PlaceMatters logo PlaceMatters text logo

Change & Continuity

As an urban designer, I was taught the principles of good urban form that make for successful, integrative, and healthy environments. However, my education and early career offered less clarity about how cities decide what sort of places they will become. What are the decisions that need to be made, and by who, in order for us to build better cities? What information is needed to support those decisions? How do we present that information so that it matters – that it clarifies, sharpens, and leads to better decisions?

The last 3 years at PlaceMatters have allowed me to work with some wonderful people to tackle those questions. We’ve improved decision-support tools, integrated data and technology into the decision-making process, and built technical capacity for dozens of communities. We’ve helped nurture tools that communicate complex ideas, and built a few of our own.

Along the way, I’ve become increasingly convinced that we need tools and methods that do a better job of both analyzing and communicating the tradeoffs of the decisions facing cities. My time at PlaceMatters has been an enviable vantage point from which I’ve seen the tools and the practice of scenario planning shift towards that spirit of communicating, visualizing, and building understanding.

This vantage point has been ideal preparation for my next position. Starting later this month, I’ll be joining the UrbanFootprint team at Calthorpe Associates. I’ll be helping them use and build out UrbanFootprint, a web-based scenario modeling tool that’s been used extensively in California and elsewhere. It’s already a great tool, and I’m excited about contributing what I’ve learned in the last three years about how technology, analysis, and user-centered design can shape the way we build cities.  Although I’ll miss the people and work at PlaceMatters, I’ll continue to be involved in the network of folks that have been part of the PlaceMatters family.

Thank you to all the smart, kind people I’ve had the pleasure to work with over the last few years; I hope we have a chance to work together again someday soon.

Tools for Aging in Place

Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 2.16.11 PM

One of the more pressing issues facing many communities is the changing needs of residents as they age. Driving becomes difficult, building design can be a burden, and the amenities seniors need can be very different than the needs of young families or singles. Lifetime Communities are places designed to take into account the changing needs of residents at all age levels. The challenge is that we don’t have enough of these places in most parts of the U.S. PlaceMatters recently partnered with the Center for Aging at Indiana University to build the Lifetime Communities Tool, a survey that gauges current and prospective residents of Bloomington, IN on their lifestyle preferences while teaching them about the relationship between different aspects of the built environment and aging in place.

The tool starts out by asking residents to choose a community type. Participants can explore community types to see what sorts of homes and transportation options fit within different community types. There’s also lots of information tucked away about each type of community and home for those that want to dig deeper.

Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 2.18.05 PM

Selecting a community type shows the homes that match.

Selecting a community type shows the homes that match.

Participants are then asked to choose a type of home according to different parameters: home size, cost, and universal design features. As they make choices, the tool filters out homes that aren’t a match. Participants choose from the matching home types, and are taken to the next set of preferences: amenities. A common question for relocating families is the distance of their new home from amenities.

For each participant, the tool asks them two questions: How close would you like this amenity to be, and how often would you imagine visiting it? Destinations like hospitals might not need to be terribly close if visits are spread out to only once a month, but a grocery store might need to be closer if the resident wants to shop every other day. As those two questions are answered for each amenity, a chart updates to show the total mix of trips that could be taken by each mode of transport. In other words, how many of the trips I take could be made on foot, by bike, by car, or by transit?

Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 2.20.26 PM

After that, we ask a few demographic/lifestyle questions and then report back the results. The tool will be launched in the coming days, and the goal is to use the results to help decision makers in Bloomington, IN decide what policies and designs will best suit future residents. We’re hoping this can become the beginning of a tool that builds understanding both for survey participants about aging in place and for researchers about what features matter the most to potential residents.

WALKscope: Crowdsourced Pedestrian Data

It’s easy to look around most American cities and guess (correctly) where most of our transportation infrastructure funding is spent: on auto-oriented projects. As transportation infrastructure became more complex and within the purview of the public sector, planners and engineers developed the data and methodologies we needed to track what infrastructure exists and how it’s being used. This information guides policy decisions about where to invest resources.

However, we rarely have this kind of data for active transportation like biking and walking. This lack of data puts active transportation at a disadvantage when it’s time to allocate resources; after all, how do you argue for more sidewalks or prioritize where to put resources when you can’t demonstrate where the existing gaps and strengths are in the network? Following the “what gets measured gets done” logic, auto-oriented uses are better equipped to demonstrate need because they have data, perpetuating a cycle of auto-focused spending.


WALKscope desktop view

Over the last few months, PlaceMatters has been working with our friends at Walk Denver on a new tool for crowdsourcing data about the existing conditions and usage of Denver’s pedestrian infrastructure. The concept behind WALKscope is simple: drop a pin on a map, and then answer a few questions about pedestrian counts, street quality, or intersection quality.

At the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference last month, we were able to test it out in the field with 30 participants in a mobile workshop. Participants were given a quick tour of the tool, some maps showing them where to canvas, and then they were sent out into the Jefferson Park neighborhood of Denver. After about 30 minutes, we’d covered several blocks.

Jefferson Park Data

30 minutes of WALKscope with 6 groups

When participants returned, we pulled up the map and groups were able to report out on the data they’d just collected, including the pictures they took. Cool.


Using WALKscope to report what we found during the data collection.

We then got down to my favorite part, a usability review of the tool. Overall, the comments were really positive. Some of the pluses:

  • responsive design: because it’s designed for use with mobile devices, the interface for collecting data was really easy to use in the field.
  • pictures: incorporating pictures is really helpful for adding detail to what is otherwise a pretty basic survey of the area
  • conversation starter: several folks mentioned that neighborhood residents asked them what they were up to, and a couple of those residents even asked how they could get involved and pitch in.

and the most common requests/issues:

  • more categories: it’s always tricky balancing the desire for precision with the need to generalize categories to make the data manageable. We got some helpful feedback on refining our current ways of categorizing sidewalks and intersections.
  • ped counter interface: one of the best ideas we heard was to add a clicker feature to the ped counter option so people could just tick off a new pedestrian each time they saw one rather than remembering the total and updating it at the end. I love this idea; definitely something we’d like to implement.
  • user access: currently you can sign in via twitter or facebook, but people understandably would love to be able to have persistent sign-in so they could log a bunch of data points and have a user account keep up with it all for them.

So what’s next for WALKscope? If you’re in Denver, it’s up and ready for you to use it! We’ll be doing some data visualizations and other reporting from the work we’re doing with Walk Denver, and we’re talking with other organizations who are interested in using it. If you’d like more info on the tool, let us know!

PS: A huge amount of credit is due to the folks at OpenPlans for developing Shareabouts, the platform on which WALKscope is built.


Smartphones and civic engagement


One of the concerns that often accompanies the usage of technology like smartphones for civic engagement is a fear that they only reach a small and sometimes over-represented portion of the population. Well, the good folks at Pew Research Center published a study last month that found we’ve made it past the 50% mark for smartphone ownership. In typical Pew fashion, there are some really interesting insights in the slicing and dicing of demographics in the report. For instance, only 9% of respondents reported not owning any cell phone (and yes they did include land line calls in the survey). Of course, cell phones are just one of many mechanisms for engaging stakeholders, and are probably best used as ways of augmenting conventional engagement approaches. While we’re still a good ways off from full adoption of smartphones, there’s good reason to be excited about mobile technology for crowdsourcing, outreach, and other purposes.

And in other news of smartphones and the people who use them, check out this map of smartphone usage by brand. Notice any breakdowns along other demographic features?

Communicating Complexity in Planning: Webinar Recording

How do you square the complexity of planning issues with the need for clear, compelling information in decision-making? Earlier today, we held a webinar for HUD Sustainable Communities Initiative grantees with two folks who had lots of great ideas about just that topic! We talked visualization, learning styles, user interface design, civic engagement and lots more. Check it out and let us know what you think.

SimCity and Scenario Planning

The internet has been bubbling for the last month or so about the latest release of SimCity. FastCoExist asked a number of urban planners and other designers (including some Open Planning Tools Consortium participants like OpenPlans) to face off to design the best city. Slate had its own take on what the game means for urbanism and open data. And then there’s the usual twitter traffic.

I should preface this by saying I’m not a SimCity devotee. In fact, I might be one of the relatively few technology-focused planners of my generation who was never into SimCity as a kid (it certainly got some incredulous looks around the office). But games like SimCity pose some interesting questions for scenario planning:

Engagement and Analysis: Many of the tools developed for scenario planning look and feel as though they were built for analysis by professionals, and then “backed in” to use as engagement tools. Games like SimCity tend to be set up the opposite direction: first as tools for engagement (in this case, recreational engagement) with analysis as a means to that end. What can we learn about structuring the engagement components of scenario planning tools from games like SimCity?

Making Data Compelling: As the Slate piece points out, the volume of data available in planning presents a challenge to decision-makers (whether planners or game players). At PlaceMatters, we spend a lot of time figuring out how to select and present data in a useful way in our own scenario planning work. I’m really interested in how SimCity uses alerts, dashboards, or other mechanisms for showing the right data in the right way at the right time.

3D Visualization: From the screenshots I’ve seen of the new SimCity, it carries forward an aesthetic common in video games, which differs from the “SketchUp in Google Earth”-esque graphics common in planning. Given how quickly 3D visualizations in planning tools have been evolving, it’s worth thinking about the cityscapes and other representational decisions made within SimCity.

Short-Term vs Long-Term thinking: One of the pillars of scenario planning is working through the implications of choosing between short-term vs long-term outcomes. As the FastCoExist article pointed out, one of the main comments from the planners playing the game was that the value system embedded within it tended towards short term rewards. Are there lessons in the way SimCity structures those short-term vs long-term tradeoffs that could help scenario planners frame such issues?

Process: One thing games like SimCity rarely deal with is the process of making decisions in complex socio-political environments. Yet, it’s often those decision-making pieces that shape how scenarios on paper (or pixel) are actualized. Games and scenario planning tools that allow players to interact in richer, more collaborative ways is a direction in which many games are moving (see Minecraft or the nascent multiplayer features in SimCity).

I’m hoping to dig into the new SimCity soon and flesh out some of these thoughts, and I’d love to hear from those that have already started playing around with it.

(crossposted at

Scenario Planning Tools Workshop Highlights

Last week, PlaceMatters and Envision Utah hosted a Scenario Planning Workshop in Salt Lake City for grantees of the HUD/EPA/DOT Sustainable Communities Initiative. In addition to overviews of how scenario planning fits within broader planning projects, the workshop gave attendees a chance to get hands-on training in the nuts and bolts of using scenario planning tools. All of the tools experts provided excellent resources for the grantees, and two things stood out to me in particular:

First, Bill Lennertz from National Charrette Institute gave a great presentation about the charrette process, which uses iterative design sessions in a compressed time frame to generate both design strategies and community buy-in to the process and the solutions. It got me thinking about ways to incorporate Bill’s charrette approach into how we do scenario planning projects; for instance, are there ways that more in-depth working sessions with stakeholders and design-oriented approaches to scenario creation and exploration could plug into typical scenario frameworks? That’s something we’ll be exploring more in the coming months.

I also really enjoyed going under the hood of Envision Tomorrow +. Alex and Nadine from Fregonese Associates went through the details of several of the spreadsheets that drive the Return on Investment model and some of the other features of ET+, which really cemented my own interest in using it both on its own and in concert with other scenario planning tools that we use in our own shop.

All in all, the workshop was a great opportunity to connect with grantees and find how both how they’ve been using scenario planning tools in the past and the strategies they are putting together for their current projects.

Scenario Planning and Equity

Last week, PlaceMatters convened a peer exchange event in Seattle to look at how to better integrate social equity and scenario planning. The event, part of the HUD/EPA/DOT Sustainable Communities Initiative, brought together regions from around the country who have strong track records of engaging both topics, and the peer exchange format allowed for some great conversations. A couple personal highlights:

  • Boston’s regional planning agency (MAPC) is doing some amazing things that link together data and mapping with the Weave  platform. For instance, the one pictured below links a chart and map so that you can highlight an element of either the map or chart and it highlights the corresponding element on the other side (rather than trying to make sense of my description, I suggest you test it out).

    DataCommon, built on the Weave platform

  • The Puget Sound Regional Council has teamed up with Impact Capital to develop a regional equity network that is making sure equity issues are central to their planning project. I was particularly impressed with the regional equity network concept (more on that here) and the way the small grants program is tapping into existing institutions and networks to build civic capacity and engagement.
  • Finally, Dr. Gerardo Sandoval, a professor at University of Oregon, is looking at how undocumented immigrant communities can be better engaged and included in planning processes, including scenario planning. He had some great examples of things like commute patterns by bike that would likely get missed in a typical scenario planning process. It’s incredibly easy to lose sight of how much diversity there is in the way people use the built environment, so his research is a much-needed check to the scenario planning and civic engagement worlds.

These sorts of conversations, in which professionals are able to share lessons learned and collaboratively talk about solving current challenges, are incredibly valuable but unfortunately rare opportunities. They’re possible because of the innovative Sustainable Communities Initiative, and I hope they’re able to become more regular parts of the planning world.