On the Map

On the Map

A Betaville walk on Liberty Piers in Lower Manhattan.
Courtesy Betaville

Google “Zola” and you will likely get results for Émile Zola, the French novelist who chronicled the crème and underbelly of Paris while Baron Haussmann plowed through the old city. Add “NYC planning” to the search and you get ZoLa, the new zoning and land use application launched September 7 by City Planning and the Department of Information, Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT). In the new application—billed as one stop shopping for zoning information—you can follow the drama of the ever-evolving city, though you can’t participate online. For that there are applications recently introduced and in development that have the capability of bringing the land use process into the virtual world.

ZoLa does allow visitors to zoom into a city map to get a mother lode of detailed information for every building, neighborhood, and borough. But if you have an issue with a zoning proposal, you still have to brave the three-minute speaking allotment at the Community Board. While the new program is definitely a snazzy tool, it’s not interactive. If anything, it most helps to alleviate an overburdened staff at City Planning’s help desk.


Aerial view of the proposed Liberty Piers in Betaville.

On other sites, the city does dip its digital toe into interactive waters. Interactive maps have started to allow New Yorkers to pinpoint trouble spots during blizzards and hurricanes. The DOT is using a similar application for the bike share program, where you can suggest a location for a new bike station, then link to Facebook and Twitter to lobby for it.

DoITT spokeperson Nick Sbordone said that while it’s not in his purview to speculate on whether specific agencies would adopt crowd-sourcing technology, he did say, “It’s clear we’re trending in that direction.” He pointed out that while call-takers still process information on 311, follow-up and tracking info is online via the department’s Service Request Map, thus freeing call-takers to help those without computers.

Both the Service Request Map and ZoLa were built with the NYCityMap platform, revamped in 2009 so that all citywide agencies could adapt it. “It provides a common functionality and uses open source software so that other City agencies can use it to build mapping apps of their own; ZoLa being a prime example,” said Sbordone.

Merging urban planning, architecture, and the land use process with interactive mapping and crowd sourcing could be just around the corner. At NYU’s Polytechnic Institute, the Brooklyn Experimental Media Center has been developing Betaville, described as “an open source multiplayer environment for real cities.” There you can download the platform and take a spin through downtown Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn to view theoretical building proposals, make comments on them, and see where a new building’s shadow might fall.

A Betaville proposal for Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn.

Carl Skelton, the Media Center’s director, said that by the time projects get to a community board they’ve already been fully developed. In Betaville public commentary becomes integrated into the process. “In the current public consultation process you have a choice of going bankrupt or having [the public] swallow it whole,” said Skelton. “But here you have the choice of developing it and its rival ideas side by side.”

Just as the city is using pinpoints on maps, Betaville takes it a step further by developing the pinpoint into a dialogue box. Skelton pointed to NYU’s expansion plans as an example that could have benefited from using the program at an early stage. “Silver Towers is a classic specimen,” he said of the university’s proposal to develop around the landmarked towers that eventually got panned and canned. “There were only a few primitive ways for locals to participate.” In Betaville, people who can’t make it to nighttime community board meeting can virtually view neighborhood proposals over morning coffee, make their comments, and head off to work.