims to codify building regulations in the urban context. Today in Holland if you need to get access to this kind of information, even if it refers to your own backyard, you need to purchase a number of documents. Everything in this country is regulated and the regulations have become a way of making money. On the contrary, the objective of my project is to make these regulations crystal clear and available to people. I think that in general this principle is present in my work. I would like the city to become more open source.
AM: How do you think this open source idea can be used in a practical way?
MvdN: In one of my projects, which was a small customizable house, I made use of a new rule that allows construction without a permit up to a certain height and amount of square metres. I am very enthusiastic about it because the use of small scale and mass customization could open up a whole new field of making architecture. I would like to find a way to be able to combine design with data analysis to create plans that work around the rules.
I also think that there is huge potential in the use of open models. In my opinion, urban theory delivers very poor ideas about how a contemporary city functions as a whole. We are not thinking about how to manage the city as a set of commons or as a way to facilitate people’s needs with durable investments. If we are not able to think about how we locate new buildings in the city then we will not be able to get the best out of them and they will not be able to empower the people living in their vicinity. I think urban theory that focuses on these issues is largely absent. We can endlessly refer to what Jane Jacobs wrote about but in the end the whole world is not Greenwich Village.
AM: And we are not living in the 1950s anymore . . .
MvdN: Exactly, Jane Jacobs has formulated a really good theory but it’s 50 years old. It would be great if somebody could update and improve upon it.
Perhaps the idea of space syntax is worth mentioning here. It is a theory that was developed in 1970s and 1980s based on a very simple model describing the street network. It does not analyze buildings or people, just streets. The simple fact that some streets are used more frequently than others already reveals some important aspects. It could, for instance, indicate the location of functions that require more rest and tranquility. I have worked with Peter De Bois who developed an improved space syntax model that is more focused on the integration of spaces in the city according to the rule of 3 steps. 1  Peter de Bois and Karen Buurmans have jointly developed the Three Step order analysis method to count the number of connections of any given location to its environment. In this video from OSCity we can see the difference in centrality of three locations in Amsterdam. His analysis is based on 3 steps of integration. The first step is defined by all connections that take only one turn to get to a place. The number of decisions you need to make ultimately says something about how a place is located in the city: are its connections only local? Is it connected on a medium scale or a larger scale? I worked with Peter to automate this model and make it available online. We are now troubleshooting the last issues and it will soon be available for everyone to play around with. Maybe it is not yet suitable to provide a piece of advice to the local barber about where to locate his shop but it will be able to give valuable insights that may be helpful in making some strategic decisions for locating particular functions in urban environment.
AC: Your projects sound very experimental. How do you manage to finance them?
MvdN: I am currently working on a revenue model for OSCity. I would like to use it to provide the architecture and urban professionals with very simple and pragmatic tools. Now OSCity can solve problems that nobody can see yet, but it can also help urban practitioners to work with data on a very basic level. To give an example, OSCity can provide 3D models of cities and/or their parts. It could potentially save a lot of time for all the people who are busy tracing aerial photos in order to draw a base map.
CA: If you would have to summarize your fascination, what really drives you in your work?
MvdN: I was educated as an architect and a programmer. This combination has in some ways defined my interest. I am always switching between the physical and the virtual world. I think that if you would only look at the data you would loose something and the other way round. At the same time you can’t turn away from the huge possibilities that this algorithmic way of working can offer, especially when it concerns big problems, but people are often too self-focused to really look at them. The financial crisis for example was generated by really small rules that got out of hand because nobody really took care of looking at the bigger picture.
The data makes it possible to analyze errors that appear in the system and I think this is one of the areas where we can actually make a difference.
I believe in a sense of activism that taps into the system and bends the rules from within.
Let’s take the example of my project that I mentioned before. I think it is fantastic to make information about building regulations open source. I could also offer a competing service to the cadaster instead, but I’m not interested in that. I am interested in solving problems of that sort and tweaking the system. If we would do away with the current building procedures a whole new world would open up and so too would the practice of architecture.
AM: Is there someone you look up to in your work, someone you could call a master?
MvdN: Like Yoda?
CA: For instance.
MvdN: Not really, but I have to say that when I lived in Berlin I got in contact with a local hacker community and I found them to be very inspiring. I thought they were from another world. Most of them were Ossies with a completely different view on the world. They are not focused on making a career or money. These guys sit in a huge server park in a giant workshop space where they all share and do crazy things. At the same time they can earn enough to support this kind of lifestyle. It is a radically different and powerful culture.
One of their actions I learned about took place during local elections some time ago. One of the members realized that the voting system wasn’t technically sound. The wires of the computers were not properly protected and one could read people’s votes with an electromagnetic field receiver. Of course they publicly exposed the faults of this system ridiculing the carelessness of the organizers.
On another occasion they discovered that the German government was spying on people through poorly programmed Trojan horse malware. As if it was not bad enough to spy on people, it was done with a system so inept that anyone could tap into it and see what the government was seeing.
What I find fascinating about groups like this one is that they are non-funded and formed by people with enormous skill sets. In a way it allows them to function on the edge of the economic system. I think that the idea of Amateur Cities has also something to do with it. People are talking about the bottom-up initiatives a lot, but at the end of the day one needs the means to transcend the bottom-up to make a bigger impact. In that sense the aspect of scalability turns the IT enthusiasts into a new kind of elite. One day they build a small website, like Pirate Bay, and a few days later it becomes a huge force on its own.
These people are powerful and financially independent enough to step outside the economical order and try to remake the city.
In that sense these guys are really important to my understanding of achievement. They are the best in their field and they have a sense of communality, which they put to work.
AM: Do you also plan to make your scripts available in such a way that everyone would be able to make use of them for their own analysis?
MvdN: Actually I have implemented a feature in OSCity that allows to make maps and visualizations of particular searches, but it is still waiting to be released. It is very important to me that people would be able to use OSCity to create their own stories without my support. It is however still difficult to achieve that because the technology does not allow the precision needed to do that. Another thing is that there is still a lot of naivety related to the use of technology and its applications. Many people think that it’s fairly easy to build another Facebook today. After two years of working with ideas that embrace people networks and technology I have become much more modest about it. I have realized that it involves a lot more than just technology to get there. Technology is irrelevant if you do not have a community behind it and it is hard to build a community of people who would get together to make a model of how cities function.
CA: Can people now ask you to put a map together for them?
MvdN: Yes, recently somebody asked me to analyze where all the municipality workers live. It is interesting to know if the people who make urban policies live in the same city, but it also shows what are people really concerned about. It is definitely not urban theory.
I am also working on creating action maps, which do not aim to visualize data but to generate an action. For example, an architect who specializes in façade renovations could post an action map consisting of buildings that have terrible energy consumption and need to be renovated. It is currently in beta version and it is available for testing.
CA: Could you tell us what really annoys you, what do you complain about the most?
MvdN: I complain a lot about the Dutch regulations, but if it they were not the way they are I wouldn’t have anything to do. So complaining provides me with a mission to make things better. In that sense my complaints are also my biggest passions.
AM: What else besides that should change in cities in the near future, what are the important urban issues that we need to address?
MvdN: I think in the near future we will need to orientate towards the better management of the common wealth we share. Managing of the commons including the social capital, knowledge, cities, landscape and energy that flows through them. This is our real wealth. At the same time, we have to tackle the problems related to the devastation of the environment as well as the social unrest.
CA: Do you think we will manage to do that; are you optimistic about the future?
MvdN: Oh yes! I think there is a new generation coming and I am also really hopeful about the kind of people like the ones I met in Berlin.
But I think we need to focus more on working with big insights. Designers today focus too much on deciding the importance of one detail over the other. It does not make any sense. It is not socially relevant. Unfortunately design has turned away from big issues. It is more obsessed with the little stuff and to be socially relevant one has to paint with big strokes. Technology is all about big strokes and this is why it makes good sense.
Sometimes we focus on the details because we want to avoid seeing the big problems; we are pretending that we cannot see the elephant in the room. I think the city is really not a detail; it’s a huge thing and it is in fact like an elephant in the room today.
AM: Do you think the city makers of tomorrow will focus more on the big strokes?
MvdN: I think the city maker of tomorrow will be more of an infrastructure provider, a technology facilitator.