“A living city is always in Beta. Let’s play.” That is the tagline of Betaville, a new “open source, multi-player environment for real cities” and the mantra of its developer, Carl Skelton, director of the Brooklyn Experimental Media Center (BxmC) at NYU Poly. The Omnibus recently had a chance to catch up with Skelton on the southernmost tip of Manhattan — a part of the city already rendered in 3D and available online on Betaville — to discuss how the project expands the participatory toolset of engaged urban citizens, and what participatory means in the first place. The goal of Betaville is “for new works of public art, architecture, urban design, and development [to be] be shared, discussed, tweaked, and brought to maturity in context, and with the kind of broad participation people take for granted in open source software development.” Find out more in video below:

Broad participation, it goes without saying, is hardly taken for granted in most kinds of large-scale urban development, even though a public review is legally mandated. Many things hinder public input on large urban development projects. For lay citizens to weigh in, they must first overcome the complexities of environmental and land use review procedures and then contend with the inconvenience and confrontation symptomatic of many community meetings. And the proposed plans to which the public is invited to respond are often subject to the manipulations of whoever is doing the proposing. In April of 2008, New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff noted, in relation to the Hudson Yards plan, that misleading and incomplete renderings produce a “distorted picture of reality” that “stifles what is supposed to be an open, democratic process.” With that in mind, Norman Oder, the writer of the watchdog blog Atlantic Yards Report, told us that “Betaville offers great promise in equalizing the information gap and helping present, from the start, a more honest perspective on development projects big and small. Such a service is only fair, and long overdue.” At the moment, setting up a Betaville for another part of town still presents some technical barriers to entry. But the project nonetheless reminds us to question, and to advance, the established methods and norms of public review and participation in our cities’ ongoing processes of change.

Carl Skelton, born in Toronto in 1961, now lives and works in New York City. In his spare time, he’s the founding director of the Brooklyn Experimental Media Center (BxmC), and the Integrated Digital Media programs of NYU’s Polytechnic Insitute. Carl’s current BxmC initiatives include partnerships with people and organizations as diverse as the Municipal Art Society of New York City and the M2C Institut für angewandte Medienforschung, Bremen (Betaville), the Music Technology program at NYU Steinhardt (Emotive Association project), and Microsoft Research (Games for Learning Insitute). Keep an eye out for upcoming public media installations in New York, and a book project with Luke DuBois.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


Daniela January 29, 2011

Wow that is super cool. Where does the data for Betaville come from, does it need to be modeled specifically or can proposals somehow be input? Is that data always public?

Carl Skelton January 30, 2011

Thanks, Daniela. Right now, the building models are hand-built by volunteers, and/or collected from coursework submitted for 3D graphics (NYU-Poly, thanks to Mark Skwarek) and architectural technology (New York City College of Technology, thanks to Paul King). It’s a lot of work up front, but then you have them available for all kinds of applications down the road, and after a while there’s a decent inventory of them. The terrain you see now is hand-built as well, but we’re working to dynamically render a mash-up of the USGS topography with public property data. Our lead modeler is Levis Reyes, an alumnus of the Architectural Technology program at City Tech. Oh, and I made a few of them too!You have to be careful with that kind of work, it’s weirdly addictive. Depending on the level of detail, one person can actually put together a neighborhood’s worth in a few weeks of evenings and weekends.

Jeffry Burchard February 11, 2011

Its not exactly synonmous with traditional open-source software platforms that usually depend on minimal SHARED experties as oposed to multiple disjunctive yet areas of expertise. The ability for both to write comments in a post window is not a leveling mechanism. Meaning, that you don’t (really) have a voice if you can’t rewrite code. There is a fine line between the absolute postive and necessary input of a local community and giving those voices undue value in comparison to the expertise of the architect/designer/developer/planner. A platform for open discussion is GREAT, a platform that suggests equal participation in the production of space is a bit suspicous and potentially inadvertanly harmful to productive progress. Consensus does not always yield greatness. However, I think that this IS a great project with a real potential to provide information in multiple directions.

Curtis M. Davis February 20, 2011

A friend sent me a link to this article on “Betaville”, this is interesting work. The technology is not what fascinates… the conceptual opportunities for the development of a public dialogue on urban space does (The work of David Bohm on “Dialogue” comes to mind.)

I like the technological notion of “Google Earth meets Second Life”. However, the way Betaville is described, “virtual design review” comes to mind. How might this system be deployed in a design charrette context? Kimon Onuma of Onuma Systems has been exploring this with interesting results through BIMStorms.

How one develops a platform for public engagement in the design process is a fundamental question about city building. I appreciate the modest goals of this initiative. As noted in the earlier post by Jeffry Burchard, fundamental questions about the relationship between the “developer/initiator” of a public realm design proposition and the impacted public remain.

I encourage this work on a very practical level. Regional Planning Agencies (RPA) and Municipal Redevelopment/Planning Agencies can deploy this tool to support the asynchronous review of regional, urban and community planning and design initiatives. Private developers can deploy this tool as noted in the video presentation and non-profit community design organizations can promote solutions to discrete regional/urban/community design problems.

I look forward to Betaville’s future development and deployment.