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Finding the Balance: Light Rail and Neighborhood Integrity

The Denver Metro region’s light rail system is undergoing a major (albeit slow) expansion. Photo by Flickr user ercwttmn.

One of PlaceMatters’ major projects right now is a HUD Sustainable Communities grant in the Denver region to help with transit planning across several lines of the under-construction FasTracks light rail system (along with an impressive parallel community partnership called Mile High Connects). Our job is to architect much of the public engagement process so that people across the impacted communities can fully participate and contribute a meaningful way to key land use, housing, and transportation policy decisions.

These types of projects present a range of challenges, including the challenging of equity … relatively new in the space where federal housing, transportation, and environmental policy converge but with substantial on-the-ground implications, including those that Denver Post columnist Tina Griego wrote about last week.

Some of the equity challenges embedded in this project are regional in scope, such as thoughtfully and fairly distributing the dollars across multiple planned lines, and ensuring that development around transit stations affords people from a range of incomes the ability to use the transit system. Other challenges are more localized but no less important, such as protecting the integrity of neighborhoods that have a new transit line and transit stop (or that soon will have these). In the abstract, it’s easy to dismiss these types of concerns, since support for transit and for neighborhood revitalization is so widespread. But the quick escalation of property values that often accompanies new transit lines can be extremely disruptive, destroying local businesses and forcing people from their homes. And changes in land use around new transit stations can have a huge impact on the character of existing communities.

This is a tough project (and I’m very glad to see my extremely capable colleague Jocelyn Hittle as our point person), but it’s an important one, and if managed well the result will be good policy outcomes and community members along these transit lines that feel they contributed meaningfully to decisions that will impact their lives in complicated ways.

Participation by Design: “Two Lies & A Truth” About Smartphone Apps For Public Engagement

This post, by guest blogger Corey Connors, is the ninth 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.

“Lie” #1: Not everyone has a smartphone, so the benefit of using them is very limited.
While no one would be wise to argue with the fact that not everyone has a smartphone, there are several ways that smartphone apps create significant benefits as supplements to public meetings. One of those reasons is “reach.” While not everyone has smartphones, the number of those who do is certainly greater than the number of people who regularly attend public meetings – so based on scale alone, the potential ability to engage citizens goes up. Another benefit is allowing citizens to provide feedback in real-time, during their commutes and recreation time (on topics that they may forget details of by the time the public meeting comes around). The best apps also allow those who may prefer using internet access and a web browser to provide feedback in a similar manner, which can also be useful during public meetings in a kiosk strategy.

“Lie” #2: Smartphone apps will only make work for me, as it’s more data that I have to mine.
The best apps allow citizens to provide geo-coded photos, video, and/or audio files about issues, and allow them to categorize that issue from a list that you define – this allows a simple export from the smartphone app database to MSExcel for general use and to shapefiles (.shp) for GIS analysis. The best apps make it easy for citizens to provide their feedback in real-time, and they should make it easy for professionals to take that data and bring it to bear in planning projects. The contrast is the more common strategy of plotter-printing a large map that is placed on the floor for citizens to walk over, and then having them provide comments via Post-It notes adhered to the map – imagine the time it will then take to simply compile, categorize, and confirm specific locations of that data.

A Truth: Smartphone apps are not fields of dreams – they require promotion and communication to achieve high adoption.
You can rest assured that the most tech-forward of your audience will not need reminders about the ease of downloading an app and then immediately contributing to a planning project, but in 2012 they will likely still represent a minority of the audience that you hope to engage. Reaching and involving the larger group will require active communication by whatever strategies will be most effective for your specific audience – gameification (to add interest to participation), project-specific websites, email blasts, partnerships with local groups (casual and professional), transit advertising, TV spots, social media, press events, and others can all be appropriate strategies.

Case study: Reno Sparks Bicycle & Pedestrian Plan.
The Reno Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) set out to create this region’s first-ever comprehensive bicycle and pedestrian plan – public engagement was essential. There was also desire to be in as many “places” as possible to help citizens engage in the project. A first-of-its-kind smartphone app was created to allow for this enhanced engagement. Citizens could download this app for free (on iPhone, Android, and Blackberry), and use it to submit photo- and typed-comment-based feedback about the bicycle and pedestrian environments in the region. Those submissions were then automatically illustrated on an interactive map at the project-specific website – this allowed anyone to browse the detail of the feedback that their neighbors were providing, simply by going to the website. Social media strategies were put in place and resulted in a significantly-larger number of engaged citizens (than had been common in similar efforts), and the ability for project messages to be shared virally. To streamline management, these social channels were integrated so that a message/update in one would automatically propagate to the other, and to the custom website for all citizens to see. From a partnership standpoint, the Reno Wine Walk group was identified as a casual group to provide good participation and reach, as it hosts weekly walking events that involve popular wine merchants in the downtown area and neighboring streets.

This post was contributed by Corey Connors of Fehr & Peers, a California-based transportation consulting firm.

Participation by Design: Participatory Scenario Planning to Develop a 50-Year Transportation Vision

This post, by guest bloggers Carissa Schively Slotterback and Cindy Zerger, is the seventh 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.

Getting people involved in long range planning presents a significant challenge for planners and policymakers. Doing so can be especially difficult when the geographic scale is large. Consider the challenge for the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) as it developed a public engagement process for its 50-Year Transportation Vision – Minnesota GO in the spring of 2011.

Motivated by an interest in enhancing public involvement in its long range planning, MnDOT worked with us through the University of Minnesota’s Center for Transportation Studies (CTS) to develop a comprehensive engagement strategy. A key aspect of this strategy was a creative participatory scenario planning process intended to foster public interest and help explore alternative futures that might influence future transportation decision making. The scenario planning exercise was developed for use in public workshops held across Minnesota and as part of a web-based scenario exercise available through the Citizens League’s (a local non-profit) Citizing online tool.

Focused 50 years in the future, the scenarios offered a narrative and visual description of various economic, social, environmental, and political conditions in 2061. The first step in developing the scenarios was to conduct a series of interviews with University of Minnesota and other experts around key topics that intersect with transportation, such as technology, economics, climate change, governance, health, and supply chains. High quality videos of the expert interviews were recorded and edited for public viewing online. The expert perspectives provided in the videos were central to developing the scenarios as we reviewed the raw video footage to identify (1) trends and (2) impacts that might be present in 2061. These trends and impacts were integrated into three (very Minnesotan) alternative scenarios:

You Betcha! (going from global to local). Middle-of-the road scenario. In this version of MN, the majority of goods and food are produced within 350 miles of where people live; some industries such as water exporting and wind energy are successful; technological innovations in communications and manufacturing occur; and small towns thrive as people move there from urban centers.

Uffda! (learning to succeed in a time of energy crisis). Most challenging scenario. In this version of MN, all forms of energy are in short supply, resulting in blackouts and fuel rationing; agriculture and manufacturing struggle to survive – though low energy bio-engineering crops and algae-based fuels make MN a national leader; and urban areas and regional centers grow but rural communities decline.

Lake Wobegon (where all Minnesota towns and neighborhoods are above average). Most positive of all scenarios. In this version of MN, there are many technological and medical breakthroughs to improve our lives, education, and environment; tourism increases; and population grows due to increased life expectancy and new residents attracted by the state’s high quality of life.

Nine public workshops were conducted across the state, with 233 people participating in meetings and another 3,490 unique visitors to the project website. In an effort to provide meeting participants with multiple ways of immersing themselves in the scenarios, we provided three pieces of information to each participant: a scenario narrative that verbally described what life would be like in 2061; an illustrative map visually communicating how some changes might play out on the landscape; and a scorecard that showed how 2061 would stack up against 2011 in various areas.

Each meeting kicked off with a presentation to get participants motivated for the meeting activities, including asking them to initially rewind to 1961 for a little perspective. For example, 1961 cost of living information was presented including the cost of a gallon of gas ($0.27), the cost of an average home ($12.5k), and the cost of a dozen eggs ($0.30), compared with today’s prices. In addition, cultural and historical information was presented, including the top song and movie of the year, as well as reminding participants that the first human went to space and the “Ken” doll was introduced in 1961.

At each of the workshops, small groups of participants were assigned to discuss one of the scenarios. To help immerse them in the 2061 scenario, participants filled out a “Day in the Life” worksheet, and were then asked to consider what transportation systems would be necessary to succeed in the future scenario and what principles should guide MnDOT’s decisions.

As the workshops concluded, a detailed summary of the findings was developed in effort to help MnDOT understand what Minnesotan saw as key components of a transportation system no matter what the future. This work helped lay the groundwork for the principles identified in the Minnesota GO 50-Year Transportation Vision.

Cindy Zerger

Carissa Schively Slotterback

This post was contributed by Carissa Schively Slotterback, PhD, AICP, an Associate Professor and the Director of the Urban and Regional Planning Program in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, and Cindy Zerger, the Center Coordinator and Research Fellow in the Center for Changing Landscapes in the College of Design at the University of Minnesota and Founding Partner of Brainstorm Overload, a creative services firm.

Participation By Design: Twitter-government … Can Micro-Participation Stimulate Public Engagement?

This post, by guest blogger Jennifer Evans-Cowley, is the first in a month-long series 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 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.

The Austin Strategic Mobility Plan was the starting point for an innovative engagement process using social networking tools.

Back in 2009, Texas Citizen Fund invited me to serve as an external evaluator on a Federal Transit Administration proposal. Their goal: to try to use social media to engage the public in planning. At first I thought okay, everyone is trying this, what are you doing that’s new? We have all seen the build the social media presence and wait for people to come approach. We’ve also seen the build the social media presence and push out information approach. There is nothing wrong with these approaches, but they have generally had limited success.

I was pleasantly surprised that their approach did indeed represent an innovative approach to engagement. Their innovation was simple in concept. Build a system that would constantly scan Twitter, Facebook, and blogs looking for anyone posting about transportation issues in Austin. Once they found someone already talking about transportation they would simply insert themselves into the conversation in an attempt to engage the social media users in dialogue around key topics in the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan. From this idea SNAPPatx was born.

SNAPPatx deployed a lot of technology to integrate a website, blog, Facebook, and Twitter using web-base analytics and database. Between April and October of 2010, they collected almost 50,000 microblogs. I compared how the SNAPPatx project compared to other social media projects cited in the academic literature, a few key successes:

  • SNAPPatx generated a following on Twitter greater than 98 percent of other Twitter users
  • SNAPPatx achieved greater equality of participation among users than found in other studies
  • SNAPPatx had an average of 45 microblogs retweeted per week. Based on previous research, retweets are forwarded continuously to reach an average of 1,000 users. Meaning that SNAPPatx was potentially reaching 45,000 people per week.

The most important part of the project is the direct engagement between SNAPPatx and the microbloggers. The extension of the simple microblog into a dialogue is termed micro-participation. One of the keys of using micro-participation in this context is to be concise and to understand all of the lingo to efficiently and effectively communicate via Twitter and other social media sites.

Austin’s unofficial slogan, Keep Austin Weird, is imbedded into the culture of the city and comes through in what people are microblogging about. For example, in this micro-participation dialogue SNAPPatx got to have a little fun talking about the locally famous biker who only wears a g-string while riding his bike.

@elizmccracken When I was there I saw a guy with a ZZ Top beard pulling a standup bass on a trailer behind his bike. Austin=weird biking.

@leahcstewart @elizmccracken Do the weird Austin bikers make you want to ride a bike yourself or are you just happy to observe? #snappatx

@SNAPPatx @elizmccracken It depends on whether I have to ride the bike in a g-string toting a standup bass.

@leahcstewart @elizmccracken Nope, you can ride the bike in any manner you choose – no g-string or instrument hauling required. #snappatx

While the above dialogue is fun others were much more specific to discussing critical issues related to the City’s transportation planning effort. In the following dialogue, SNAPP was able to educate and receive input on potential solutions. The microblogger starts by telling a fellow microblogger his or her thoughts about Austin and SNAPP provides information about urban rail.

@gary_hustwit Austin. Good: nice public outdoor spaces. Bad: Very car dependent, no urban light rail. #Urbanized

@compactrobot Urban rail is an item on the 2012 transport bond so keep an eye out. How else would you improve Austin mobility? #snappatx

@SNAPPatx reduce the need for mobility to begin with. More VMU. Lessen the grip of NAs.

@SNAPPatx oh yeah, also nuke I-35 from space.

@compactrobot Well, that might create a different sort of traffic jam… Where are your worst I-35 trouble spots? #snappatx

@SNAPPatx I avoid it, frankly. I just don’t like the way it’s sliced downtown in half and isolated the east side from the city.

@SNAPPatx it’s great for trucking companies and horrible for Austin residents. and it’s a giant eyesore.

@compactrobot All fair points. Do you successfully take local routes to avoid I-35? Do you feel similar ire toward Mopac too? #snappatx

@SNAPPatx I only take 35 if I’m eating on the east side, & only after rush hour. otherwise I’ll use airport, Lamar, or Guadalupe & cut over

@SNAPPatx Mopac’s not as bad. but then I don’t have to use it to daily to go to/from work.

The conversations are professional, but they also find ways to connect with microbloggers and encourage participation. These dialogues demonstrate that it is possible to use micro-participation to generate public input on planning issues, with SNAPPatx collecting close to 50,000 microblogs. How can all of these microblogs be aggregated to create meaning that can be used in decision-making. This was a major challenge of this project: finding ways to present results that public officials could understand and that could influence decision making.

Participation via social media requires different expectations from planners and decision makers.

Current planners and decision makers want to ask and get answers to specific questions when they need the answers. They also want to know who is giving the answers and how representative they are of the larger “public.” Social media doesn’t work that way. Individuals generate the comments drawing from what is on their mind and anyone viewing these comments only sees an avatar as the author. Yet, social media is generating useful data. City officials responded most favorably to the use of sentiment analysis. SNAPPatx coded each of the relevant microblogs as to whether it expressed positive or negative sentiment. After the project, I experimented with more extensive sentiment analysis that looks at sentiment profiles, such as anxiety, anger and leisure. The sentiment analysis demonstrated that it is possible to aggregate microblogs to create meaning. To learn more about sentiment analysis and how it can be used, see this article.

As a simple example, by aggregating all of the microblogs based on the mode of transportation and looking at positive and negative sentiment we find that cars and buses have an equal portion of positive and negative microblogs, while microbloggers are largely expressing positive sentiment when writing about bicycles. This provides planners and policy makers with a simple snapshot of whether the public is expressing positive or negative sentiment about a planning topic.

Sentiment analysis can be used to create understanding among a large dataset of microblogs.

Sentiment analysis can be used to create understanding among a large dataset of microblogs.

The true promise of micro-participation is that it provides an opportunity to get nearly real-time tracking of public input, as demonstrated by SNAPPatx. Yet, planners and policy makers will need to work together to continue to better understand how to analyze and present the results of micro-participation in order to significantly influence decision-making.

This post was contributed by Jennifer Evans-Cowley, PhD, AICP. Jennifer is the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Administration for the College of Engineering and a Professor of City and Regional Planning at The Ohio State University.

PlaceMatters Blog Roundup: September 20, 2011

Sustainable Cities Collective describes a very cool Toronto project using Twitter and historical plaques around the city as the basis for a participatory historical mapping project.

Among the potential challenges of architecting a good community engagement and decision-making process: participants who are intent on disrupting and sabotaging the process. inCommon reflects on an article in the California Planning & Development Report highlighting efforts by Tea Party activists to disrupt regional and statewide engagement around climate change and livability.

Engaging Cities has a solid post on participatory budgeting, and inCommon describes an ongoing participatory budgeting effort in New York City. We love the approach, but helping communicate context and trade-offs is critical.

Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space comments on an LA Times column about the “sorry state of public dialogue and civic engagement in the U.S.” His suggestion: “The solution to the corrosive spirit of U.S. politics is not more politics.” Instead, columnist Gregory Rodriguez, suggests we should focus on building empathy. “There’s certainly a crisis in civics today, but it’s the product of a profound disconnect between our political engagement and our moral engagement. Democracy is great, but citizens still need inspiration and empathy to make it flourish. If we really want to promote civics, maybe we should skip the town hall in favor of the concert hall.”

Open Source Planning writes about a new project called Civic Pheromones (formerly Ether). It’s an interesting idea focused on aggregating feeds from civic websites. We can’t help but wonder, though, if the real challenges are around curation and discovery. Just to use one pertinent example, there’s a huge difference between creating an aggregated stream of news and information about civic participation (easy) and creating a curated roundup of especially interesting blog posts (harder).

Engaging Cities describes a collaboration between the Emerson College Engagement Game Lab and the City of Lowell, Massachusetts: an interactive web-based game as a community input tool for a recent community master plan process. Their goals included – as you might expect – engaging a broader spectrum of community members. We’d find it really interesting to hear more about how well it actually worked. Did a wider range of community members participate? Were the online participants the same or different individuals from those that participated in the traditional in-person meetings, and if different did they actually add to the diversity of participants, as well?

National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation writes about a new PBS special on the “What’s Next California Deliberative Poll,” a documentary on the use of a deliberative polling process engaging 400 California residents to think through and make policy recommendations on a range of critical issues. Any approach to civic participation relying on shared learning and thoughtful discussion is worth some attention, and the deliberative polling process fits the bill.

Good Cities describes “Give a Minute,” a virtual suggestion box that’s expanding to New York City (building on their current operation in Chicago). They write: The coolest thing about Give a Minute is that it gives big-time politicos and heads of government agencies a chance to actually respond to the suggestions from city residents. So Mayor Mike can actually ‘endorse’ an idea that he likes and offer feedback that goes directly back to the person who suggested it. We think he’ll actually comment, too, since Bloomberg is totally behind the idea . . . ”

On the PlaceMatters blog, Jason highlights Esri’s call for geodesign case studies and celebrates a HUD grant to our friends at the Center for Neighborhood Technology (and their partner Manhattan Strategy Group) to develop a national housing and transportation affordability index. This project will build on their earlier H+T Affordability Index for 337 metropolitan regions across the U.S. Jason makes the case for making all of those data available through a public API.

What did we miss?

A National Housing and Transportation Affordability Index

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced yesterday that they’ve awarded a 2-year contract to Manhattan Strategy Group (MSG) and our friends over at the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) to develop a national Housing and Transportation  (H+T) Affordability Index.  CNT developed an H+T Affordability Index for 337 Metro regions; this contract will allow them to expand that research and cover the nation.  From the site:

Americans traditionally consider housing affordable if it costs 30 percent or less of their income. The Housing + Transportation Affordability Index, in contrast, offers the true cost of housing based on its location by measuring the transportation costs associated with place.

H+T Affordability Index home page

The H+T Affordability Index allows users to see the true cost of housing and transportation where they live in 337 different regions.

This is an exciting announcement for many tackling this issue on a planning level, not to mention for personal decision-making, business decision-making and policy making.  Our hope at PlaceMatters is that the data that comes out of this 2 year study is made available through an API.  It looks like that’s in the works for Abogo, another tool by CNT built on top of the H+T data and centered more around individual decision making.  By making this data easily consumable on the web through a service architecture, people could develop all sorts of new tools on top of it.  Imagine a scenario planning tool (on the web or desktop) that let you populate the data in your analysis of a neighborhood or region.  And I’m not talking about shapefiles or zipped downloads (although that would be great too).  I’m talking about a truly accessible API that allows mashups in the same way that Google’s APIs have inspired hundreds of innovations.

I’d even love to host an H+T hackathon someday where we get a bunch of programmers, developers, and UI designers in a room and dream up innovative uses for the data.  What about a real estate search with H+T data embedded in the results?  Or a site that invites you to track your actual transportation and housing costs against the average with “rewards” or bragging rights for beating the region?  If the data is open, these are all real possibilities that could be designed not just by contractors but people with passion and interest.   We’ll be tracking this and hope to report that someday this data will be accessible so the benefits can multiply and really help individuals, communities and regions understand the true costs of their decisions.

How would you use this data?

PlaceMatters Weekly Blog Roundup: October 19, 2010

Next American City interviews Portland Mayor Sam Adams about the city’s new EcoDistricts Initiative (with partner the Portland Sustainability Initiative).  Mayor Adams talks briefly about the approach, the civic engagement, and the technology.  His “help them see the benefits” language doesn’t necessarily jive with the sort of civic participation process we tend to prefer, but it’s an interesting project.

People & Place offers their own thoughts on the initiative as well.

Next American City also reported on the much-anticipated (at least here at PlaceMatters) launch of CityOne, a next generation SimCity created by IBM.  They offer a thoughtful if disappointing review.

Rob Goodspeed ruminates on public sector crowdsourcing.

Metropolis pokes a little fun at the Why Design Now? conference, noting how tough a time the speakers had holding the attention of the audience with such attractive distractions as the view of Columbus Circle and the live twitter feed projected onto the wall.  I remember at a NetSquared conference being dumbfounded at the idea that everyone in the room was involved in separate simultaneous chat room conversations about the presentations.  Seems like an arena ripe with opportunity for powerful interactive meeting tools.

Augmented Reality previews a German service that allows you to point your phone at a movie theater, see the offerings, see trailers, and order tickets.

Digital Urban shows off a very cool dashboard display – the Bike-o-Meter – of how bicycle rentals in cities around the world are performing.  They also report, sadly, that the provider running a number of these requested that DU stop using their data, so the displays are now empty.

HUD announced the recipients of its Sustainable Communities grants.

Congrats to CNT for its 2010 Chicago Innovation Award nomination for its H+T Index showing the links between housing and transportation.

This is just a little dated, but . . . Public Decisions links to a new article called “The New Generation of Public Participation: Internet-based Participation Tools.”

PlaceMatters Weekly Blog Roundup: September 27, 2010

Next American City explores the rise of gaming and game paradigms in civic engagement, noting the role of incentive structures in creating enticing and enjoyable experiences that can be directed at improved civic participation.

Next American City also reflects on the dysfunctions of having multiple, disparate transit agencies across the Bay area, noting the way in which the legitimate concerns of individual local communities can make for a very inefficient, irrational regional system.

People & Place points out the difference between the “social rationality of lay people and the bounded rationality of experts” and touches on its implications for community decision making.

Digital Urban posted a new timelapse showing the locations of bicycle in London’s bike share program.  The pattern of bikes moving from the edges to the city center during the morning commute and back again in the evening seems like a pretty useful data visualization tool.

The City Fix probes more deeply on the same question: using complex tools to track, analyze, and visualize data about the location and even the predicted future location of bikes.  “It will be exciting to obtain user feedback on these new technologies and track whether these systems increase usage of the bike share system, especially among people who might have found the systems inconvenient without these technologies,” they write.

The City Fix also explores the challenges of engaging today’s youth on planning public transportation systems.

The Goodspeed Update covers Part I of their plan for a more transparent and participatory city government in Boston.

The National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation announced a new resource on “legal frameworks / legislation that supports dialogue, deliberation and public engagement work”

PlaceMatters blog argues for the importance of chaos in public decision processes.

Reinventing Parking reports on International PARK(ing) Day for 2010 and some of the creative ways it provokes community discussion (and sometimes less friendly emotions).

The National Charrette Institute posted a new 13-minute video describing charrettes and their role in community decision-making.  Bill Lennertz, the executive director, describes charrettes as “kind of a combination between a New England town meeting and a barn raising.”

This New York Times slide show doesn’t really have anything to with civic participation and community decision-making, per se, but it’s pretty remarkable nonetheless and highlights the power of images to tell stories about current conditions and potential future scenarios.  Hat tip to The Infrastructurist.

PlaceMatters Weekly Blog Roundup: September 7, 2010

Next American City offers a few thoughts about the growth of real-time data feeds and opportunities to improve the efficiency of city services and quality of life (e.g., negotiating traffic).

Urban STL laments the lack of participation in the “Framing a Modern Masterpiece” competition to redesign the grounds of the St. Louis Arch.

Digital Urban published a report on data mashups and the future of mapping.

Digital Urban also writes about new features available in Sketchup 8 and about integration with Lightup.

Here on the PlaceMatters blog, Jason Lally wrote about the relationship between geodesign and planning, the role of geodesign in facilitating collaboration, and next year’s GeoDesign Summit.

The National Coalition for Dialog and Deliberation writes about the Open Model for Citizen Engagement (OM4CE).

The Mind of Mbuga Njihia describes the winners of the Knight Foundation’s “Knight News Challenge.”

Transportation for American kicked off a twelve-part series – one case study a day – on livability (h/t to StreetsBlog).

What?! China’s Traffic Straddling Buses

The Giant Bus! from Discovery News

If China has a gigantic traffic problem, the country also has a gigantic solution: huge elevated buses that traffic can drive under. These are apparently already under construction, and they are mind boggling.  Whether because China’s traffic is so much worse or their willingness to experiment so much greater than their US counterparts, Chinese planners and engineers are potentially creating the next public transit phenomenon.  I will be anxious to see how these buses, straight out of Minority Report, will work.  Their developers claim they could reduce 25 to 30 percent of traffic congestion.

PlaceMatters often employs cutting edge technology in our work, but there is obviously room to be even more creative in how we approach improving decision-making.  These buses are a bit outside the box, but if they work, they could have amazing benefits.  Here at PlaceMatters, and in the sustainable planning world in general, we need to continue to push ourselves to think metaphorically when designing decision-making processes, “well..what if the cars could drive under the bus.”