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New Betaville, based on gaming technology, could equalize the information gap in urban design and enhance public participation

Public presentations of projects like Atlantic Yards have relied principally on self-serving, often misleading renderings produced by the developer's architect, frequently from a helicopter view rather than street level.

Indeed, even New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff got religion in April 2008, pointing out, 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 Atlantic Yards, some citizen activists and outside professionals produced alternative renderings of the project in neighborhood scale, which in turn led to a new and better renderings from architect Frank Gehry, which were released by the Empire State Development Corporation, the state agency shepherding the project.

Still, New York's daily newspapers failed to present a rendering of the project in neighborhood scale.

So, as I told Urban Omnibus, Betaville, described as a new “open source, multi-player environment for real cities” 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.

Urban Omnibus has an fascinating video interview with Betaville developer Carl Skelton, director of the Brooklyn Experimental Media Center (BxmC) at NYU Poly, in which he describes, using Betaville, how you can "fly around, like Robert Moses, and walk around, like Jane Jacobs" and how expertise can meet "local competence."

At the MAS Summit

I got a look at and a description of Betaville at the Municipal Art Society's Summit for NYC last October.


DNA Info offered coverage and a slideshow:
Betaville, which is available for download now, looks a lot like Google Earth, with true-to-life 3-D models of Manhattan's buildings and streets. But instead of a static landscape, users can alter the map, moving buildings and adding new ones, as well as roads, bridges, parks and public art.

Other users can then weigh in, adding comments and proposing changes...

(Here's the press release.)

Skelton showed a piece of Downtown Brooklyn, showing how public spaces such as Cadman Plaza might be reconnected, with art or new buildings. "There could be a dynamic connection between Downtown Brooklyn and Dumbo and the waterfront," he said.

"People could get online and tell you you were dead wrong," he said. "That process can get you mature design and consensus."

Of course that depends on whether the political framework is structured to get there. "What it costs to piss off a politically active and competent community is huge," Skelton suggested in the UO video.

Surely, the Atlantic Yards example shows some of the costs, but the city and state had long structured the deal so it couldn't be stopped.

Opening up

"It turns out that architects actually hate models that look like they're made out of foam core," he observed. With Betaville, structures can be translucent, showing sections and interior divisions and skins. "Yes, we can give you volume, as well as mass."

"Things you thought were only available to professionals have been available to all of us," he said.

Still, it will take a while to get more of New York online. "If somebody needs it badly enough, we'll do the work," he said, "but we're not systematically in the five boroughs."

One audience member recalled the resistance to Maya Lin's Vietnam Memorial, but then how the experience of the structure and space was profound. Given that "architecture is about much more than what we see, or even hear," the person asked, what are the limitations of this new tool?

"Is this the whole story? No," acknowledged Shelton.

Could the tool, another person asked, be used to apply community feedback after a project is proposed.

Yes, Skelton said, it can serve for not only feedback but to make an alternate model. It could even be used to respond to an RFP (Request for Proposals).

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