PlaceMatters logo PlaceMatters text logo

Participation by Design: Connecting People to Place

This post represents the wrap-up of our 20 blog series called Participation by Design.  The series focused on the diversity of participatory decision-making tools that communities can use for land use plans, transportation plans, sustainability plans, or any other type of community plan. Our guest bloggers covered the gamut, from low-tech to high-tech, web-based to tactile, art-based to those based on scenario planning tools, and more. We welcome your feedback and would love to hear about the participatory design strategies that you’ve found to be the most useful.

Participation by Design Blog Contributors

Thank you to all the contributors to this series!  I really enjoyed reading each of the pieces and the different perspectives they brought to an ongoing conversation.  It was interesting to see common links amongst diverse topics. Not surprisingly, the importance of place-specific context came up frequently as a critical ingredient for planning, from multiple standpoints.  Here are some highlights showing the range of contributions and how they address the issue of context.

On data, tools, and technology issues, we have several contributors including Rob GoodspeedDaniel Saniski, Jason Reece, and Jason Lally.  Daniel describes how local information is critical to understanding complex data sets, giving an example in Denver where place-specific context was needed to accurately interpret unemployment stats in a region. Rob addresses techniques that integrate GIS and visualization tools to help people understand tradeoffs within the context of a specific transit oriented development.  Jason Reece of the Kirwann Institute examines spatial analysis techniques that can be used to address some of the more complex issues of equity, mobility, and economic development linked to place. A technique known as Opportunity Mapping provides a GIS-based platform for engaging a broad number of community stakeholders, and simultaneously focusing on the equity concerns of marginalized communities.

Nick Bowden and Jennifer Evans-Cowley provide observations on the efficacy of online sites and the use of social networking tools to encourage public participation linked to community planning.  For Nick, it boils down to content and context.  Online sites should not shy away from content that is emotional since emotion drives interest. Sites also need to be rich in context—linking people to the efforts of others and connecting people to the places they care about—since it is this context that fosters a sense of personal ownership and motivates people to get more involved.  Jennifer’s research looking at the use of social networking tools in Austin shows how communities can dramatically increase the number of people engaged in planning conversations by tapping into the blogosphere of respected bloggers and writers in the region.  Instead of trying to create a new following for a given community initiative, she suggests engaging established bloggers, adding to their conversation with thoughtful responses, and encouraging them to encourage others to link to the initiative.

On the artistic side of the planning spectrum, we had great pieces on museum exhibits, public art installations, and variations of performance art.  Jasper Visser notes the effectiveness of Candy Chag’s art installments in drawing people into meaningful conversations.  It is her skillful balance of urgency and simplicity that causes people to pay attention and to contribute their own personal reflections. Nina Simon, a thought leader in the museum world, focuses on how to make exhibits more engaging.  On her Museum 2.0 blog she suggests the role of museums is to create space that “encourages safe, friendly collisions in a community-wide pinball machine.” And in our last installment of the series, PlaceMatters’ own Jocelyn Hittle explores the potential of combining the somewhat whimsical qualities of flash mobs with the popular desire to celebrate the places we love, and how these gatherings might be used to catch people’s attention and encourage them to participate in other community building efforts.

The series also included terrific posts by Corey Connors on engagement with smartphones, Ethan Zuckerman on communicating complex data, Eric Gordon, Carissa Shively Slotterback & Cindy Zerger, Matt Baker, Jeff Warren, James Fishkin, Chris Haller, and Karen Fung on a range of very specific tools and techniques, Ariana McBride on using storytelling in decision-making, and Augusta Prehn on engaging kids in planning.  Thanks again to the contributors and thanks to many of you that provide comments and follow-up insights.  Stay tuned for our next series to be announced in the Fall.

Participation by Design: Flash Mobs, Frivolity, and Fun–Performing Arts and Planning

This post, by PlaceMatters blogger Jocelyn Hittle, is the twentieth in a slightly-more-than-a-month-long series on the impressive diversity of participatory decision-making tools that communities can use for land use plans, transportation plans, sustainability plans, or any other type of community plan. Our guest bloggers are covering the gamut, from low-tech to high-tech, web-based to tactile, art-based to those based on scenario planning tools, and more. We welcome your feedback and would love to hear about the participatory design strategies that you’ve found to be the most useful.

Photo courtesy of Flickr User LegalAdmin, Creative Commmons.

Performance in Place! A Seattle flash mob, couresy of flickr user LegalAdmin

I hesitate to admit this, but as a once and future singer and dancer, I have often dreamed of walking down the street and having everyone around me—preferably a meter maid, constable (yes, a constable not a policeman), grandmother walking her dog, newspaper delivery boy, and cabbie—begin singing and dancing.  If you’ve seen pretty much any musical, you know the scene I’m sketching out here.

Here’s what many of you know already: This. Can. Actually. Happen.  Heard of flash mobs? Well, I have, and for me they are a dream come true.  Seemingly spontaneous public dance (and sometimes singing) performances, they are lighthearted, unexpected, and then over—everyone in the mob moving on as if nothing had happened.  They range from the most amateur to highly sophisticated (T-Mobile’s flash mob advertisement is probably the best known example).

Improv Everywhere, a group started by Charlie Todd, a comedian formerly of the Upright Citizens’ Brigade, is behind some of the most creative flash mobs, and other unexpected public acts of frivolity.  Their “no pants subway ride” event has been been livening up New Yorkers’ morning commute for years, and has now been replicated across the country, including here in Denver on our light rail.  Check out Todd’s TED talk for more examples.

What I’ve been thinking more about is how to relate this kind of public performance (mostly the kind that includes wearing pants) into the place where it is being held, because place matters (sorry).  There are examples of visual arts that use the context of their place, most famously Christo and Jeanne-Claude.  I’m interested in how we can similarly tie place to performance.  There are a few silly examples of using the context of a performance as part of the performance itself–this pool flash mob, for example–but I’m interested in rooting performance more clearly in the place in which is is happening,  linking these performances to planning processes to make the planning process more fun, involve the often overlooked groups of performing artists in a community, highlight a community’s strengths or challenges, and create excitement around a planning process.

Other performing arts options have been incorporated into planning processes–check out Winston-Salem’s video featuring local musicians that encourages people to get involved in the update of their comprehensive plan, for example.  The kickoff and wrap-up events of planning processes are also increasingly celebratory and feature live local music and cuisine (e.g., Imagine Austin’s launch of their comp plan, the New River Valley Livability Initiative’s kickoff).  On the more innovative end of things is the Sojourn Theater’s work incorporating dance and other performances into their BUILT process, which allows participants to discuss and place various land uses on a “game” board.  (On a side note, the BUILT process is being modified for the New River Valley Livability Initiative to fit a more rural context, and in this case is not using the performance art.)

There seem to be more examples of use of visual arts and storytelling in planning processes, including PlaceMatters’ own work on the Philadelphia LANDvisions project, than performing arts.  APA has a series of briefing papers on the arts in planning and they really don’t mention performing arts in any substantive way–and I’m interested in gathering more examples.  If you know of projects that have used performing arts (dance, music, theater, improv comedy, anything along these lines) please let me know.

I’ll be posting more about this topic outside of this Participation by Design series, particularly in cases where we are able to use performing arts in our current projects and have some lessons learned to share.

Jocelyn Hittle is the Director of PlaceMatters’ Sustainable Solutions Group, where she focuses on designing and implementing planning processes that are informed, equitable, creative, and transparent. She focuses on communicating complex information, involving typically underrepresented groups, and organizing spontaneous dance performances.

Participation by Design: Co-design as public engagement in planning

This post, by guest blogger Karen Fung, is the nineteenth in a slightly-more-than-a-month-long series on the impressive diversity of participatory decision-making tools that communities can use for land use plans, transportation plans, sustainability plans, or any other type of community plan. Our guest bloggers are covering the gamut, from low-tech to high-tech, web-based to tactile, art-based to those based on scenario planning tools, and more. We welcome your feedback and would love to hear about the participatory design strategies that you’ve found to be the most useful.

Image: Co-Design Group

About three years ago, prior to entering UBC’s School of Community and Regional Planning, I had a chance to attend a demonstration of the co-design method pioneered by architect Stanley King. This article will give a brief rundown of the major activities involved in a co-design process, This will be followed by some links to other resources about co-design, examples of projects that have used the co-design method, and how King is moving forward with integrating co-design methods into current work.

What is Co-Design?

Broadly speaking, co-design brings members of the public together with artist-facilitators to dialogue and collaboratively produce a community vision. These visions can guide and inform planning and design activities as a project unfolds. Stanley King has been using this method with communities since 1971 through The Co-Design Group, an informal association of architects, designers and researchers based in western Canada.

The bulk of these activities occur during an event commonly known as a co-design workshop (although, depending of course on the circumstances of the project, this may be paired with other activities such as an ideas fair). Members of the public are invited to the workshop – often, a day-long event. As with many participatory activities, broad representation — by age, background, activity — is key, although groups within the broader community may need special consideration.

As with all dialogues and participatory activities, setting expectations and boundaries is key. As explained in the report of the use of co-design in Vancouver’s Woodwards Project:

Participants were asked to observe 3 rules during the visioning: 1. Speak for yourself – say “I” not “We”- let others speak for themselves. 2. Avoid negative criticism – if you don’t like an idea suggest your alternative. 3. Don’t attempt solutions – think of the life of the place, consider possibilities.

Co-design Agenda

A co-design workshop often starts with a Site visit and Walkabout, allowing the facilitators and members of the community to jointly learn or re-discovering salient features of the site, like lighting, topography or existing infrastructure.

With the atmosphere of the space fresh in everyone’s mind, the public is asked to brainstorm an Activity Timeline. As a group, the public discusses what kinds of activities they envision taking place in the space over the course of a day. I sometimes refer to this as, “A Day In the Life.” This brainstorming serves as an opportunity for people to give voice, in a large-group setting, to how a place would fit into their daily lives.

Next comes what is referred to as the Image Creation phase, and the heart of the co-design experience. The artist facilitators take what is said in the brainstorm and categorize it into general guiding themes that they will be focusing on for their drawing. Members of the public are then broken up into smaller groups and assigned to work with the artist-faclitators on those themes. The artists then begin to sketch an image of the place, in close discussion with their group as they discuss specifics. It can often result in a dialogue process rooted in the constructive: what should be here? What will the people here be doing, and how will they be doing it? (Artists, King notes, cannot draw absences — at best they can draw two desired things co-existing.)

Once all the groups have completed their images, the specific elements that have been included and highlighted in the image are listed. The images are displayed and the larger group is invited to view all the images produced and to express their preferences for the qualities and features in the images, as well as their suggestions for what might make them work or not work in the particular place.

Co-Design in Action

Co-Design Moving Forward

Stanley King and his colleague Susan Ng Cheung are applying their experiences with co-design to better engaging youth in planning activities. They recently released a book called Youth Manual for Sustainable Design:

Together they created a Co-Design Youth Program to help youth participate in the ecological design of the spaces they will ultimately inherit.  Recently, the program has enabled youth to participate in school garden design, architectural design of a waterfront and also in transportation planning. Currently, Stanley and Susan are researching the connection between co-design and the ecological interactions of communities.

As you can tell, I’m a big fan of the method, because I think people inhabit a different frame of mind when they are in engaged in constructive processes of making things together in addition to the usual talking, discussing and deliberating.

It’s been pointed out to me that it may be challenging to some for relegating planners in a seemingly passive role, of recording and notetaking the public’s interests rather than more actively applying planning skill. I would respond that by hypothesizing that an awful lot happens in those conversations while the artist-facilitator is drawing. Furthermore, I’d be interested to see what role the images created in the process might have in identifying community assets for implementing what is brainstormed, and coordinating that with more formal activities involving developers, architects, designers and planners.

This post was contributed by Karen Fung, a researcher from Vancouver, Canada, examining the potential of social media and technology tools for expanding participation in planning processes. She advocates for user-centric approaches to placemaking and technology. She occasionally speaks on the impact of open government and open data on urban planning and she maintains the blog countably infinite.

Participation by Design: Providing Context for Data

This post, by guest blogger Daniel Saniski, is the eighteenth in a slightly-more-than-a-month-long series on the impressive diversity of participatory decision-making tools that communities can use for land use plans, transportation plans, sustainability plans, or any other type of community plan. Our guest bloggers are covering the gamut, from low-tech to high-tech, web-based to tactile, art-based to those based on scenario planning tools, and more. Daniel’s post explores the challenges and importance of unpacking complex quantitative data using unemployment statistics as an illustration. We welcome your feedback and would love to hear about the participatory design strategies that you’ve found to be the most useful.

“Unemployment is down!”
“Imports are up!”
“The price of coffee skyrocketed last month!”

News headlines scream data points at us each day assuming we understand their meaning, source, and context. Although we see the same greatest hits of data each month (unemployment rate, inflation, job openings, GDP, imports/exports, etc.), many people do not realize much of this data is available not just at a federal and state level, but is available for their town. The sheer quantity is sure to induce information overload and it takes great care to find exactly the right points. Local and comparison data from other cities, states, or a federal average can and should be used in community decision-making, but it is a bit of a challenge wrangling data without misleading people. Graphs provide enormous rhetorical power and should keep near the question at hand. Given the terabytes of possible data series we can explore, today we will explore some ways to frame and contextualize one metric: unemployment.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks data regarding employment, prices, and consumer spending habits and they have well over 10,000 data series ranging from standard headline numbers to narrow measures like the prices of intercity bus and trains. Most of their major data sources contain federal, state, regional, and city/metro sub-series which can be used to provide endless curation opportunities. Using their unemployment data alone we can produce a number of discussions.

Consider the dramatic contrast of the unemployment rates of California and North Dakota. North Dakota has an unemployment rate of 3.1% while California clocks in at 10.9%. Why? Theories range from North Dakota’s use of a state bank to their extensive oil reserves. The answer, to keep correlation from causation, does not matter as much as the framing of the visual question. Seeing such a great disparity in North Dakota prompts a lot of compelling civic questions and can be easily used to start a discussion, although this is still a narrow context. In order to better inform the unemployment discussion, we need more numbers—some of which are equally dramatic.

The newspaper headline unemployment rate and the “real” one are often pretty far apart. The headline rate measures people actively participating in the unemployment system (i.e. on benefits, etc.), but not people who have dropped out of the formal economy or work less than they’d like. The broadest unemployment rate, the U-6 or “Total unemployed, plus all marginally attached workers plus total employed part time for economic reasons” measures all people on the employment fringes and is over 14% compared to the narrowest measure at 8.2%. Now we have some sense of measurement disparities, but these numbers do not tell the whole story.

One must look at the Labor Force Participation Rate and the Civilian Employment-Population Ratio as well. These two figures tell you the rate that people are participating in the economy. If the unemployment rate drops and these measures drop, then one of three things probably contributed: a whole lot of people retired, went to prison, or dropped out of the labor force. Dropping out means their unemployment insurance ran out and they are no longer part of the 8.2%, but if they’re still looking for jobs they’re part of the 14%. When trying to make sense of unemployment’s ups and downs and how they might affect your town, keep these in mind to make better decisions.

Bringing this closer to PlaceMatters, following is some data about Denver which we will unpack in a minute. Local unemployment has more lag than national numbers. Denver’s unemployment rate was 9.2% as of January, which is .9% higher than January’s national average. Payroll in Denver grew from 1990-2000, but has been essentially flat since then though the unemployment rate changed drastically. Third, the percentage of government employees in Denver has been stable at about 14% since at least 1990.

From these figures we gain some interesting insight. First and foremost, the unemployment in Denver should be addressed, as it is well above average. But we would be remiss to blame it on the crash of 2008. Why? Payroll in Denver has not substantially changed in more than ten years. How very odd—who are these unemployed people? The city’s population has expanded dramatically since 1990. There is a serious discussion to be had in Denver since people keep coming, aren’t getting jobs, and haven’t been for a decade.

As a final example, the last graph on this page shows the percentage of people working for the government in Denver. In an age where claims about “bloated” government size, we can show with some quick calculations that these arguments are untrue (in Denver). Taking some time to dig into employment statistics can help to track where your city has been, where it is, and where it is going.

By adding context at a federal, state, and/or local level we can gain greater understanding and start asking better questions—and framing the questions we do ask—with data. As seen when comparing the two big unemployment measures and their supporting participation rates, it takes more than one number, carefully curated, to successfully and fairly employ data graphs. Using these and other contextualized figures, we can help take government data out of the headlines and into our civic discussions where they belong.

For more information, see also:

This post was contributed by Daniel Saniski, the managing editor at and an associate consultant at Webster Pacific LLC. He catalogs, writes news about government data, and guides site development for Data360 and provides business intelligence and information systems design services at Webster Pacific LLC.

Participation by Design: Three Inspirational Installations by Candy Chang

This post, by guest blogger Jasper Visser, is the seventeenth in a slightly-more-than-a-month-long series on the impressive diversity of participatory decision-making tools that communities can use for land use plans, transportation plans, sustainability plans, or any other type of community plan. Our guest bloggers are covering the gamut, from low-tech to high-tech, web-based to tactile, art-based to those based on scenario planning tools, and more. Jasper originally published this post on his the museum of the future blog on July 19, 2011. We welcome your feedback and would love to hear about the participatory design strategies that you’ve found to be the most useful.

Amy Halverson photo (Flickr).

Candy Chang is an artist who makes public installations that address urgent social topics. Using simple tools she makes accessible art that is often participatory in nature.

Her business card says Candy likes to make cities more comfortable for people. Many of her projects close the gap between the public and the often almost intangible stuff that surrounds them. Her work connects people and asks for their contribution. Here’re three of her projects I’m sure many of you will appreciate:

Photo by Candy Chang.

Looking for Love Again

What to do with abandoned buildings? There’re hundreds of them in every city (especially once you start looking for them). For one specific building, the Polaris Building in Fairbanks, people were asked just that question. Plus, they were asked to tell their stories about the building. There’s also a website attached that asks for contributions in a refreshingly simple way. The number of contributions is overwhelming and I’m sure this will influence the future of the building.

Photo by Jason McDermott (Flickr).

I Wish This Was

This project also takes on vacated buildings with the help of the public. People can leave special stickers on empty storefronts to express their wishes for specific businesses or services. Policy makers can use the input to make policy (obviously), or even better: entrepreneurs can find a place to start their business. The website collects examples of people’s wishes.

Ed Merritt photo (Flickr).

Before I Die

Another similar project, but aimed much more at the public themselves, Before I Die tries to get people to focus on the things that are important to them. Originally it was installed on an abandoned house in New Orleans. Also, you can buy one of the chalkboards in limited edition to wake up everyday remembering you need to do what you love.

I’ve been using the Before I Die project in workshops ever since I discovered it to illustrate some key characteristics of good participatory design: it’s simple, accessible and there’s an urgency in the project.

The urgency is the most obvious: life’s short and there’s so much we’re postponing that we might miss out on the things we really want. Urgency doesn’t have to involve death, though (a topic you might want to avoid in participatory design), as I wish this was shows. Urgency compels people to participate.

Before I die is accessible both in the choice of location (really public) as in the make up of the project: everybody can answer the question. Accessibility is important in many ways, both physical and “psychological”. Accessibility allows all people to participate.

And finally, simplicity. All of Candy Chang’s work is simple in the way that it uses simple materials and tools (there’s no need for a manual) and addresses simple issues (no need for inside knowledge or long studies). Simplicity facilitates people in their choice to participate.

Urgency, accessibility and simplicity are just three take aways from Candy Chang’s amazing work. Another one (bonus!) is that participation is open and fun. It’s interesting to discover what your friends would like to do before they die. Certainly, there’s more to discover in her work. Be sure to check out her website to find more great projects.

This post was contributed by Jasper Visser, a cultural innovator and cofounder of Inspired by Coffee, an agency for digital strategy and innovation. He helps cultural organisations discover new ways to reach and engage people with a special focus on new media, technology and innovative business models. Jasper regularly speaks internationally about cultural innovation, gives workshops and keeps the blog

Participation by Design: The Deliberative Initiative (Returning Direct Democracy to the People)

This post, by guest blogger James Fishkin, is the sixteenth in a slightly-more-than-a-month-long series on the impressive diversity of participatory decision-making tools that communities can use for land use plans, transportation plans, sustainability plans, or any other type of community plan. Our guest bloggers are covering the gamut, from low-tech to high-tech, web-based to tactile, art-based to those based on scenario planning tools, and more. James originally published this post on the SFGate blog on February 1, 2012. We welcome your feedback and would love to hear about the participatory design strategies that you’ve found to be the most useful.

The What's Next California "Deliberative Democracy" project resulted in a PBS documentary.

We have just completed 100 years of experimentation with the initiative in California. It was intended to empower the people to initiate the agenda for elections in which all the voters cast ballots. But the signature gathering process has itself become a barrier to the people’s agenda. Successful proposals are usually sponsored by special interests, often quite narrow ones, that seek their own advantage in winning a public vote or in placing a competing measure on the ballot to confuse the public. A threshold of 8% of the votes for valid signatures requires a massive and expensive effort—perhaps three million dollars this year. While the people get to vote on the resulting proposals, what they vote on may have little connection to their real concerns for how best to fix the state. Voter discussion and voter review of propositions already determined will not fix this question of how to get the public’s thoughtful input on setting the agenda in the first place.

What’s Next California charts a new path. The first statewide Deliberative Poll® in California demonstrates how the people can take control of the agenda for direct democracy. If it succeeds in this pilot project in charting a path to a successful initiative, it should be institutionalized. The basic idea is simple.  A scientific random sample of registered voters is surveyed about an extensive agenda of possible reforms. The sample is then recruited to travel to a single place for a long weekend of intensive deliberations, evaluating competing proposals for a ballot measure based on carefully balanced and vetted information materials about the competing proposals. The sample should be representative in demographics and attitudes of the entire electorate. Their deliberations consist in small group discussions and then questions from the small groups directed to competing experts in plenary sessions. The entire process is supervised by a non-partisan advisory group who certify the balance and accuracy of the materials detailing the proposals and the balance of the expert panels who respond to the public’s questions. This process was conducted early this summer by a coalition of eight organizations with broadcast around the state of a PBS Newshour documentary about the process and its results. An excellent scientific sample of more than 400 registered voters attended the weekend. The whole state was, in effect, placed in one room to deliberate about priorities for fixing the state. The participants, who began as a representative microcosm, became more knowledgeable and changed their views. Some of the 30 proposals they considered went up significantly with deliberation, some went down.

Most importantly, six of the proposals that started high and went even higher with deliberation have been crafted into a ballot measure, the California Governance and Accountability Act, which is going on the ballot now. This initiative brings transparency and accountability to the state government’s budget process and helps bring local control of some services provided at the local level.

The six proposals all started with majority support and went significantly higher with a minimum of 72% support after deliberation. The Deliberative Poll revealed how and why these proposals speak to the people’s priorities. The deliberations of the microcosm enable the people to take ownership of an agenda setting process for the votes of everyone else.
In Ancient Athens there was an institution chosen by lottery or random sampling, the Council of 500, that deliberated and set the agenda for what everyone would vote on in the Assembly. In a similar way, the Deliberative Poll has set an agenda for what everyone will vote on in a ballot proposition in 2012. In Athenian democracy, this was a regular institutionalized occurrence. If this were institutionalized in California, it would not only speak to very ancient democratic values, it would also live up to the aspiration of the Progressives, a century ago, to empower the people to determine what they vote on. Is this a practical possibility in a mega state like California?

What’s Next California and the resulting ballot proposition is a pilot of this idea. Institutionalizing it would face a series of challenges that all seem eminently practical but that all need careful thought. Where do the proposals come from that the people choose between? How, if at all, are they vetted before the people deliberate? How are factual materials to explain background on the issues developed? How are experts chosen who can respond to questions from the sample? How are the results of the Deliberative Poll-like process connected to the wording or revision of the ballot proposition? What threshold of support would qualify a measure to go on the ballot? Would measures go directly on the ballot or could they go on the ballot with a lower signature threshold after this process? All of these issues merit public debate and careful institutional design. Some of them might be made the subject of another Deliberative Poll. But all of them were faced informally by the pilot phase. And many issues, such as information materials have to be faced anyway by ballot propositions.

Deliberative Polls in various contexts around the world show that the people are, collectively very smart, and fully capable of dealing with complex public issues when they think their voice matters. The challenge for reviving California’s direct democracy is to design institutions where the collective intelligence of the public can be harnessed to initiate the people’s agenda.

This post was contributed by James Fishkin, is a professor Communication and Political Science at Stanford University and the director of Stanford’s Center for Deliberative Democracy.

Participation by Design: Total Engagement

This post, by guest blogger Nick Bowden, is the fifteenth in a month-long series on the impressive diversity of participatory decision-making tools that communities can use for land use plans, transportation plans, sustainability plans, or any other type of community plan. Our guest bloggers are covering the gamut, from low-tech to high-tech, web-based to tactile, art-based to those based on scenario planning tools, and more. Nick originally published this post on his own The Mix Blog just about a week ago on March 27, 2012. We welcome your feedback and would love to hear about the participatory design strategies that you’ve found to be the most useful.

One of the most common questions we field from existing and prospective clients is “Once our site is up, how do we get participants?” It’s justifiably the most important question of any engagement effort – online or offline. There seems to be a common misconception among Gov 2.0 companies and public agencies that technology will solve engagement woes. The reality of course is much different. Technology doesn’t solve problems, people do. Technology should facilitate better and deeper engagement, enabling citizens to become contributors to their community, but not be viewed as the sole predictor of success.

Our answer to that question has most certainly changed over the course of the last two years. Two years ago we were admittedly apart of this camp – put up an interactive website and droves of people will instantly become engaged. However, we have learned through experience and data that technology is only one part of the equation of successful (total) engagement. Total engagement comes when technology is combined with two C’s. Content and Context.

First things first, let’s start with technology, because it’s still very important. Technology should allow the government agency a diversity of functionality. Crowdsourcing ideas is an important functional element, but so is functionality that supports prioritization, interactive budgeting, and traditional survey questions. Equally important, the public facing design of the technology plays a key role in success. Together, functionality and design provide the foundation for total engagement.

Assuming an agency has adequate technology (preferably MindMixer :)) success is contingent on executing the two C’s. If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a million times, content is king. Creating and presenting compelling content is difficult for lots of government agencies. Why? Typically the most successful content is either controversial emotional or non-technical. Government agencies often times fear the emotional and operate in the technical (by requirement). Helping these entities understand the importance of creating and presenting content that yields interest and maintains simplicity is critically important.

Compelling content can change the trajectory of engagement effort instantly. Combining compelling content with context can take a community to even greater heights. Offering participants contextually relevant opportunities to participate makes engagement personal. Context should be driven by demographics, location, and interest. Asking a citizen for ideas about a new streetscape works. Asking a citizen for ideas about a streetscape in their neighborhood works better. Asking a citizen about ideas for a streetscape in their neighborhood, while they are walking on the street brings engagement to an entirely different level. Context creates ownership. Ownership leads to action. Action solves problems.

In summary:

The engagement technology you choose is important, but it’s only one predictor of success.
Make your content interesting and emotional. Emotion drives interest.
Add context to the conversation. It creates personal ownership.

This post was contributed by Nick Bowden, Co-founder and CEO of MindMixer.

Participation by Design: Using Story in Community Planning

This post, by guest blogger Ariana McBride, is the fourteenth in a month-long series on the impressive diversity of participatory decision-making tools that communities can use for land use plans, transportation plans, sustainability plans, or any other type of community plan. Our guest bloggers are covering the gamut, from low-tech to high-tech, web-based to tactile, art-based to those based on scenario planning tools, and more. We welcome your feedback and would love to hear about the participatory design strategies that you’ve found to be the most useful.

Biddeford, Maine had a story booth at a local festival.

Everyone has a story to tell about their community. It doesn’t matter whether you are young or old, native or newcomer; we all have personal experiences that connect us to our city or town. Stories tell us a lot about what we value most—the customs, characteristics and special places that make our community unique.

There are many examples of how stories have been used to understand community, such as Why Here Why Now or Saving the Sierras, and there is also great potential to apply personal story in community planning efforts.

The Orton Family Foundation’s Heart & Soul Community Planning approach uses personal stories to identify what people value in their community. We rely on personal stories for three key reasons:

  • Stories draw in new people. Most planning processes are not inviting to people who may not have experience with land use issues or who do not feel comfortable speaking up at a typical public meeting. By starting with story people share their perspectives in their own words and often on their own turf. It’s also a great way to engage youth or create an opportunity for a multi-generational project.
  • Story sharing reveals common values and builds relationships. Stories reveal common community values and also allow us to understand our differences. Listening to someone else’s story lets us be more open to their views; it gives us a space to reflect on their perspective and grow to see new possibilities. This process can build relationships among individuals who typically do not connect or who in the past presented opposing positions.
  • Stories bring community change to life. Tired of looking at yet another graph of population change or listening to statistics about how employment has shifted in your town? Stories complement the numbers with the experience of those who lived through those changes. They can deepen our understanding of what is important to our quality of life and whether it is perceived as eroding or improving. Stories can also speak to our aspirations for the future in a way that invites others to feel connected to that positive vision.

You may be thinking, “Sounds great, but how do I actually incorporate personal stories into my planning project?”

Three key steps are critical to using story in planning: gathering stories, sharing them and identifying community values from them. Some story methods allow you to do all three at once whereas some may focus more on gathering and require complementary methods for dialogue around community values. How you use story and the form it takes depends on your project’s goals and community capacity.

Orton has produced a number of resources on how you can introduce story into planning projects. In general, you’ll be considering one of three broad approaches:

  1. Group story: Bringing people together to share stories can be a powerful experience both for identifying community values and for building new relationships. Group story experiences can be designed so that you get from people’s individual stories to community values in one session. For instance, story circle is a method where people share stories in small groups focused on a specific question and from those stories identify commonalities.
  2. Paired story: Often stories are gathered by an interviewer who may interview many people in a community. These story interviews are typically recorded conversations between two or more people where they can share memories, personal experiences, and connections to a place. This approach can be designed so that the interviewees are explicitly identifying community values or it may rely on follow-on activities where others listen to stories to identify those values.
  3. Solo story: There are many options where individuals create their own stories. Locative media, like Toronto’s Murmur project, or essay contests through the local paper or schools are just two examples. This option can is attractive because people can contribute on their own time and in creative ways but it can be more challenging to identify values or create opportunities for community dialogue.

Wondering how communities have already used stories in planning? Here are a few examples:

A story circle in Story circle in Damariscotta, Maine.

Damariscotta, Maine collected 80 stories about what people cared about in town using Neighbor-to-Neighbor Chats (one-on-one story interviews) and Community Conversations (potluck story circles). Those conversations, in combination with issue-specific workshops and a town survey, led to the identification of six core community values that informed a charrette and a town vision.

Block party interviews in Golden, Colorado.

Golden, CO gathered 360 personal stories through recorded interviews and then used a series of listening sessions and community workshops to agree on two guiding principles and ten core values that now guide the City’s new Comprehensive Plan and other community plans.

Biddeford, ME used story in very creative ways in its Downtown Master Plan Project. Two hundred fifty stories were collected using a combination of storytelling fellows, high school students and Downtown Heartspots. Themes from these stories, captured as five core values, informed a series of neighborhood meetings and community workshops that resulted in a Downtown Master Plan. The power of story is in its ability to get at what really matters to people about where they live and to build the personal relationships that are essential for collaborative community action. The possibility for story in community planning relies on the creativity and courage of practitioners and citizen planners to try out this age-old tradition in a new context.

This post was contributed by Ariana McBride, a Senior Associate (Northeast Projects) with the Orton Family Foundation.

Participation by Design: Community Planning … A New App for Collaborative Geodesign

This post, by guest blogger Matt Baker, is the thirteenth in a month-long series on the impressive diversity of participatory decision-making tools that communities can use for land use plans, transportation plans, sustainability plans, or any other type of community plan. Our guest bloggers are covering the gamut, from low-tech to high-tech, web-based to tactile, art-based to those based on scenario planning tools, and more. We welcome your feedback and would love to hear about the participatory design strategies that you’ve found to be the most useful.

Combining GIS and design presents an opportunity to merge art and precision, geography and graphics, the human mind and creativity. The software that has resulted continues to redefine how we work with a GIS—not just cartographically, but how we capture the many processes and workflows any designer might undertake.

When building a new plan for a community, there will likely be multiple stakeholders, each with their own vision and ideas. These plans all have their own importance, and each needs to be captured, analyzed, compared, and evaluated.

The new Community Planning web application from Esri (the documentation is also online) demonstrates how GIS and the web can provide a collaborative design tool that can be used to capture the visual qualities of a design, capture multiple scenarios, and save them to a central location. From there, the design lives as data, and with that comes the full ability to perform the spatial analysis and evaluation available in a GIS.

This application uses a combination of ArcGIS Server and Adobe Flex. With the release of ArcGIS 10 came the feature service—essentially a map tied to a database published to the web. Once a service has been published, The ArcGIS API for Flex allows for the creation of an interactive rich internet application consuming an ArcGIS Server feature service. Web collaboration is born!

Creating a Plan

Begin by clicking the “Create My Plan” button (as seen on the photo above). This reveals a panel of features that can be drawn on the map, as well as a field to enter a Plan Name and your email address—which will serve as your identifier in the design collaboration process.

When you click “Submit My Plan”, you are creating a space on a GIS server that stores the features and attributes you draw on the map.

Sketching and Modifying Features

From the Create My Plan palette, click a type of land use to enable it for sketching, and click the map to add the shape of the polygon. As you click, you can see the feature being added to the map. Double-click to finish the sketch. If you want to change its shape, click the feature to select it, which reveals handles at each node you added. Drag a node to move it, and hover over an edge to reveal a ‘new’ node you can add to the shape.

Drawing Data and Measuring Impact

What makes this application powerful is the ability to draw data. As features are added to the plan, the area, length, and location are already known by the GIS.

When you click a feature you just drew, a pop-up displays the total values of several indicators.

Planners know from researching existing plans that certain indicators – environmental, economic, and social – can be measured based on the area of a particular feature. With the use of Flex and a simple expression, a value for an indicator can immediately be calculated as a function of the area of the feature it represents on the map. For example, if I assume that an acre of Commercial can generate 150 jobs, 4.5 acres will generate around 675 jobs.

Clicking the “Community Impact” button along the top menu reveals a charting widget, giving the option to compare the areas of all the land use types, and each indicator, giving a visual measure of proportion to the land use plan.

The indicators chosen for this application were pulled from various planning manuals and guidelines, such as the APA’s “Planning and Urban Design Standards,” and “The Smart Growth Manual.”

Submitting your plan

Clicking the “Review My Plan” button reveals a widget that will reveal all plans you have already submitted that are tied to your email address. Clicking each plan retrieves the plan from the server, allowing you to re-evaluate, and even edit features, then re-save the plan to the server.

Sharing your plan

This application also gives the ability for you to share your unique plan with the rest of the world. Clicking the “Share My Plan” reveals a widget with options to share a link to your plan via Twitter, Facebook, or E-mail.

When the user on the other end clicks the link, they’ll be taken to the application and a map showing your plan.

What’s it all mean?

As citizens expect up-to-the-minute news about their community, so will they expect updates on plans for future development. Today’s web technology gives us instant communication through so many channels and data types. ArcGIS server gives our maps and GIS data the chance to participate in this exchange, giving planners and designers the ability to instantly post a design, share an idea, and receive feedback from other stakeholders and community members as instantly as we receive tweets from friends.

This post was contributed by Matt Baker, a product engineer with Esri.

Participation by Design: Hacking for Good (and Profit)

This post, by PlaceMatters blogger Jason Lally, is the twelfth in a month-long series on the impressive diversity of participatory decision-making tools that communities can use for land use plans, transportation plans, sustainability plans, or any other type of community plan. Our guest bloggers are covering the gamut, from low-tech to high-tech, web-based to tactile, art-based to those based on scenario planning tools, and more. We welcome your feedback and would love to hear about the participatory design strategies that you’ve found to be the most useful.

We believe in collaborative process for better, enduring outcomes around community decision-making. But the collaborative process is really an overlay on any decision-making approach that needs many interested parties to negotiate and design a solution. One type of collaborative process that has come out of the programming and software development world is the hackathon.

Fall 2010 hackNY Student Hackathon

HackNY Student Hack-a-thon hosted in Fall of 2010

 Photo Credit: via Compfight

Think of a dance marathon, but instead of being on your feet for 48 hours, you are furiously programming and designing with a team over a similar period. And instead of raising money for a cause, you’re donating time and code to a needy nonprofit, civic group or public agency. Hackathons have also been used as testing grounds for great ideas, with investors looking for strong teams and offering capital or other rewards to help build viable businesses as featured in a recent Wired article by Steven Leckart. Even if not the explicit goal of a hackathon, new businesses can emerge from these events just from the concentrated creative power gathered in a single room.

Hackathons have become very popular among civic-minded folks in areas like transportation, government transparency and clean energy.  In the world of planning related data, transportation has probably gotten the most love. OpenPlans has really helped build a movement around opening up transportation data to build really cool apps like OpenTripPlanner and MTA BusTime (based on the open source project One Bus Away from the Puget Sound region). And Google gave open transportation apps a great big push when they released the General Transit Feed Specification (a standard format for publishing transit information in a way that computers can read and understand).

Hackathons form one piece of a larger network of activities and people that support civic hacking. Behind each hackathon are a bevy of organizations and people cheering on and supporting the effort. They host GitHub repositories, provide space, host data catalogs, volunteer time, manage listservs, build partnerships, and so on. The ecosystem of data, tools, people and organizations provide the necessary input into really successful hackathon events. It turns out that, in the end, these events are just one visible piece of the civic hacking culture. What happens before and after is just as, if not more, important to sustaining apps and solutions to really complex problems.

It was out of this realization that the PlaceMatters Decision Lab was born about 2 years ago. Nothing really changed here at PlaceMatters except adding a level of intention and strategy behind the work we were already doing.  Now, we are working on some specific projects for this year that are very exciting.  One of these projects is  a hackathon around the livability principles outlined by HUD, EPA, and DOT as part of the sustainable communities initiative, which follows on the first of these done in DC in January.

The event will be in Denver and use local, open and available data to address issues of sustainability for organizations, agencies and individuals. For example, what if you were shopping for a house in the Denver metro region and could pull up data on Zillow about your potential transportation costs in addition to your housing costs? Or what if you could know and understand your neighborhood’s transportation cost burden and use that to find, fund and advocate for alternatives? Those may not be the apps that get built, but hopefully you get the gist.

The role of PlaceMatters before, during and after the hackathon will be to sustain and build the energy locally and push apps out into other cities with similar challenges. We are looking for partners both in Denver and across the country. We want to empower people with data and information that helps move communities to better outcomes for future generations. My hope is that through the planning of this event, we can catalyze a group of developers locally and plug into other groups nationally to build the next generation of sustainability apps.

I’m already inspired by many good organizations doing related and similar work. I mentioned OpenPlans already above, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Code for America as well. Their recently rolled out the Brigade will give us and many others the ability to redeploy great new apps in other cities with much less effort than required before (read more here).  If you are interested in this, I encourage you to sign up and to get involved on the developer list serve if you are more technically inclined. This will also let you get in touch with the many region specific groups too many to mention right now that are also doing great work in their hometowns (check some out at the brigade here).

There will be a lot more to say over the coming months about this summer’s Denver hackathon and about civic hacking more broadly. For now, I encourage you to reach out to us on Twitter, by email or in the comments if you want to contribute.

Jason Lally heads up the PlaceMatters Decision Lab, PlaceMatters’ inside-out R&D lab, building a community of tinkerers, hackers, designers, coders, and practitioners dedicated to building the next generation of tools and techniques for better decision making around planning and sustainability.