Does Twitter Support a Better Global Urbanism?

Brent Toderian's picture
A few weeks ago I had lunch with a friend and fellow urbanist, Bob Ransford. Lunches with Bob are never boring, as we get right into things, and often debate. Bob's a communications specialist and a longtime member of the Twitteratti (@BobRansford), so amongst discussions about strengthening urbanism in the Cascadia Region, and affordability debates in Vancouver, I asked him a question that's been on my mind for the last month: Is Twitter a positive tool for global urbanism? Put another way, is twitter facilitating smarter discussions on international city-building, or are we all getting dumber, 140 characters at a time?

I should start by pointing out that I'm hardly a Twitter expert, having only recently given in and trying it. I had been very dubious about Twitter while I was a municipal leader, even though I had been blogging here on Planetizen as Vancouver's Director of City Planning for years. I had never sought official permission to do that, as the City had no blogging policy, and there had been no official rebuke or order to desist, although there was some passive disapproval that I was generally aware of that never became an official issue.  There was also, as far as I knew, no policy on Staff tweeting outside of projects, but I didn't know anyone at the Hall who did.

A few of my planning, design and architecture friends working in other city halls were tweeting, some as "citizens", and others referencing in various ways their official positions. I wasn't sure what to make of that. I saw many public officials (mostly politicians) getting in big trouble from poorly thought-out tweeting.

Although I've always had the disciplined approach that I don't write or say anything in social media that I wouldn't be prepared to say on the record to a reporter, or "shout from the street-corner at Robson and Burrard" (a thought process I used through 6 years of blogging from City Hall), I had always concluded that the risk wasn't worth it when it came to Twitter.

As I was leaving the Vancouver Chief Planner role in February, one of my former colleagues took the liberty of setting up an account for me (@BrentToderian), strongly encouraging me to use it as part of the "free voice" I would have after leaving city leadership. Indeed, the reasons and circumstances under which I was leaving City Hall, I was told, were already "burning up the Twitter-verse" and if nothing else, I would want to monitor that.

The account sat untouched for about a month and a half, as I focused on more exciting things like setting up my new company, and considering some job offers. But there I was on a Sunday night, a month and a half after leaving City Hall, with some trepidation, deciding to give Twitter a try.

Five weeks, and far too many tweets later (my wife is convinced tweeting is addictive, and there's no doubt it can be distracting), I've paused to ask myself, and Bob over lunch, about its value to my work, and to the "cause" of improving global urbanism.

First, I've concluded that for an individual urbanist, a well-managed Twitter strategy can help you access everything out there in cutting-edge urban thinking. City planning, architecture, landscape architecture, urban design, land economics, politics, development, social issues, urban philosophy + pop-culture, and many seemingly unrelated deep thoughts about cities and society - all at your finger-tips if you choose well on who to follow. It can replace hundreds of magazines and newspapers, and it's all virtually "real time". If an urbanist only uses Twitter to follow the many on-line city-building sources out there, choosing not to tweet at all, it can be a very effective way to keep your finger on the pulse of things and stay cutting edge. For this, I give twitter high marks.

I've also been told that with the over-whelming amount of writing on urban issues on-line, smart Twitter-users can focus on following those they feel will "only tweet the good stuff." It becomes a useful way of sifting through all the city-building noise.

You can also choose to follow the spontaneous thoughts of city-builders you know and respect, who may say things on Twitter that they haven't said or written anywhere else. That can add another, almost "personal" dimension of access to information and knowledge beyond what's on-line. Of course given the runaway success Twitter has become as a tool to share links and fresh data, there are thousands of urbanists, with just as many agendas, using it. Like anything else on the internet, its important to choose wisely who you follow, and who you "believe".

One thing Twitter has clearly become a successful tool for, is augmenting public engagement processes. It's become common-place for cities, developers and consultants to set up project-specific twitter accounts for exercises such as community plans or development proposals. Not only can followers be kept up-to-date on events and key steps, but comments tweeted to the account can be re-tweeted to a broader audience (if you wish), links to information and related articles and research can be tweeted (to broaden a discussion), and so on. It can be an effective context-building tool for planning and design programs, albeit within its limitations, including the fact that not everyone an engagement wants to reach is on Twitter. Thus it doesn't replace broader engagement tools and approaches, but like many forms of social media, it's now a valuable addition to more in-person techniques.

But can Twitter be a tool for the promotion of better urbanism in general? Can Twitter be part of a movement?

On the one hand, I've concluded it's a poor medium for debates, and often others want to use it for that. I've chosen to avoid that, unless I think the "audience" would benefit from a limited back-and-forth in some way. It certainly shouldn't be about trying to win an argument, convincing the one you're debating with that you are right or they are wrong – that's highly unlikely in this medium, and over-simplification and misinterpretation is probable.

On the other hand, I've found Twitter to be an interesting and effective way to convey simple messages and ideas that can support a movement or the promotion of an improved urbanism. You can only say so much in 140 characters, but you can always write something longer on other web-based platforms such as a blog, and use twitter to link people to that larger writing. I'll be doing that with this post, when I tweet out a link to it. Like many tools, it's more effective when combined with other synergistic tools.

Do these ideas really reach people? I must say, as a newbie, I still find it remarkable that I can send out a simple tweet on a city-building subject, with a link to a longer discussion, like this tweet from a few weeks back:

Part of "density done well" is understanding what I call "the power of nearness!" Mixed, compact & walkable by design.

This tweet can be theoretically read by any of the 850+ initial followers. More importantly, within minutes this message can be re-tweeted to thousands or even tens of thousands of followers. So fast! Do most of those people read the tweet, or go to the link? Doubtful, but even if a portion do, we can't doubt that the tool can be a fast and effective way of spreading messaging or information.

Do these ideas and messages actually influence urbanists or the general public? That depends on the quality and persuasiveness of the message, but the tool does its part.

When it comes to promoting a movement, many advocacy organizations use twitter prolifically, including urbanist organizations.  An evolving example I'm involved with is the recent use of Twitter by the Council of Canadian Urbanism, or CanU , an organization for which I'm President (@CanUrbanism). We're already finding it effective in increasing organization awareness/recognition, communicating our messages and history, sharing information that supports our mission or fosters healthy debate, and ultimately facilitating membership and support - all very important things to help an urbanism advocacy movement and organization grow.

Since originally writing this piece, I've come across a different kind of "movement" in urbanism on Twitter, one with a lot more humour involved - the mission of @UrbanismAvenger! This just goes to show what the medium can accomplish, especially if we occasionally just "go with it!"

Over lunch, Bob and I also discussed whether Twitter has the potential to broaden the city-building audience. Although Bob tells me it's officially considered a "narrow-casting" tool rather than a broad-casting tool, the viral nature of tweeting can't be underestimated, allowing for the cross-pollination of ideas and knowledge.

I've been surprised at how many non-urbanists are already following me. Admittedly my past position was somewhat high profile among the general public and perhaps this isn't true of every urbanist, but we can't underestimate how many of the "non-usual suspects" beyond our initial narrow circles might want to receive tweets and re-tweets on issues of city-building. This can be very important in sharing information beyond the converted or the involved.

In my short experience, I've already seen many cases of another way the audience can be expanded. It's apparent that many reporters follow high profile city-builders on Twitter, looking for angles and comments on existing stories, or even new story ideas. In some cases within minutes of tweeting a comment, an urbanist can be contacted by a reporter wanting to do a story or interview on that exact urban issue. This has happened to me on many occasions, and within a few hours I might find myself on the radio or TV, discussing the urban issue with a very broad audience of the general public. Those kinds of opportunities, where we can affect the media discussion and then participate in it, can be very powerful with the broad public discourse on city-building. All from a tweet.

Having had this month to think about it, yes, I do believe that Twitter can be a positive force for a better global urbanism. What's most true for me, is that like any tool, the art is in how you use it. You can be mediocre and mundane, false and cynical, distracting or self-indulgent. You can also be relevant, profound, inspirational, passionate, and strategic - all in a mere 140 characters.  It's what you make of it.  We're all still learning and developing the power of these new tools of social media and the new world they are enabling. Given the huge challenges we face in city-building and sustainability, and the creativity we'll need to address them, we urbanists need every effective tool we can get!

(A shorter version of this post first appeared on-line at Spacing!)

Brent Toderian is an international consultant on advanced urbanism with TODERIAN UrbanWORKS, Vancouver’s former Director of City Planning, and the President of the Council for Canadian Urbanism. Follow him on Twitter @BrentToderian


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