urban design

State of Cities' Ideas

MindMixer, who we have covered on this blog before, is a community engagement tool that markets itself as a “virtual town hall service.”  It is meant to extend the reach of governments’ public engagement campaigns by making it easier for citizens to provide input, insights, and feedback.  They’ve deployed their solution in cities as diverse as Burbank, California; Omaha, Nebraska; and Flagstaff, Arizona on topics such as transportation, budget, and master plans. A few months ago, the company pulled together all the ideas submitted by citizens in every city using their solution.  They divided the ideas into 10 categories:

(1)    Mobility

(2)    Services

(3)    Sustainability

(4)    Health

(5)    Infrastructure

(6)    Government 2.0

(7)    Safety

(8)    Housing

(9)    Parks

(10)Urban Design

Within each category, they highlighted the number of citizen ideas that relate to that category.  For example, the Mobility category most commonly included ideas on bicycles, mass transit, pedestrians, parking, and car access (in that order). State_of_Cities_Ideas

By far, Urban Design and Mobility were the two most common categories of ideas that citizens were concerned with.  Housing, Sustainability, and Government 2.0 were in the second tier.  The remaining categories (Safety, Parks, Infrastructure, Health, and Services) all received relatively little attention.

This may be surprising given news media’s frequent exaggerating of safety issues, health, and the U.S.’s crumbling infrastructure.  However, the responses seem to reflect the population that is  most likely using a solution like this – those who have access to a computer, who trust participating in an online forum, who are confident in articulating their ideas.  It seems likely that this population is younger, perhaps more likely to live in the urban center areas of these cities with access to transit and shorter bicycling and walking distances, and who perhaps have more sensibility about urban design issues due to their daily environment.

Given these results, it appears that the challenges of expanding this solution to a more diverse population still exist.  Nonetheless, it’s a great infographic that not only conveys what people are talking about but also that people are willing and able to engage in this type of public participation process.

- Terra Curtis


Open Source Planning

BetavilleIn some people’s view, the role of the urban planner is primarily to facilitate community participation and to implement policies that lead to the achievement of community-provided visions.  If you agree with this idea, then you’ll like a new tool developed at the Brooklyn Experimental Media Center.

Betaville is a SimCity-like tool that allows citizens to create designs of New York City, adding, altering, or moving buildings and landscapes.  But it’s not just a receiver of ideas; it is meant to engage a wide community where users can design and others can comment or upload their own variations. Betaville was designed with the intent of inviting the same high levels of participation found in open source software.  The community vision of a street corner or of an entire city will morph over time as more people contribute, as does a Wikipedia page.  And in theory, the input of these “subject matter experts” (from consultants to university students to residents of a particular area) will inform the plans made by the municipality.

It is, of course, subject to the same challenges faced by any public involvement process: how do you make sure everyone is involved?  How is everyone’s voice heard?  Betaville is certainly a step in the right direction – leveraging modern communications technologies and visualization tools to further engage the citizen.  But a solution for inviting more (or at least more representative) voices is still needed.

-Terra Curtis