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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.

Most Exciting Trends in 2012: Better Data and Apps for Planners

Shareabouts screenshot

Shareabouts is an open source app from OpenPlans that makes sharing ideas on a map simple.  Applications like this will make 2012 a year of more usable apps and better data for community decision making.

This past year, we’ve seen the growth of community decision making tools around planning.  In my estimation, 2012 will continue this trend and bring more usable, integrated apps to the world of community decision making, giving planners and community leaders a broader and more efficient toolkit for engaging stakeholders in a decision-making process.

In the world of mapping, we’ll see more ways for people to easily contribute to maps about the places they live.  These apps have been around for a while, but now they’re getting easier to manage and deploy.  For example, our friends at OpenPlans have an emerging platform called Shareabouts (blog | git repo), that is open source and has a clean, usable interface.  MindMixer just added maps to their web-based community idea platform, and these guys have given a lot of thought to user-centered design.  These more usable apps will increase our ability to crowdsource relevant geographic data. The mapping interfaces of yore were pretty clunky, but this will be less the case in 2012.

Continue reading

GeoDesign about process, tools, and interdisciplinary approach

Shannon McElvaney at ESRI is working on a book on GeoDesign — a growing movement of academics, community planning and development practitioners, ecosystem managers, and geospatial tool developers interested in the nexus between geography, design, planning, ecosystem management and community decision making. Shannon asked PlaceMatters to contribute to the book, asking us a series of questions. In the process of answering the first question “What does GeoDesign mean to you?” I fell in love with the combination of the two words and how they truly captured the range of interests engaging in the GeoDesign conversation.

Here were a couple of my thoughts:

GeoDesign is about decisions connected to place. It’s about context sensitive process, perspective, action, and implementation – nature and nurture integrated. The interplay of the two words offers a framework and paradigm for decision making. Geo can be as simple as 2 coordinates pinpointing location or as complex as the geological, biological, social, economic, and built elements associated with a park, city block, neighborhood, town, region, or watershed. Because the word Geo is often associated with the earth and its natural components – natural systems are given appropriate prominence in GeoDesign decision making. Design adds intention to decisions. It can lead to art, economic strategies, building construction, environmental mediation, or conservation priorities to name a few. It can be a single event but is more often an iterative process of continuous improvement. The GeoDesign movement represents a broad range of professionals interested in making the world a better place with belief that location-based decision making provides a valuable framework tackling a wide range of challenges.

Others out there, reading this, active in the GeoDesign movement, what does the term mean to you?

Visit the website if you’re interested in learning more about the GeoDesign Summit hosted by ESRI.

This blog was first posted on Planetizen.

PlaceMatters gets some great press!

Front cover of the October planning magazine

Read about us in this month’s Planning Magazine, Metropolis, or ArcNews

This fall, PlaceMatters is in three publications!  We were part of the Metropolis Technology Issue on page 71 (online link to the article will be available next month).  You can read a brief on community outreach technologies including our own Brainstorm Anywhere.  A more in-depth article on High-Touch/High-Tech Charrettes is in this month’s Planning magazine on page 27 by Bill Lennertz of the National Charrette Institute (and a board member).  You’ll get a hardcopy in the mail if you are an APA member, and it is also available online here. Finally, a nice writeup of the work we did with Placeways in Cape Cod is in the Fall issue of ArcNews and is available here.  This is also a preview of a book chapter in an upcoming book on GeoDesign.

We are really excited to see our work and our partners’ work featured in the press.  Let us know what you think in the comments or on Twitter.

Esri calls for GeoDesign case studies

I recently received a request to post a call for case studies from a colleague at Esri, Shannon McElvaney.  The announcement is quoted below.  You can see some an example of our work in Cape Cod written up by Ken here, or watch an interview with Matt Baker on GeoDesign, or take a look at a GeoDesign bibliography if you want more information on GeoDesign in theory and practice.  Looking forward to seeing more case studies from people in the future.

Esri is actively seeking GeoDesign case studies for possible publication. The objective is to demonstrate GeoDesign principles in practice as a way to communicate these concepts to folks who are interested in learning more about GeoDesign. The cases need to be actual cases, not theoretical demonstrations. Cases may qualify for use in a GeoDesign Case Study book (currently being written), or they may be used as GeoDesign stories for ArcNews. Continue reading

A Pattern Language for the Public: Esri Acquires Procedural

In 1977, Christopher Alexander co-authored the book A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings and ConstructionAlexander and his co-authors lay out a series of generative patterns that form a language of solutions and problems in the built environment.  While one can argue about the patterns themselves, the thinking behind this book is what interests me the most.  This systems thinking is at the basis of many computational operations that rely on understanding the parts and the whole that they create (which is much greater than just summing up the parts).  Generative grammar applies similar thinking to language and shape grammars are at the basis of computational approaches to design (and may be most closely associated to Alexander’s pattern thinking).

3D Rotterdam in City Engine

This image from Procedural showcase (linked on this image) showing 3D Rotterdam. ArcGIS was used as well in this showcase project.

Why this nerdy, esoteric introduction?  Well, at the Esri User Conference plenary, Jack Dangermond announced the acquisition of Procedural, the Swiss makers of CityEngine.  CityEngine uses shape grammars and procedural modeling to rapidly generate 3D cities from 2D data.  Users can apply rules and iteratively generate patterns of development.  This may sound like something for someone’s PhD thesis, but really it is readily applicable to the real world.  You see, since the beginning of zoning and land use regulations, planners and cities have been engaging in a sort of defunct systems urbanism.  Buried in the legal language of land use codes and regulations are rules that give birth to the functional forms we see in our cities and towns across the country. Planners know these rules as things like setback requirements, floor area ratio, permitted uses, and so on. Continue reading

PlaceMatters Blog Roundup: March 30, 2011

I had a week off because of a few conferences in Washington, D.C. (including the terrific Nonprofit Technology Conference) and then an unplanned week away from the office as a raging wildfire threatened my town (we learned some great lessons about communication, community, and social media – I’ll blog about that separately), but I’m back and have got a great set of links to share . . .

PlaceMatters is presenting a panel at the APA conference in Boston in a couple of weeks called “What to do When Public Participation Goes Terribly Wrong?” Ken, who is a Planetizen blogger as well as the PlaceMatters‘ CEO, posted on the panel and invites folks to send in their own stories of near misses or total disasters. (He also cross-posted on our blog).

Bridges of B offers a lengthy description and generally favorable critique of Akoha, a civics-minded mobile-based direct action game. It offers a game-based platform for creating community-oriented missions, using game mechanics to motivate engagement. One criticism: “Place matters, especially in civics,” and Akoha doesn’t tie to one’s place very well, but Bridges of B seems pretty enthused about Ahoka as an early stab, and about the promise of the approach more generally.

National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation links to a National School Public Relations Association post called “Recipes for Innovation in Public Engagement,” focused on community engaging in the context of public education.

The Irish Cultural Center blogged about a photography project in which the subject of each photograph held a Polaroid image of the previous subject, so each photograph subject is connected to the person photographed just prior and the one photographed just afterwards. (Thanks for the link, Ethan!).

Ragtag posted a terrific (Euro- and Wikipedia-centric) data visualization relying on a cross-referencing of the location and date data in Wikipedia articles on historic events. (This one was Ethan, as well).

Reimagine Rural describes their Front Porch Forums tool, a social media application designed for smaller, rural communities. They contrast the tool with conventional social media languages and tools: it’s designed to encourage face-to-face interaction (rather than designed to maximize the time engaged with the tool). It’s focused more on general community and civic engagement as opposed to community decision-making, but it seems applicable to a wider range of situations. One post describes the Front Porch Forum and the other post has a short video explanation.

Intellitics blogs about the central role small group discussions can play in anchoring a community process.

Digital Urban continues their ruminations on the use of QRCodes in the context of museum exhibits. We find the technology and the applications pretty interesting from a broader public engagement perspective as well.

Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space grapples with the challenges of web-based engagement around redistricting.

Orton Family Foundation blogs about a story-gathering, asset mapping, and visioning effort undertaken by high school students for their Biddeford, Maine downtown.

Augmented Reality posted about two interesting innovations. The first, including a video, described an application involving driving a radio-controlled car around a track, with cameras for a real-time cockpit view and “augmented reality scenarios overlaying animations onto the live-video image which were triggered either with a light barrier or optically.” Very cool. The second shows the use of an augmented reality app to create a racetrack for a video game by mapping Red Bull cans laid out on the floor. Both illustrate ways in which augmented reality technologies can be used, and for us it’s always with an eye toward planning and community decision-making.

Common Sense California writes posts on the Marine Corps’ version of a town hall meeting at Camp Hansen.

Engaging Cities writes about the QR Code trend and offers some best practices tips for folks who may want to experiment. QR codes clearly offer process designers a tool for sparking certain types of engagement, and will be increasingly useful as camera phones continue their market saturation.

Engaging Cities also reflects a little on the use of film and community storytelling in urban planning.

My PlaceMatters colleagues have been busy with other posts as well, including Jocelyn’s on IBM’s City Forward online tool (about which Fast Company wrote recently as well), Jason’s interview with ESRI’s Matt Baker about geodesign and sketch-based feedback in ArcGIS, Ken’s thoughts on integrating DIY touchtables with GIS, and my post about the iPad 2 Best Buy vs. Mac Store face-off.

What did we miss?

Matthew Baker of ESRI talks GeoDesign

While at New Partners for Smart Growth, I had Matthew Baker of ESRI show me a couple of neat tricks for sketch based feedback in ArcGIS.  Using a series of free add-ins and some customizations [link forthcoming], he is able to get some nice feedback directly inside ArcGIS.  He does this using a Wacom DTU -2231 Tablet made for GIS applications.

If you like sketch based planning applications, also check out our interview with Doug Walker of Placeways, the creators of CommunityViz.

Jack Dangermond – Thoughts on GeoDesign

I interviewed Jack Dangermond while at the GeoDesign Summit in Redlands, CA.  I was able to get about 4 minutes of his very busy schedule to ask him what he thought of the potential of GeoDesign coming out of this summit.  In the interview, he talks about the need for collaboration and Carl Steinitz’s four players in GeoDesign: information technologies, geoscience, design, and the beneficiaries of GeoDesign (the client).  Jack Dangermond elaborates that he “is very encouraged by this community,” stating that “GeoDesign is an old problem, but it also is a new launching through the various technological initiatives.”

Overall, he is excited about the emerging association of different and related professions around the common problems that GeoDesign attempts to address, by bringing the science more fully into the design efforts.  He does not see ESRI as the only player in this game, but as one of the many vendors that will help “evolve the methods” over time.

For my reflection on the GeoDesign Summit, click here.

Reflections on the GeoDesign Summit

ESRI hosted the second GeoDesign Summit (Image from

Recently I returned from the GeoDesign summit in Redlands, CA and met a lot of interesting people doing a lot of different work from varied disciplines.  While there, a question came up during lunch with one of my colleagues.  It was regarding whether this whole “GeoDesign” thing would just end up being a fad (this general concern is echoed by James Fee and is legitimate).  My answer to that question went something like this:

It really doesn’t matter if the term GeoDesign sticks; what I think will stick around is the core question of bringing science more squarely into design practice.  This question is not a new one, as many have pointed out including Jack Dangermond.  What GeoDesign represents is a naming of the beast.  While it is not the only way to move a concept forward, it is a convenient method to label something to organize around.  For example, you can find a plethora of blog posts critiquing “cloud computing”, but so far it’s stuck.  Some people abuse the term, others don’t know what it is, but I’d argue that the concept is moving forward (with some potential pitfalls nonetheless).  And it will come to pass that something else will replace it, maybe universal computing, super-redundant-never-off-fastest-ever computing, or maybe we’ll just call it Chuck (or maybe we’ll all carry a copy of the entire Internet on a thumb drive), but the core ideas will push forward and evolve with technology.

What matters most is that we are doing something, that we are actively engaged in a collective conversation about this, and that we improve through education, research and practice.  There is no reason to have a professional organization, I think GeoDesign is more powerful as a subset of many other professional organizations.  Our call here is to keep working together as disjointed professionals attempting to understand what this all means.  While there are common languages that may need to be invented, new tools and approaches yet to come out of the lab, and general confusion about what outcomes we want, there is an opportunity to iteratively build toward something increasingly more coherent.  GeoDesign will be defined by the people who participate in it, by the examples that emerge from it, and by the people that benefit from it (whatever it is).  That is an exciting opportunity.

I will continue blogging about GeoDesign into the future as it evolves and emerges from many voices.  PlaceMatters will also be helping to launch GeoDesignWorld (in partnership with ESRI and the University of Santa Barbara), which will serve as a portal and community site for people working around GeoDesign.

Check back for an interview I did with Jack Dangermond on the topic of the future of GeoDesign.