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PlaceMatters’ Work Published in Journal of Conservation Biology

Alternative Scenario for BCD Region

Alternative Scenario for BCD Region

Since an important focus of PlaceMatters’ work is informed decision-making (and the technical tools this sometimes requires), I thought I’d share some more detail on one of our past projects, partly because the work–integrating ecosystem and hazard data into traditional planning– was recently published in the Journal of Conservation Biology. Co-authored by Patrick Crist of NatureServe, Kiersten Madden of the University of TX Marine Science Institute, Doug Walker of Placeways, Tashya Allen and Dave Eslinger of NOAA, and myself, the article, “Supporting cross-sector, cross-domain planning through interoperating toolkits,” includes work PlaceMatters (and partners) did to demonstrated the benefits of addressing conservation goals and hazard mitigation simultaneously through a holistic approach to traditional planning. The article focuses on two pilot projects, our work in the Charleston area and the work done by UT in the Mission-Aransas NERR, both funded by the Packard Foundation to investigate the use of tools to improve ecosystem-based management within traditional planning contexts.

I won’t go into the details here (since you can read the paper), but essentially PlaceMatters’ project, called Creating Resilient Communities, first focused on measuring: 1) how well the region would do with respect to the conservation goals identified by a team of regional experts and 2) how many people (particularly vulnerable populations like the elderly or low income households) would live or work in hazard prone areas if growth patterns in the region continued as is. We then suggested an alternative scenario that moved new development out of hazard prone and biologically important areas (which were frequently the same areas) to show how conservation goals and hazard mitigation goals were aligned. In addition to making a case for different growth patterns, the project tested a toolkit of analysis tools–  CommunityVizNatureServe’s Vista, and NOAA’s Roadmap for Adapting to Coastal Risk. While we found that they worked reasonably well together, there is still room for additional improvement in interoperability.

One of the reasons we use scenario planning processes like this one is to help people–stakeholders, decision-makers, members of the public–understand the linkages between sectors and topics, as well as the linkages between policy choices and the things that they care about. Scenarios let us explore possible impacts and see where there might be unexpected results.  Toolkits like the ones used in each of these pilot projects help us to better understand and communicate these linkages and potential outcomes. While there are improvements that remain that could make analysis tools, and the data they require, work better together, the real challenges to integrated planning are not technical.

Planning that truly takes into account the system in which we live–including natural, economic, and social systems–is frequently hindered more by the ways in which decisions are made than by the tools we use to model it. At PlaceMatters, we are working hard to make sure that decision-making is better informed by “systems thinking,” but this will take commitment from decision-makers, both individuals and agencies. Stay tuned for future blog posts about communities or organizations that are great examples of using scenario planning effectively to promote and achieve cross-sector, multidisciplinary, holistic decision-making.


Participation By Design: Planning for Transit-Oriented Development with 3D Visualizations

This post, by guest blogger Rob Goodspeed, is the second 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.

Participants worked in small groups to explore potential outcomes of various scenarios. Here they are using CommunityViz to compare alternatives.

Recent expansions of public transportation systems across the country mean many communities are planning for new stations. Done successfully, orchestrating changes to zoning and public infrastructure can result in lively transit oriented development that produces amenities, affordable housing, and economic development for their communities. Poor planning can result in unsightly stations, vast parking lots, and missed opportunities.

An innovative planning process in Medford and Somerville completed last year demonstrated the power of new tools to facilitate an informed discussion, such as keypad polling, 3D modeling, and interactive workshops. The process utilized a broad outreach strategy featuring a variety of traditional and new outreach methods including city and community mailing lists, outreach to local television and print media, social media, and community meetings.

The Green Line Extension is a planned extension of an existing subway line in Boston that would result in new transit stations in Somerville and Medford. Although questions about financing remain, the major engineering and design of the extension is largely complete. The prospect of new transit stations has raised concerns about the challenges — and opportunities — it will create for the neighborhoods it will serve.

Although the current phase is planned to end at College Avenue in Medford, there is continued interest to extend the service to Mystic Valley Parkway. MassDOT contracted with the Metropolitan Area Planning Council to conduct a community visioning process for this potential new station. (Disclaimer: I work for MAPC but was not involved in this project directly).

Through several public workshops, community members explored topics of opportunity and concern and provided MAPC staff with ideas about what they would like to see developed in the station area. MAPC staff used this community input to develop alternative visions for four focus areas around the station. A model was developed in CommunityViz containing 3D models along with benefit and impact assumptions for each alternative.

An example of a CommunityViz visualization.

At a workshop held on June 23, 2011, participants worked together in small groups to discuss the various options for each of the four areas while providing feedback to MAPC staff about what they liked and did not like. The model also generated indicators for each scenario choice such as housing units, office square footage, job creation, tax revenue, etc. Participants were able to see how their choices affected the indicators and were then able to weigh choices based on what was more important to them. The power of the CommunityViz software was in its ability to generate discussions around the table amongst community members about the perceived versus actual benefits and impacts of land use and development decisions.

The process resulted in a vision for the station area that emphasizes neighborhood connections and housing, jobs, and tax revenues from new mixed-use development.

Learn more about the project and review meeting materials on the MAPC website or the MassDOT website.

This post was contributed by Rob Goodspeed, a PhD student at the M.I.T. Department of Urban Studies and Planning with the Urban Information Systems program group and part-time research analyst at the Boston Metropolitan Area Planning Council.

PlaceMatters Blog Roundup: April 12, 2011

There are a lot of creative ways to use the Wii, in addition to community-building through Super Mario Brothers. Photo by flickr user Huasonic.

Engaging Cities blogs about one of our favorite topics: hacking video game consoles for use in public participation processes. Here they show the use of a Nintendo Wii with CommunityViz. And what do you know . . . our own Jason Lally is part of the presentation.

Next American City is soliciting feedback on the best technological tools for governance, civic engagement, getting around, and urban planning. We can’t wait to see what they come up with from the Next American City community.

The Knight Foundation has a new community toolkit to support communications and community-building.

Museum 2.0 ruminates on the challenge of making the end product of a participatory process “as engaging as the process itself.” The idea is especially obvious in a museum context: create an interactive community process to design an exhibit, and however amazing the process you still end up with an exhibit at the end that may not convey just how vibrant the community process was.

National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation describes an effort to create “a pattern language for group process” . . . a vernacular and language for describing group process design and design elements.

The City Fix has an interesting post about a visit to the massive planned city of Naya Raipur now under construction in India, and happens to mention that the original SimCity is now available online for free. We aren’t entirely sure which is the more interesting information.

Deliberations posts about the deliberative process known as Citizens’ Jury.

PlaceMatters has initial posts up about our “When Public Participation Goes Terribly Wrong” panel and our “Beers in Beantown” unconference discussion at The Pour House across from the Boston convention center, but look for more thorough summaries soon.

SeeClickFix launches a Facebook application, the City Fix reports.

The Orton Family Foundation released PlanIT X, “an online platform designed to help a broad range of users find, share and contribute information about decision-support tools, projects and resources in community planning and related fields.” PlaceMatters was pleased to be part of the team that actually built the database, and we are even more pleased to see up and running.

What did we miss?

DIY touchtable technology integrated with GIS

Participant add future housing to scenario

This Fall, PlaceMatters broke new ground in the application of our DIY touchtable integrated with CommunityViz and Brainstorm Anywhere. On Cape Cod, we used 4 tables simultaneously to enable a “where do we grow” exercise with 4 teams. With the touchtables, participants were able to add jobs and housing and changes in transit services directly to the CommunityViz GIS maps.

Because participants had direct access to the GIS interface, they were able to view important data layers including land use zoning, sensitive habitat, protected well head zones, and areas vulnerable to sea level rise while discussing options. This translated into more informed decision making while considering where to steer future growth. At any time during the exercise, participants could run the CommunityViz model to view the impacts of placed jobs, housing, and enhanced transit services on key indicators including converted open space, development occurring in sensitive areas, changes in per capita vehicle miles traveled and greenhouse gas emissions.

Visit to see footage of the Cape Cod workshop.

Included in the video are scenes from a workshop PlaceMatters and the National Charrette Institute helped organize and facilitate with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Environmental Protection Agency, the US Department of Transportation, and US Department of Agriculture. At this event, PlaceMatters set up 6 stations using our Brainstorm Anywhere tool and keypad polling to help identify and prioritize strategies for interagency collaboration in the implementation of the HUD’s new Sustainable Communities Grant Program.

The Future of Community Participation

Photo by Flickr user stevegarfield.

Chris Brogan this morning posted his seven ideas on the future of media: media will be multi-touch (by which he means multi-media), mobile, serial, two-way, rich data mined, subscription-based, and faster but with longer burn (we’ll get hit when a story breaks but they’ll have more time to explain the story as it unfolds).

A lot of those trends carry over to our work in civic participation and community decision-making. My stab at seven six characteristics of community participation in the future:

  1. Community participation will be multi-touch, both in the narrow sense that touch-based interfaces will grow in utility and sophistication (and that multiple people will increasingly be able to simultaneously use the same devices) and in the broader, multi-media sense that Brogan means.
  2. Community participation will be increasingly mobile, and in fact we already make great use of mobile devices for Walkshops and other interactive, real-time community decision-making tools.
  3. Community participation will be two-way.  This is the essence of the “Planning 2.0” upheaval . . . community decision-making is already becoming much more interactive, and community members are increasingly able to shape outcomes rather than simply providing feedback. In fact, most of the tools we develop and use are designed for just that purpose: help community members better understand the complex choices they face and then provide meaningful input to the decision-makers.  The result can be a higher level of engagement, more meaningful input, and better decisions.
  4. For community planning, I think Brogan’s ideas about media becoming two-way, subscription-based, and long-burn are all tied to an important community participation and decision-making trend: iterativity (iterativeness?).   I don’t think that the idea of “planning” will ever be completely replaced by a free form make-it-up-as-you-along model (an idea we explored last year at our “The End of Planning?” Salon at the Saloon at the APA in New Orleans), but clearly these types of tools and techniques enable more iterative and ongoing planning processes, and I expect we’ll see a slide in that direction.
  5. Community participation will rely more heavily on complex data. This isn’t quite the same as Brogan’s “rich data mined” idea, but I think it’s similar. Data visualization tools like CommunityViz are helping community members understand more clearly the visual, character, and other impacts of various development options, for example, essentially making really complex data more understandable and usable. Hazard mitigation planning tools like the Coastal Resilience Mapping Tool in Long Island are helping community members understand the complex effects of rising sea levels and potential responses.
  6. Community participation and decision-making will incorporate geolocation tools.  Geolocation – which is enabled by the growing market penetration of smart phones – has permeated the commercial app universe for good reason: the devices already incorporate the hardware, and your app knowing where you are opens up a universe of uncharted utility and entertainment.  Community participation and civic engagement folks are already finding ways to adapt these technologies (something my colleague Jason Lally discussed after his return for the GeoDesign Summit last month).  And the combo of smart phone penetration, geolocation capabilities, and increasingly sophisticated data visualization tools will play out in other ways, such as a growing use of augmented reality tools to help inform about current conditions and to help foster imagination about and understanding of future options.

What do you agree and disagree with?  What are we missing?

Thoughts on New Partners for Smart Growth Conference

The New Partners for Smart Growth conference is winding down.  It’s been great to be with a multi-disciplinary group of practitioners, hearing about how public health, conservation, disability access, historic preservation, and other disciplines can all come together into one concept for creating more livable, sustainable communities. Many of the sessions are focusing on rural applications of the smart growth principles, which will be helpful for us as we embark on the New River Valley (Virginia) Sustainable Communities Grant project, since so much of the area is rural.

Of course one of the best things about New Partners for Smart Growth is the chance to reconnect with colleagues and meet new practitioners.  I’ve had a chance to chat with Joe Schilling at Virginia Tech (PlaceMatters has worked with Joe in the past, supporting his work on the Eco-City Alexandria Summit) about the research and review of sustainability plans that he has been conducting (video of his description of this exciting work coming soon).  Sarah Reginelli, one of our wonderful partners and Principal Planner at the City of Albany joined Ken’s panel on environmental justice and community engagement and gave a great overview of the work she and others at the City have done to ensure inclusive and representative participation in the Albany 2030 process.

We also re-joined forces with Ben Carlson from Goody Clancy, to lead a session called “Pounding the Pavement: Walk-shops for Multi-media Engagement”.  Ben provided insight into walkability principles, and also described how our walk-shops in Wichita informed the Downtown Master Plan that Goody Clancy developed.  The walk-shop training session went well, and a vision-impaired participant really helped us to understand a set of challenges in the pedestrian environment we don’t often think about.

I also visited the panel hosted by our friends at the Orton Family Foundation describing the work they are doing in and was excited to hear about their work in Victor, Idaho to help the community envision a more sustainable future.  They made excellent use of CommunityViz in their analyses and in their public engagement, showing the change in performance against indicators by making changes to the analysis in real time using keypad polling.  A woman in the last row whispered to her neighbor, “That’s so cool. But it sounds expensive.” Luckily for Placeways, I was there to assure her that CommunityViz is actually very reasonably priced. :)

Overall, the conference has highlighted for me that PlaceMatters has a vital role to play in helping practitioners in various disciplines connect with citizens and stakeholders to gather meaningful and informed input.  The room was packed during Ken’s panel addressing how to engage typically underrepresented groups (video clips to come). People are very interested in how to address this problem. We continue to learn about the options for outreach and feedback– time and again we hear (and talk about) the need to meet people where they are, make decisions relevant for those you are engaging, and not give up on those who don’t usually show up for public meetings.

It’s an inspiring group here, I hope to write more about some of the specific discussions we’ve had and panels we’ve seen..stay tuned. Also, I hope to take the energy of this group back to my office and into the many projects we are embarking upon in coming weeks!

PlaceMatters Weekly Blog Roundup: January 31, 2010

Clay Shirkey has an interesting piece in Foreign Affairs arguing that the real potential of social media is in supporting civil society and the public sphere rather than for any particular foreign policy aims. It’s especially pertinent (and prescient) in light of the unrest in Egypt. We can’t help but think the same basic argument applies at the community level domestically as well . . . we suspect that social media tools are much more important for building and supporting a strong culture of civic participation at the local level rather than as a tool to advance any particular policy, program, or political effort.

Ethan Zuckerman in Fast Company Design makes his argument about the importance of folks who can serve as bridges, spanning across and bringing together very different cultures. The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s trusted advocate model relies on a similar sort of insight: find people who are trusted by the community you are engaging and engage them as ambassadors and connectors.

National Center for Dialogue and Deliberation offers an alternative to conventional citizen deliberation methods that they call “Creative Deliberation,” an approach intended to open up the span of potential solutions to a policy challenge.

Community Matters touches on the creative civic engagement techniques used by city folks in Manor, Texas to spur participation in a new QR code program. In a separate post, the Case Foundation gives its take on QR codes and some of their potential uses.

Orton Family Foundation riffs on the Onion’s recent expose: “Majority of Government Doesn’t Trust Citizens Either.”

Engaging Cities writes about a new Institute of Development Studies report that attempts to quantify the benefits of citizen engagement.

Augmented Reality is busy doing cool stuff again, describing a new Junaio system for making televisions work like touch screens.

Jason writes on the PlaceMatters blog about our first Xbox Kinect, and I posted an interview with Doug Walker about the exceptionally cool planning tool CommunityViz.

Doug Walker: CommunityViz and Community Engagement

Last week I visited with Doug Walker at the Boulder headquarters of Placeways, an organization best known for its remarkable CommunityViz software. Doug offered a walk-through of the CommunityViz package.

If you don’t know CommunityViz, my chat with Doug is worth a watch . . . this is seriously amazing software that helps communities and community members understand what different land use scenarios might actually look like in three dimensions. It also helps them analyze and compare the impacts (good and bad) of all the options. It operates in real-time, and allows on-the-fly changes to land use scenarios, growth assumptions, and all sort of other factors that shape how a community changes over time. If you want to see how your town changes if that parcel is zoned medium density instead of high density, you click a button and compare the results. If you think average fuel efficiency is going to increase to 30 mpg instead of 29 mpg, you move a slider and can instantly review all of the implications for vehicle-miles-traveled, greenhouse gas emissions, and other factors.

Doug also offers some thoughts about where these types of visualization tools are headed, and geodesign – the “flat people” (GIS people) coming together with the “up and down people” (CAD and architecture and design) – is at the top of the list.

SimCity Grows Up

Little did I know that my fondness for the earliest SimCity versions so many years ago would mark a point on a path leading to elected office and a great job with PlaceMatters helping communities improve their decision making and become more sustainable along the way. While SimCity was inexplicably fun for the geeks among us, and probably did something to convey a sense of the relationships between land use, growth, and economic health, a helpful model of community leadership or municipal management it was not. Even in its later iterations, with fancier graphics and more sophisticated management options, while helpful perhaps at teaching some of the basic challenges and trade-offs, SimCity never offered (or pretended to offer) a tool for tackling real municipal challenges.

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