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Land Use Governance Stacks
How real property NFTs will make it easier for citizens to participate in the governance of a crypto city
Despite their best efforts, city agencies, non profits organizations, and elected officials struggle to reach their citizens and stakeholders. I see this every day in city government. The Planning Department is trying to get citizen input on new plans for a neighborhood, or the Health Department is trying to update residents on the new vaccination center operating hours. Governments do their best - they put these messages on social media, send them to opt-in email distribution lists, send snail mail with flyers and brochures, host live events, or even just stand on a sidewalk hoping to talk to residents. In all cases, they reach only a fraction of the citizens that deserve to have input or be notified.
With a crypto city, you can solve the problem of making sure everyone is properly notified. I will explain (with pictures!) below. For a TL;DR see my previous article the problem of public notice.
Real Property NFTs and ENS Names are the Key
When you buy a property in a crypto city by purchasing a NFT,1 your ENS name2 (essentially a human friendly username linked to the ethereum wallet receiving the NFT) will become automatically associated with that property. Along with your ENS name (vitalk.eth or AnonymousHippo13.eth,3 for example), the email/twitter/discord/telegram username that you set in your ENS profile will also be linked with the property.
Using simple GIS tools, the crypto city can give the owner of the property NFT (you) access to vote and participate in governance of multiple geographic areas of which your property is a part. The “stack” of geographic areas, or governance units, that your NFT has access to is called the land use governance stack. It will determine 1) what you get notified about, and 2) what you are allowed to vote in, or comment on. Here’s how it would work.
Example: 530 9th Street SE, Washington DC
Let’s say you buy the property at 530 9th ST SE, Washington, DC 4 and the property NFT is transferred to your .eth address. After that, anytime there is a public comment opportunity within a governance unit - of which your property is a part - you’ll get an email notification.5 If there is a voting opportunity, you’ll be notified too, and the NFT for 530 9th ST SE will be proof that you are eligible to cast a vote.
What are these governance units? They could be the area bounded by four streets (like a block), or a neighborhood, or even a watershed. The key is that each governance unit has unique geographic boundaries. If your property is within those boundaries, then you would be eligible to participate in comment or voting opportunities specific to the unit. Governance units can be stacked together in three different ways; telescoping, overlapping, and opt-in.
Telescoping Governance Stack
In the telescoping governance stack, your various governance units fit together like Russian nesting dolls. You are on Street A, which is in Neighborhood M, which is in District X, etc. Typically there are no overlaps between governance units of similar kind (like a street for example). You are either on Street A or Street B. Not both. To better illustrate this, here is what a telescoping stack would be for 530 9th ST SE, if Washington, DC were a crypto city. I’ll start from the unit with the smallest area and zoom out from there, giving a few examples of the notifications and input/voting opportunities that each governance unit might have.
House / Property
This is where you live. Its not a governance unit really, but by owning the NFT for 530 9th ST SE, you own the title to that parcel, get exclusive access to the physical property, the ability to sell, and depending on how the crypto city works - you may be able to edit certain attributes of the NFT (like adding a renter and a lease or your building characteristics, but obviously not the ability to edit things like the X,Y coordinates of the property boundaries). The ability for a crypto city to send notifications directly to the owner could be useful in situations like property tax bills, a boil water advisory where the water utility has identified your home as being in the affected area and can provide you with updates on when the water will be safe to drink again.
When you live in a dense urban area like Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, the street becomes an extension of your home. You walk it every day, you have an interest in it looking nice and working well. Specifically I’m referring to the street that is directly outside your home, so in this case the street governance unit would include all the properties that touch 9th ST SE between F ST SE and G ST SE. This governance unit might notify you when the street sweeping schedule is, when the sidewalks will be replaced, or if one of your neighbors is planning to demolish their house and is asking for a zoning variance to build a 4 story home (when every other house has only 3 stories). If you are in this governance unit, maybe your vote on whether to approve the zoning variance counts twice as much as someone who is in the neighborhood but not on 9th ST SE.
Similar to the street governance unit, dense urban areas may also need a governance unit for houses that share an alley, known as a block. In this case the block is the polygon formed by the boundaries of 9th St SE, 10th ST SE, F ST SE and G ST SE. Alley repairs, temporary closings, or any neighbors’ upcoming major renovations or variance requests would be useful notifications to receive.
Neighborhoods are notoriously difficult to define, so maybe your house might be a part of multiple neighborhoods, not just one. Ideally when defining the neighborhood, it is big enough to encompass places that you’d visit on a daily/weekly basis (grocery store, pharmacy, local restaurants, coffee shops, library, transit stops, and parks), but small enough so that all the places within it still feel like “yours” and not just some other part of the city that you occasionally visit.
In this case, you’d be in the Capitol Hill South neighborhood, which has multiple neighborhood parks, two commercial corridors and some relatively obvious geographic boundaries (a highway, a river, and large institutions). This governance unit might be notified if there is: redevelopment that is the size of a block or more, a proposal to subdivide property, a newly opened/closed restaurant or store, a plan for redeveloping a school, community center, or library, or a master plan for the neighborhood or individual parks within it. You would be able to comment on neighborhood master plans or certain neighborhood parks, while other residents living in a different neighborhood, would not.
The term district is meant to describe geographic areas that have political or bureaucratic meaning. In Washington, DC, the City Council (essentially the state legislative body) has 15 seats, 8 of which are based on geographic areas known as wards. The house in this example is in Ward 6, shown in yellow. There are other bureaucratic districts - for example areas with boundaries that determine which elementary school your kids attend, or police district boundaries (530 9th ST SE is part of Police District 106 shown in white). At the district level, you'll want to be notified about Ward 6 council elections and changes in school/police district leadership, and opportunities to influence the policies of the school or police district. You’ll have exclusive access to vote for the Ward 6 Council member. For example, a resident in Ward 7 will not be able to vote in Ward 6.6
At the city level, you’d want to be notified of citywide elections, upcoming ballot measures, comment opportunities for important legislation (perhaps you could set preferences to only alert you of legislation and regulations on particular subjects), and other city wide comment opportunities such as proposed budget, citywide master plans, and city zoning maps. Only citizens who hold a real property NFT (or a lease NFT) will be eligible to vote in city elections or comment on city wide plans. For example, residents from Maryland (a neighboring state) could review and comment on the city’s master plan but maybe their comments would be given less weight, and they wouldn’t be able to vote for the master plan’s approval.
Metro Area / State / Nation / World?
This telescoping stack could in theory extend beyond the city limits. For example, residents of Washington, DC would be interested in the regional transportation plan (i.e. should the region build more highways or public transit to connect the suburbs in the neighboring states of Virginia and Maryland; suburbs that house many of the people who come to work in Washington, DC?) as it has an impact on carbon emissions, traffic congestion, and air quality. Beyond the metro area you could zoom out to the state level (not applicable in this case since Washington, DC is a city-state),7 the national level (i.e. being eligible to hear about and participate in national elections, or declarations of war), or even the entire globe (i.e. being able to hear about or participate in treaties, trade agreements, climate agreements etc.). This would be a big shift (direct democracy to decide when to go to war?!!) but at least is interesting in theory.
Overlapping and Opt-in Governance Stacks
I just went through a detailed example of telescoping governance stacks. I won’t do the same for overlapping or opt-in governance stacks, but I will give quick examples to illustrate the point. In overlapping governance stacks, the geographic areas of similar units can be overlapping. You can think of it as using tags instead of categories to label the governance units within. For example, every city park could have its own governance unit. But how do you decide which citizens are eligible to be in that governance unit? Simply including everyone within a 1 mile radius might create some overlaps; Your house might be within 1 mile of multiple parks, and thus you’d be in both governance units, not just one.
Opt-in governance stacks would contain governance units for which anyone could sign up. If you lived in Capitol Hill, but worked near the Wharf neighborhood, you might opt-in to the Wharf neighborhood unit to stay up to date. In some cases you might be able to opt-in to be notified, but would not have any voting rights. Returning to the city park example, a crypto city could decide that instead of automatically assigning governance rights to each citizen based on their proximity to a park, each citizen can opt-in to up to 3 city park governance units. They could be your closest 3 parks, or simply your most visited parks, even if they are scattered throughout the city.
Official Governance Communications vs. Social Communications
If you’ve ever been on a mailing list, you know it can get out of hand quickly. It starts off with everyone being respectful, then some new guy joins and asks if anyone wants to buy their old refrigerator, or shares a news article and it all goes down from there. For these governance units, I’m not suggesting that everyone can post to them. The idea here is that the only the DAO or government would send out these notifications (preferably automatically), and that the conversation on these topics would happen in a different forum.
In addition to the official governance communication channels that I’m talking about, you could still form separate social groups (like on Facebook or some other platform) where you would only be admitted if your property NFT was in the correct geographic area. In those platforms you could share news like when you are having a yard sale, or trying to organize a block party. Being a part of this social group would be opt-in, and once in the group you’d be able to set your notification preferences (i.e. be notified of every post, or get a daily, weekly digest) just like you can currently with platforms like Facebook and groups.io.
How Can We Reduce the Amount of Emails?
I view these notifications (official communication on upcoming elections, public comment periods, etc.) as something that should be sent to everyone; push notifications that you can’t turn off. It might feel arduous, but being notified of ways to participate in decision making seems like a basic requirement of participating in a democratic society. The problem is that even with only a very few categories of things that are push notifications by default (like elections and public comment periods), it still probably adds a lot of email to your day. Hyper local notifications like those affecting your street or your house might be worth it, but adding public comment notices for anything of interest at the neighborhood, state, or region level might prove to be too many.
This could potentially be mitigated by allowing citizens to choose to receive a monthly digest for things at the neighborhood scale or larger, AND by requiring that any item requiring public input have at least a 45 day comment period. That way you’ll always have at least 15 days to comment, even if the comment period opened the day after you normally get your monthly digest email.8 There may also be an opportunity for citizens to set some kind of preferences about the subjects that they might like to be notified about. For example, you might set your preferences so that you receive notifications about anything at the street, block, or neighborhood level, but outside those levels only you'll only be notified about comment opportunities related to parks, transportation, or housing policy.
There are so many opportunities for citizen engagement in a city. In our modern lives, we are often oblivious to them. And sometimes we are interested but don’t know where to look, or are too busy to take the time to proactively search for them. It shouldn't be this hard to participate in the governance of your city.
In a crypto city, it will be easier to make sure everyone is notified, and then we can use all the amazing digital tools out now and being developed9 to do democracy and governance even better. You’ll still have a problem where a certain percentage of citizens will be notified and choose not to act. That's OK. But if citizens are not even given the opportunity to vote or comment? That's something we need to fix.
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Tags: hashGovernance hashLandUseAndProperty
This is already sort of happening, but is not really mainstream. See propy.com for a leading edge example. What I’m suggesting here could be as simple as taking an existing city’s real property records and deed recording system, and instead of having them as paper files, just make them into NFTs.
I’m using ENS here as the example because it is reasonably well known. But this could work with any system that links a cryptocurrency wallet capable of storing NFTs with a way to contact the wallet holder using popular communication technologies.
For those concerned about privacy, I don’t think requiring an ENS name precludes it. Of course some people choose an ENS name that is their real name. But those people might also have another ENS name to help keep other assets anonymous. So Vitalik.eth might also own other pseudonyms (AnonymousHippo13.eth) and use those other pseudonyms to buy a house. Then when setting the email address to which he wants to receive notifications he can use firstname.lastname@example.org and then forward all those emails to his regular email account.
For the record, I have no idea who owns this house in real life - it is not relevant. I just picked a neighborhood in DC with which I am reasonably familiar and has an easy to decipher block structure that is a good fit for the example. Also for clarity, SE = Southeast, which is used to denote which quadrant of the city you are in. In Washington, DC the U.S. Capitol is the center point.
It doesn’t have to be email, it could be a twitter, discord, or text message. The crypto city could either designate the messaging platform that every citizen is required to use for governance, or could simply require that at least one of the ENS name properties are filled out, and notifications will be sent in whatever form the owner selects. For example, Person A only puts a twitter handle in the ENS name profile so they get a DM in twitter. Person B only puts an email address in the ENS name profile so they get an email.
This is already the case, but a crypto city could simplify the verification process by using NFTs and digital voting like on snapshot.org.
You may not know this, but Washington, DC (locally referred to as “The District”) is not a state. The 700,000+ residents of this District (more than the populations of Vermont and Wyoming) do not enjoy all the benefits that every other citizen in the United States has. Chief among the benefits that District residents are missing is that they have no voting representation in congress. Learn more here.
For example: A neighborhood master plan gets posted for a 45 day public comment on September 16. You get your monthly digest on the 15th of every month. So you wouldn’t see a notification on September 15th, and the first time you’d get notified in your monthly digest is on October 15th. But you’ll still have a little more than two weeks to get your comments in by October 31 (45 days after September 16).
Tools that make it easier to vote and discuss like pol.is, Discourse, Discord, Snapshot, and other collaboration tools like Miro Board, Zoom, Notion, and many more.