Earlier this month at the PlanningTech Conference at MIT and the American Planning Association’s annual conference in Boston, I heard lots of buzz and several sessions dealing with the topic of technology-enhanced community participation processes. Recently, I heard about two examples actually happening in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Boston. In San Francisco, You Choose Bay Area is a website meant to engage citizens in envisioning their future. It was put together by a large group of Bay Area stakeholders – regional governmental groups, non-profits, and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.
The website leads citizens through five panels: challenge, priorities, choices, outcomes, and get involved. These panels first educate on the issues facing the Bay Area, then ask the user to state their own priorities on things like conserving water, decreasing local traffic, and clean air. After these priorities are set, the user has to make choices about where to build and how the area will grow. The outcomes panel further educates by highlighting how the citizen’s choices affect their own priorities, making clear the tradeoffs that are necessary in city and regional planning. The last panel gives the user the opportunity to spatially tag their choices by leaving their zip code; they can also sign up to an email list to stay informed as the regional planning process progresses.
In Boston, Second Life was used to help facilitate community visioning in its Allston neighborhood. Hub2 was launched in 2008 in helped members of the public, the Boston Redevelopment Authority, Harvard’s Allson Redevelopment Group envision the proposed Allston Library Park. Meeting participants were able to visit Boston Island to move things around, leave comments on particular aspects of the 3D model, and imagine alternatives.
A white paper was written about this particular process; among other things, it highlighted the need for planners themselves to be more intimately involved when the public participation process gets high tech. In Allston, no architects or planners were actually present. This also poses challenges for the Bay Area website and other initiatives that attempt to open up the public process to those who cannot or do not want to attend public meetings in person. How meaningful can “engagement” with a 3D model of one’s own city really be?