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Community engagement 2.0

We’ve all been to the public meetings with endless Powerpoints and a few very vocal citizen-activists who dominate the conversation. Perhaps you even presented at one such forum or sat in the audience wondering, How much of this is seeking public input, and how much is placating the public? How can community-engagement efforts become more ... well, engaging? A growing number of planners, designers and technologists are exploring social media, multiuser virtual environments and other interactive technologies to increase participation in the planning and design process. How do these new technologies complement the traditional public process, which values the immediacy of face-to-face interaction? And how can planners and designers make the best use of the gads of information generated from these technologies?


One class of participatory technologies is helping planners and designers better communicate the complexities of planning issues to a wider public, freeing them from the tyranny of Powerpoint presentations, flipcharts and a rigid workshop format. Interactive workshop tools such as the Envisioning Development Toolkits, created by the Center for Urban Pedagogy, enable laypeople to participate in conversations about changes in their neighborhood by teaching them about planning and design concepts and terminology.

Information Gathering

Another class of technologies seeks to turn members of the general public into information gatherers and tap into their local intelligence as the basis for sound planning interventions. Mobile applications such as Boston’s CitizensConnect allow people to easily report the state of their city; OpenStreetMap makes it easy for the layperson to represent features of his or her built environment that a map surveyor might have missed. Both are already having a huge impact in terms of better municipal service delivery and operations, and it’s not difficult to imagine the potential kinds of collectible data that will give designers a better sense of what they are designing and who they are designing for.

Some practitioners have found promising ways of integrating these technologies into traditional analogue public processes. In a recent planning workshop in Somerville run by Denver-based PlaceMatters, participants walked in groups to take pictures of their neighborhood and sorted them into subjective categories such as “desirable use” and “needs improvement.” These then composed a large online photo database and acted as a catalyst for small group conversations. The end result is not only a rich visual repertoire of the residents’ local knowledge but also a great deal of mutual purpose that arose from discussions among neighbors.

Participatory Chinatown, developed by the Asian Community Development Corporation, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, and Hub2 of Emerson College and funded by a MacArthur Foundation grant, aims to create the same sense of mutual purpose within a community—but through gaming. Community members explore a digital replica of Boston’s Chinatown as one of 15 avatars, each of which represents a certain set of interests. For example, one avatar is an elderly Chinese immigrant who wants to live near other senior citizens, and another is a Tufts student. By taking on the guise of an avatar, participants come to understand the concerns and interests of others.

To some practitioners in the area, the mainstream adoption of participatory technologies simultaneously holds great promise and demands thoughtful and critical attention in their use. Rob Goodspeed, a PhD student in planning at MIT, says that innovations in participatory planning must be well grounded by effective “offline” ways of working. The recent Internet & American Life Survey by the Pew Research Center seems to bear this out. Although people of all ages, races and incomes are moving online swiftly, the access level is greatest among the younger, the wealthier, and the whiter. This raises valid questions about disparities in access to web-based public participation and the troubling image of a new sort of “echo chamber,” as the technologically fluent dominate virtual public-discourse forums.

More immediately, how will planners and designers operate in a progressively more egalitarian and participatory online environment? Do things such as Next Stop Design, where a worldwide audience shares their opinion and votes on a future bus stop’s design, mark the dissolution of boundaries between experts and the public? Goodspeed doesn’t think so. Design professionals, he says, still have a role in putting forward assertive and creative solutions, but innovative participatory planning could ideally turn that into more of a two-way street, where the public, in the process of finding solutions to common problems, builds cohesion and a sense of inclusion, and design professionals, by tuning into the collective intelligence of the public, become more astute, dexterous and therapeutic in their problem solving.

Meera Deean is a designer in Boston.

Siqi Zhu is an urban planner and information designer at Utile. Prior to joining the firm, he studied urban planning at Harvard Graduate School of Design, where his work focused on the intersection between urban design, innovative visual communication, and environmental and social sustainability. At Utile, he has been involved in several public-realm-enhancement projects, including a streetscape study for Acushnet Avenue in New Bedford, Massachusetts; a study of a pedestrian mall in Salem, Massachusetts; and the ongoing Boston Complete Streets initiative. As part of the latter project, he worked on developing aspirational design standards for future Boston streets and devised visual and information design strategies that seek to better inform and involve a wider public.

Top: Photograph by Nathanial Hansen and Matthew Hashiguchi. Reproduced by permission of Engagement Game Lab.

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