“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.