Public Works: Crowdsourcing a Map of Urban Decay
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Public Works: Crowdsourcing a Map of Urban Decay

The Detroit Blight Removal Task Force enlisted a tech startup to create an app for reporting abandoned and derelict properties.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

A Detroit tech startup has created a smartphone app called Blexting, a tool that allows locals to upload photos and descriptions of derelict buildings around the city and track them through an online database.

Detroit has long had its problems; the past few decades have been marked by rampant poverty, racial tension, and the slow unravelling of American industry. But after the economic crisis of 2008 and the near-total collapse of local auto manufacturing, Detroit’s urban decay kicked into overdrive. Property values plummeted, and hundreds of home- and business-owners simply boarded up their places and walked away.

In September 2013, President Barack Obama assembled the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force, charged with finding a way to rid Motown of abandoned, run-down, and dangerous properties.

That winter, the task force enlisted the help of Loveland Technologies, which had already created “Why Don’t We Own This?”—a website that posts Detroit property information including ownership and foreclosure risks.

Over the course of 40 snowy working days from December 2013 to January 2014, Loveland had 150 people survey Detroit’s 380,000 properties. They found that about 50,000 were totally abandoned, and another 10,000 were probably unoccupied. From this list, Loveland created an interactive map that indicates properties’ occupancy, condition, level of fire damage, and the presence of garbage dumped on them.

Blexting is an ongoing project. Anyone in Detroit can upload photos and descriptions of properties they see. And, as they do, the database of properties can be updated to reflect which spots have gotten worse and which have gotten better.

With this crowdsourced information, the Blight Removal Task Force can decide which properties might be fixed up and auctioned off and which must be torn down, Loveland CEO Jerry Paffendorf explained to Boston public radio show Here & Now.

“You can start making those much more intelligent decisions about how to allocate resources,” he said.

Toronto is not nearly as blight-afflicted as Detroit, but we do have our share of derelict properties, and the City is trying to fix them. On January 21, City Council’s committee on licensing and standards approved a plan to create a framework for resolving “vacant-derelict properties” in Toronto.

“Vacant and/or derelict properties in Toronto can pose dangers to the health and safety of any person,” reads the City’s backgrounder on the plan. “They can negatively impact neighbourhoods and individuals by becoming dilapidated, causing hazards, becoming unsightly, becoming infested with pests, attracting trespassers, impacting streetscapes and overall community standards.”

Among the recommendations [PDF] in the plan is a list of vacant and derelict properties to be shared amongst bureaucrats and emergency service departments.

A full report on how to move forward in the fight against blight will be submitted in October 2015. Toronto could do much worse than to include a Detroit-style, crowdsourced database of derelict properties.

To be sure, it’s cheaper than paying municipal workers to walk the streets. But there’s more at play here than cost-efficiency. With Blexting, Loveland and the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force have turned city renewal into a team effort. Urban decay and its consequences are everyone’s problem. Ending blight should be, too.