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Ponderosa Mobile Home Park: Building Trust and Capacity

Since March 2015, PlaceMatters has been working at the Ponderosa Mobile Home Park in North Boulder, CO, around issues of affordable housing, community engagement and communicating complexities. Through our grant with HUD-EPA Sustainable Communities Initiative and a subsequent contract with Trestle Strategy Group, we had the pleasure of working with the Ponderosa community and the City of Boulder to navigate the complexities of annexation for the parcel of land that currently offers a valuable asset for low-income residents.

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The community of Ponderosa is unique: 69 trailers are located on a privately-owned parcel that falls under the Boulder County jurisdiction but is surrounded by the City; residents enjoy wonderful views of the foothills, river and park access, a community garden, and can walk to shops, bus routes, and bike paths.The community offers affordable, single family units that are not subsidized by affordable housing programs or the government. The residents know they have something special, which is why many of them have been here for over twenty years. 

 

Green frame - view The issue of affordability in Boulder has been at the forefront of the regional conversation and for good reason. Trulia.com reports that the median selling price for a home in Boulder, CO from May to August 2015 was $538,000. In 2014 the Boulder Weekly reported that the large number of high earning households in the community is creating higher housing prices and a dwindling stock of affordable housing units. As part of addressing affordability, Boulder has looked to preserving mobile home parks as an asset.

 

As residents have noted, they are proud to own their homes and that they are not subsidized. They appreciate having their own space, not in a multi-story apartment building and value having room for their children to play in a stable community. From their perspective, the park is a very different life than other affordable housing types.

However, Ponderosa, like many mobile home parks that are owed by a single landowner, certainly does have issues to confront. Aging infrastructure can be overly burdensome for a single landowner or cause drastic rent hikes to cover. Road improvements and flooding concerns can also be factors. The City of Boulder is working with the landowners to find innovative and collaborative ways to address these issues and keep the residents of Ponderosa in place.

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Our work on this project started with compiling research on practices and land use policies for mobile home parks across the nation. PlaceMatters reviewed existing policy for mobile home parks across the nation, area experts in mobile home park issues and created a resource guide for mobile home park policy considerations, common issues and area experts. The research led us to understand that
Colorado has relatively few protections for residents and unfavorable land use policies for parks. It also showed how parks can become places where residents thrive from an appreciable asset.

 

Research provided the base knowledge that we needed to engage with the community. Marine Siohan and Anne Kuechenmeister had the opportunity to work with Ponderosa residents alongside Trestle. Annexation is a complicated process that is difficult to understand. The community was also starting in a place of mistrust for city government. The team knew that building trust and communicating complex issues, while learning about what the community needs and values were, would be critical pieces to guide the annexation scenarios that were recommended.  In order to build trust and learn about the community, PlaceMatters sought to shift the power dynamic of interactions between the team and residents.

 

Crowd at July 1 meetingMeetings were held in the community, in a comfortable outdoor space, in English and Spanish, using low-tech community methods. This was the basis for integrating power shifting techniques to open up dialogue.

 

PlaceMatters used a variation of PhotoVoice, a process of collecting input telling place based stories through photos. Residents used red and green frames to take photos of what they wanted improved and what they value and appreciate in the community. Red frame symbolized what they would like to be changed about their community and green frames represent what they value. Residents taught us what was important to them about the community and what they would like to change. This helped us understand values and community assets while building trust.

 

Using photography to communicate also assisted in breaking down language barriers between English and Spanish and made enabled people with different levels of literacy to equally participate. In addition, the activity was accessible to youth and adults, and resulted in nuances being communicated in a way that may be lost in a traditional written survey.

 

Alongside static photos, we also worked with residents to videotape their stories and connections to Ponderosa and the surrounding community. Through storytelling residents have shared their vision for the future and what they value about their community. Sharing residents’ voices has given city leaders a better understanding of who lives here and why the opportunities that the park affords them is so valuable. We are excited to announce that after seeing the video and hearing information on the park, the Boulder City Council has stated that they are not willing to move forward with annexation if it means that residents will be displaced.

 

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Housing Recovery in Lyons, CO

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Map of Lyons, CO and flooding effects

Following the 2013 flooding in Colorado, the Town of Lyons continues to navigate the complex world of disaster recovery. The Town is continuously aiming at transparency and public outreach in their efforts to rebuild stronger and smarter. In a landlocked community, the issue of where and how to rebuild housing has been a challenging process. Refer to our November 2014 post, Resilience Planning in Lyons, CO, for a map and additional background on the flood recovery process.

Through our grant with HUD-EPA Sustainable Communities Initiative, PlaceMatters was able to assist the Trestle Strategy Group and enhance their community engagement strategy by bringing high- and low-tech solutions to the process. In October of 2014 the Town had tasked Trestle to conduct additional site analysis for Lyons residents to vote on a site for replacement housing. They had only four months to complete their analysis, with robust engagement for stakeholders, who would ultimately decide if the proposed site was acceptable through a vote.

The first issue that arose was the need to get accurate information to the community on the immense amount of work that had been going on since the flood to determine where housing should go and how it would be paid for. Between the fast pace of disaster recovery, the numerous other concerns of residents, and wide range of ongoing projects, much of the current work on housing recovery was not known to residents. Several different websites hosted relevant flood recovery information and it took searching to find all of the plans, meeting minutes, and analysis that had been performed.

In an attempt to centralize all information in one place in a visually engaging manner, PlaceMatters created an interactive Tiki-Toki timeline. The timeline displays events that happened in Lyons since the floods; it is searchable and allows for colored content bands to help the user navigate the information; and it links back to the original documents they referenced. The Town of Lyons embedded the timeline on the main page of the housing recovery website allowing for residents to more easily navigate information. Residents were then able to easily access the Recovery Action Plan, Housing Recovery Plan, numerous meeting minutes, Board of Trustees deadline information, and recovery videos in one location.

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As more residents became aware of housing efforts, concerns also peaked. A primary concern for residents was to not have a clear understanding of what the future held for this process and when they would be heard. We created a simple infographic timeline that gave residents a better understanding of how they would be involved throughout the planning process, what the time frame was, and what the next steps would be. Copy of Lyons Recovery Housing Process

Another key concern was the location of housing. A group named SOPOS, or Save Our Parks and Open Space, formed to voice their opinion against placing recovery housing in Bohn Park, or any other park space. Lyons, CO is a landlocked community, surrounded by open space. This leaves very little space for development within the town limits. Bohn Park was one location being considered for recovery housing.In Lyons, CO any resident can bring any issue to a full town vote with 50 petition signatures. Those working on identifying sites were aware that if they selected Bohn Park for housing, SOPOS would most likely circulate a petition and bring the issue to a town vote.

On January 5, 2015 the BoT voted to use Bohn Park for a future housing project and the design process began. As expected, SOPOS managed to get enough signatures to bring the issue up for a town vote. The town then prepared for the vote, giving residents information on available funding that was related to the initial flood and the importance of timing, and continued to provide information on the site.

In February 2015, the Lyons Housing Collaborative was formed to conduct outreach to residents and provide education and solicit input on recovery housing. The team included the architecture firm Workshop8, the landscape architect DHM Design,  the landscape consultant Urban Oasis, Trestle Strategy Group as the engagement consultant , Boulder County Housing Authority as the master developer, Habitat for Humanity of St. Vrain Valley, and Milender White Construction.  PlaceMatters supported the overall process and the team. The team had a storefront in Lyons, open to answer residents questions on housing issues. They had an Internet presence, held public meetings, conducted weekly site visits and a visit to explore what affordable housing looks like in the area. The outreach was extensive. The architecture firm, Workshop8 gathered resident input in a workshop and then needed to refine and understand resident inclinations, by polling them on design preferences. PlaceMatters was able to support the Team through live keypad polling at the meeting. Keypad polling allows participants to rank or choose preferences with instant feedback, providing transparency and moving discussion forward on the nuances of why residents voiced the opinions they did. The polling is also anonymous, giving residents a safe venue for providing honest feedback without the worry of neighbor reactions.

Residents were pleased with the instant feedback and they were eager to discuss the pro and cons of their choices. The meeting was highly productive and architects were able to leave with a clear understanding of the residents top choice for site layout, construction materials and amenity preferences.

The Lyons Emergency Assistance Fund (LEAF) hired Janaki Jane to assist with communication to displaced residents. Over a year after the flooding, it has continued to be difficult to identify how many residents are still displaced and there is little understood about what, if any, information is being communicated to them. Janaki has taken video of potential types of housing for the displaced residents, but doesn’t have the capacity or tools to edit and share the video.

PlaceMatters supported communication with residents by assisting Janaki with editing and distributing footage she took of replacement housing examples. The product is an informational video on affordable housing typologies in Boulder County.

The Town voted on using 5-7 acres of Bohn Park for recovery housing on March 24, 2015. Emotions peaked leading up to the vote and you were hard pressed to find a resident who was unaware of the vote and hadn’t been in contact with some form of outreach.

The residents voted not to use this space for recovery housing. A local news outlet, the Longmont Timescall, reported that 614 voted against and 498 voted for using Bohn Park for housing. This is 55% of the voting population and the highest recorded turnout for voting in the town. PlaceMatters role was to provide support engagement and information sharing for replacement housing. Given the mission of the grant we were careful to stay out of political advocacy.

While finding homes for those displaced by disaster is something that we may believe on a personal level, the outcome of the vote does not discount the success in the high level of participation, conversation and engagement the the residents were part of leading up to it. Residents are now looking at a range of options that could still lead to some affordable housing units being built in town to help some of the displaced residents return. Without Federal recovery funding, however, we will mostly see fewer units built over a longer period of time.

 

 

What makes West Colfax so wicked for pedestrians? WALKscope data provides insight.

Famously dubbed “the longest, wickedest street in America,” Denver’s Colfax Avenue offers a myriad of diverse destinations ranging from bars and restaurants to elementary schools to major employment centers to steam baths. The public buses that traverse Colfax are among the most used in Denver’s entire transit system, with the highest boardings per hour and lowest subsidies per boarding. Outside of downtown, Colfax may be the busiest pedestrian corridor in the city.  And yet, as anyone who has spent time on the Avenue can attest, Colfax can be an unpleasant and sometimes even unsafe place to walk.  A new report from WalkDenver and partners highlights some of the factors that make Colfax, specifically West Colfax, so wicked for pedestrians.

Many intersections along West Colfax, such as this one at Vrain Street, have no crosswalk or traffic lights, requiring pedestrians to walk several blocks out of their way to cross the street safely. Photo source: WALKscope.org.

In the summer and fall of 2014, WalkDenver, PlaceMatters, the West Colfax Business Improvement District, and Ken Schroeppel’s Planning Methods class at the University of Colorado, Denver, College of Architecture and Planning partnered to audit the pedestrian environment along the West Colfax corridor. Trained neighborhood volunteers and planning students used the WALKscope mobile tool to collect data about sidewalks, intersections, and pedestrian counts throughout the area roughly bounded by Sheridan Boulevard to the west, Zuni Street to the east, 19th Avenue to the north, and 10th Avenue to the south.  A total of 1,532 data points were collected: 1,062 sidewalks, 425 intersections, and 45 pedestrian counts. Major findings of this assessment include the following:

  • The places where the most people walk, including Colfax Avenue and the areas adjacent to light rail stations, are the least pleasant and the least safe for pedestrians.
  • Unsafe traffic speeds are a major problem on Colfax.
  • Crossing distance is also a problem on Colfax. Pedestrians must cross 5 or more lanes to get across Colfax at pretty much every intersection.
  • Crosswalks are few and far between on Colfax, where they are needed most. In many cases, people have to walk several blocks out of their way to cross at an intersection with crosswalks.
  • The lack of buffers between sidewalks and the street degrades the pedestrian environment.  With few exceptions, the sidewalks along Colfax are all “attached,” meaning they are directly adjacent to the street with no buffer.

Click the infographic above for more details, or view the full report here. PlaceMatters and WalkDenver is continuing to work with the West Colfax BID and surrounding neighborhoods to identify potential interventions along the corridor that would improve the pedestrian environment, and we hope to demonstrate some of these design concepts with temporary installations.

This blog post was cross-posted with permission from WalkDenver. View its original posting here.

 

Training on Scenario Planning and Smart Growth for Superstorm Sandy Recovery on Long Island

In January of 2015, Placeways, PlaceMatters, and CH2M HILL developed a training on Scenario Planning and Smart Growth for Superstorm Sandy Recovery on Long Island. This effort was made possible through a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) managed task order funded by an interagency agreement with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The training was a five-day workshop for over 20 attendees from local agencies in the region, with information and hands-on training on high-tech engagement tools, low-tech/on-the-ground engagement techniques, scenario planning, CommunityViz, and other tools to use for recovery planning.

Since Hurricane Sandy made landfall in the New York-New Jersey region in October 2012, the need for better knowledge about using scenario planning tools for hazard mitigation and disaster recovery planning within the region has become apparent. This five-day training on Long Island introduced participants to integrating various tools within the recovery planning process – including tools to support scenario planning, help increase engagement and provide critical analysis and communication of complex issues. The training also helped to build local capacity on strategies to incorporate scenario planning with public engagement, smart growth concepts, equitable development issues, and hazard mitigation.

The first full day of the five-day training brought together 30 participants for presentations and demonstrations of how to incorporate both high-tech and low-tech tools – including scenario planning – into the planning process. This first day was designed to include a broader group of stakeholders than would attend for the remainder of the training and therefore included a general overview of scenario planning and other tools to help provide some context and guidance on ways to inform the recovery planning process.

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Over the next four days, a subset of the participants spent a significant amount of time learning about and using tools to support recovery planning and resiliency. The first two days were spent in hands-on training using CommunityViz – a powerful, GIS-based scenario planning tool – and various models and data sources that can integrate with CommunityViz to help inform recovery planning. These included FEMA’s Hazus-MH, EPA’s EJ Screen, and NOAA’s Digital Coast. During the final two days, the group split into teams to build on the skills gained during the hands on training. These teams worked together to define projects that interested them and used the tools presented during the first three days to perform an actual analysis. At the end of the final day, the four teams presented their projects to the rest of the class and to over a dozen local and regional agency officials attending via screencast. These presentations can be viewed below or here.

The projects included:

  • Coastal Re-Development – Making the Case for Evolution in Suburban Zoning,
  • CommunityViz and FEMA’s Environmental Benefits Calculator for Evaluating Open Space
    Restoration and Property Acquisition,
  • Identifying Suitable Locations for Secondary Sewage Treatment Plant, and
  • Elevating Structures in Barnum Island/Harbor Isle/Island Park.

As communities work to create more robust and informed resiliency plans, it is often difficult to determine which tools and techniques to use. This includes trying to determine the best way to integrate these tools and techniques to maximize public engagement, increase local capacity, and encourage long-term resilience. As part of this training, attendees were introduced to a number of important tools and resources to help inform this process – including an introduction on how best to maximize the use of particular tools during the planning process. Available for download below is the full final report on this training, including a list of many of the tools and techniques presented to the attendees during the training, along with links and information to support successful implementation of these tools.

Download Final Report: Scenario Planning & Smart Growth for Superstorm Sandy Recovery

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Resiliency planning in Lyons, CO

Lyons Generic 2Flooding in September of 2013 devastated Lyons, CO, causing substantial damage to almost 200 homes in the confluence and neighborhoods near the North and South St. Vrain Rivers. This has caused many of these locations to be no longer eligible for development. In a town with very little available and suitable land for development already, the challenge of where to rebuild housing in order to bring back displaced residents and restore community assets is a huge and challenging undertaking. On October 27, 2014, the Town of Lyons Board of Trustees awarded Trestle Strategy Group the work for the Lyons Housing Site Analysis Study and the Lyons Facilities Siting Plan/Municipal Campus Feasibility Study. Both studies will be a trusted source of information for the community to help build a coalition of support, and guide the Town to the best options for the community as a whole.

Through a grant from HUD and EPA’s Sustainable Communities Initiative, PlaceMatters is coordinating efforts between the Town of Lyons, Trestle, DRCOG, CU Denver, and DOLA, and working to facilitate community discussions linked to the Town’s recovery plan and implementation. A lot has happened in a short amount of time, and keeping track of progress, including events and who is involved, can be a challenge with the immense amount of activity that goes with disaster recovery.

PlaceMatters provided support during the Halloween Spooktacular festivities on October 25, 2014 by hosting a booth with flood recovery information. The booth also had the now familiar yellow ribbons for residents. The ribbons represent the still displaced residents. Community members could also sign up to receive the Lyons Recovery Action Plan – a visual tour of the effects of the flood, and each commissions’ strategy towards recovery – and books from local students with stories from the flood.

Along with Trestle, we are also helping the Town build a website and social media page so that anyone can easily find useful information about the amount of work that Lyons has done since the flood, what is currently being done, and key decisions that will be to be made in the near future. To do so, an interactive timeline (to be built built on the Tiki-Toki platform) on the Town’s webpage will link to resources and help residents see the amazing amount of background work that has been done around these challenges.

The timeline will provide a visually engaging way to explore past, current and future efforts, milestones, and opportunities for involvement and input. It will include videos, audio, images, text and links to information. Most importantly, it will bring together all of the pieces of recovery to one location to easily navigate. We are hoping the timeline will be on Lyons’ website by next week.

In addition, many people from the community have worked hard during the last year to get Lyons’ residents to tell their flood stories; we are working with those community members to gather and publish the stories they collected on a common platform. Hopefully this platform will bring recognition to their outreach efforts and continue building the community’s unique identity.

Tools for Aging in Place

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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.

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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?

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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.

Using Digital Storytelling to Find Common Ground in Lyons, CO

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A resident walks through the wreckage at Riverbend Mobile Home Park in Lyons, CO. photo credit: www.timescall.com

Last September, in the middle of the night in the small town of Lyons, Colorado, the water rushed in and homes were swept out. Tragically, one person was lost. Many more were left without their home and everything they’d ever known. As with most natural disasters, those hit the hardest were the town’s low-income residents. The site most affected was a mobile home park near the river, home to many of the artists and musicians who give the town its funky, artsy vibe. With limited affordable housing options in the area, many of these residents were left with no choice other than to relocate elsewhere. In a town as charming as Lyons, one can imagine it would be hard to leave.

The Town of Lyons is now wrestling with many issues, including:

  1. Does the Town facilitate the replacement of affordable housing units lost in the storm?
  2. If so, how many of the units should it look to rebuild?
  3. Where should it go?

Most of the conversation has centered on rebuilding affordable housing in current open space and parks since there aren’t any other known viable options, leading to strong opinions on both sides. In response, the town has chosen to undergo an intensive public engagement process to answer these questions.

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PlaceMatters staff give feedback to University of Colorado Denver students presenting public engagement and site plans. photo credit: Jennifer McGinnis

This summer, as part of my Master’s in Urban Planning program at University of Colorado Denver, I took a Housing Development Post-Disaster Workshop which focused on Lyons at the same time as I was interning at PlaceMatters. Our project consisted of two parts: creating potential site plans for replacement affordable housing and developing a public engagement plan to address the varied opinions of a multitude of stakeholders. The value of engaging planning students in this situation is that they can explore options with very few barriers. Students are allowed to throw ideas out there and push further on ideas that have already been discarded. There aren’t a lot of consequences to our decisions, yet we have enough experience to produce something that at the very least inspires thought and conversation.

The engagement strategies our class decided on included a mix of “tech-y” and more traditional strategies, both of which have their benefits. When planning for a population where many have been displaced, digital strategies serve an important purpose. For instance, those that don’t have the time or money to travel and go to a long meeting can still participate in the conversation. They also serve other populations; some might work non-standard hours and be unable to attend a meeting scheduled around traditional hours and still others may simply feel shy speaking up in a room full of people.

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The City of Victor engaged residents from all walks of life in its digital storytelling project, including youth. photo credit: www.communityalmanac.org

One such strategy is digital storytelling. Digital storytelling is a form of digital media production that allows everyday people to share aspects of their life story or community through photos, video interviews and other non-physical media with the goal of finding common ground. It involves the creation of a communal blog where users from a given community can post stories or anecdotal reminiscences about a particular place. One town that achieved success with the storytelling strategy is Victor, Idaho. Victor, a scenic small town near the Grand Tetons, experienced a 73% increase in population growth in just 6 years and tensions subsequently developed between old and new residents. Using both digital storytelling collected on their Community Almanac site and in-person at local events, they were able to discover the values that the two groups shared and prioritize actions based on a shared community vision.

In a place where opinions are swirling and emotions are running high, digital storytelling might be just the tool to help Lyons’ residents, both displaced and not, understand each other’s needs and the desire to return home.

For more examples of communities that used storytelling in planning, visit Community Expressions.

 

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Training Materials: Tools for Effective Community Engagement

On Thursday, May 22, PlaceMatters and the Colorado Department of Local Affairs hosted a training on Tools for Effective Community Engagement.  The handout from the training and a video recording are available here.

Training Description

This training was for Colorado communities affected by the 2013 floods, including local government staff and elected officials, and community-based partner organizations (e.g., housing authorities, parks and recreation districts, and private and nonprofit partners, etc.). Other local governments and community-based organizations throughout Colorado were welcome to participate remotely via the internet.

Topics covered:

* Principles of effective public engagement

* Tools and techniques appropriate for different levels of public engagement

* How to integrate informed decision-making into the process

* Special considerations for community engagement during disaster recovery

Speakers

* Ken Snyder, CEO  & President, PlaceMatters

* Jill Locantore, Program Director, PlaceMatters

Materials

* Hand out: Public Engagement Tools 05.22.14

* Video recording:

Tools for Effective Community Engagement from PlaceMatters’ Videos on Vimeo.


Presented by:

SponsorLogos

 

Digital Engagement: Challenges and Strategies for Local Governments

Digital technology is quickly integrating into our lives: recent data from the Pew Research Center show that 91% of American adults own a cell phone, among which 58% are smartphones. If you are still questioning the pervasiveness of digital technology, simply watch a 2-year-old toddler unlocking your smartphone or tablet and making it all the way to her favorite game (or your emails). Civic participation in comprehensive planning is no exception to this trend: an increasing number of municipalities and government agencies are using digital community engagement tools to reach broader audiences, make the process innovative and fun, and complement traditional in-person strategies.

At the forefront of this trend is the City of Salt Lake City, which already implemented a wide range of digital engagement tools, including websites, Open City Hall, blogs, SpeakOutSLC, social media, and Textizen. Like many cities using these types of tools, Salt Lake has faced some challenges. Because so many people can participate online, the amount of input can quickly become overwhelming and difficult to analyze. Further, the City wasn’t sure how to evaluate the effectiveness of the tools it was using, especially compared to other outreach methods. To address these challenges, Salt Lake City asked PlaceMatters to research and make recommendations on the following two questions:

  1. How to synthesize (compile and summarize) the input gathered through digital outreach methods into a format that is useful for local government planners and decision-makers?
  2. How to evaluate the effectiveness of digital outreach methods?

Our research involved three steps: first, we interviewed Salt Lake City’s engagement manager and conducted an online survey of approximately 20 selected City staff. Second, we carried out a thorough literature review of previous research on the topics. Finally, we interviewed academics and practitioners, both inside and outside the US, with expertise in public engagement generally and digital outreach in particular.

Based on this research, PlaceMatters made the following recommendations to the City, which any government agency interested in using digital outreach tools should consider:

  1. Confirm the key objectives the City hopes to achieve through the use of digital outreach tools. For example, we identified three objectives for Salt Lake City: “engage a diverse group of stakeholders,” “increase trust in government,” and “enhance citizen knowledge of policy issues.”
  2. Establish a systematic approach to evaluation with minimum standards to be incorporated into all public engagement efforts, and build these into individual and department work plans. Specific categories and methods of evaluation include ease of use, usage, efficiency, and effectiveness.
  3. Establish a central repository of public input. The idea is to store public input collected through diverse methods and across different projects in a centralized location, using a tool that is easy to use and search through.
  4. Dedicate staff and resources for public engagement.
  5. Share practices and evaluation results internally and externally. Building a culture of community engagement and evaluation both within the community and nationwide will lead to continuous improvement in engagement tools and techniques.

The full report is available for viewing or download below. Please contact Marine Siohan (marine@placematters.org) for any additional questions, feedback or comments.

Digital Outreach in Salt Lake City: Evaluating Effectiveness & Synthesizing Input

 

Engagement Tech for All

“Civic Technologies” are gaining increasing interest as a way to engage hard-to-reach populations in community planning and decision-making. Low income people, as well as people of color, immigrants, people with limited English proficiency, and youth are often un- or underrepresented in these processes.  Reasons for this lack of engagement, according to earlier research by the non-profit OpenPlans, include limited city budgets and staff capacity, absence of awareness of opportunities to engage, limited language skills and reading comprehension, and previous negative experiences resulting in mistrust or hostility towards government.  While not a panacea, we believe that civic technologies enhance the toolkit available to planners and decision-makers who want to broaden public engagement. 

However, little has been written to date about how civic technologists focused on reaching underrepresented communities can most effectively approach their work.  In response to this issue, PlaceMatters conducted best practices research, with support from the Ford Foundation.  We are pleased to release “Engagement Tech for All: Best Practices in the Use of Technology in Engagement Underrepresented Communities in Planning” today.

Mobile: An emerging frontier in civic engagement

Widespread adoption of mobile technologies is enabling some households to leapfrog the “digital divide.”  The Pew Research Center reports that as of May 2013, 91% of American adults had mobile phones, including 86% of adults with lower incomes.  Pew further reports that African-Americans and Latinos use social media slightly more than whites (non-Hispanics), and are more likely than whites to want the government to post more information on social media.

Case studies highlighted in the report illustrate how planners can leverage this widespread use of mobile phones and social media to engage a broad audience.  Mi Parque, for example, is a bi-lingual mobile smartphone application that gathers input about a 23-acre park being developed over a former Superfund site in Little Village in Chicago. The application was created by an all-women team including Motorola and several students and faculty affiliated with the Open Youth Networks from Columbia University, mentored by engineers from several tech companies. The report also describes #VizLou, a Twitter-based social media tool and website, developed by Living Cities in partnership with OpenPlans, which invites youth (“Visionaries”) in Louisville, KY, to engage around civic issues.

Emerging Best Practices

General best practices that emerge from the report include the following:

  1. Members of the target population should provide input on tool development, to ensure the tool will be accessible to and used by the community.
  2. For underrepresented communities in particular, new tools or add-ons should be built based upon tools and technology these communities are already using.
  3. Visual communication, including graphics, short videos, and images are often a more effective means of communicating and engaging underrepresented groups that have a variety of language and educational backgrounds.
  4. Tools that track user demographics can help practitioners evaluate the effectiveness of the tool in reaching target populations, and demonstrate the value of the tools to sometimes-skeptical public decision-makers
  5. Regardless of the outreach method used, the most critical determinant of success (real and perceived) is whether the input gathered is reflected in decisions, actions, and outcomes.  Quick implementation of on-the-ground changes, even small ones, can demonstrate the responsiveness of public agencies to community input and needs.
  6. The most effective examples of technology-based tool use take advantage of social networks, community groups, and trusted advocates that already exist in the real world, and use these tools to support, rather than replace, face-to-face interaction.

Our report concludes by noting that, while communities are using technology to effectively engage typically underrepresented groups, rigorous evaluation of these efforts has been limited.  In some cases, communities need to collect additional data to more accurately determine who is participating, and to meaningfully compare the costs and benefits associated with different tools or outreach methods.  For example, better information on demographics and cost per participant associated with hosting public meetings versus engaging residents through online or mobile technologies can help communities use limited resources more efficiently, and to target more expensive outreach methods to specific groups that may be difficult to engage otherwise.

Click the links below to download the main report and related appendices:

Engagement Tech for All: Main Report

Engagement Tech for All: Appendix A

Engagement Tech for All: Appendix B

 

This post also appeared on the Living Cities blog, The Catalyst.