Applications and Tools, Collaboration, Visualization in 3D

Community Planning Crashes Head-First Into Web 2.0

Planning cities and buildings – the real ones – has, for a long-time, been a top-down exercise. Meaning that concepts and city plans were, for the most part, implemented from on high through architects, city planners, consultants and developers, allowing for very little collaboration with those in the “bottom” and those for whom these projects would impact the most – namely, the ordinary citizen.

And there are lessons for other industries in how typical hierarchal disciplines can use the tools of Web 2.0 to communicate with their “users”.

A fascinating article published by the American Planning Association argues that the Web 2.0 is already making great strides in closing up the gap between those at the top and at the bottom of the command chain:

Just as planning has evolved from a prescriptive, top-down enterprise in the 20th century to a more reactive, flexible medium for building bridges in the 21st, so has the Internet gone from being a source of static information to a dynamic combination of meeting hall, playground, and courtroom in which people can meet and share information. These features allow planners and stakeholders to discuss their visions for how the built environment should look, feel, and function in a truly collaborative environment.

(Above: Flickr as a Visual Tool for Urban Planning)

Written by Chris Stein, the CEO of Urban Insight and co-editor of Planetizen, and Josh Stephens, an LA-based educator and writer, the article delves into seven major facets of the Web 2.0 that are shaping city planning, in their view, for the better:

The standard methods of outreach and collaboration that rely on traditional media, public meetings, mailings, neighborhood canvassing, and charrettes are not expected to give way anytime soon, but Web 2.0 offers creative ways to engage stakeholders who otherwise might be overlooked.

First, they look at blogs:

Although the special-interest nature of blogs sometimes makes posts difficult for anyone but dedicated readers to find, planning enthusiasts can make use of a technology called RSS, or “really simple syndication,” which enables readers to track when their favorite blogs have been updated, which, for some blogs, can happen several times a day.

“I think what’s compelling and useful about them is the immediacy and interactivity,” says Joey Arak, senior editor of Curbed New York, a popular real estate blog. “There’s no news cycle or traditional patterns of consumption or rules anymore.”

The authors then write about planner-bloggers, who can take advantage of the shrunken distance between planners and citizens:

Unlike traditional news sources, many blogs can offer all participants in the debate a chance to say their piece and volunteer candid insights that might be valuable for planners, often by posting their own response directly on to the webpage where the original story appeared.

Video and Photo Sharing
The authors then look at photo and video sharing as another great leap forward in the democratization of the planning process:

For planners, visually documenting a place, plan, or environment, and then sharing these images, has become much easier, and far less costly, than sending out glossy brochures. The intended audience needs only click on a link in an e-mail or on a website for planners’ images to come immediately to life.

Such collections can amount to poignant photo essays, or they can provide viewers with comprehensive views of project areas and plans. And by using free photo-sharing servers, rather than hosting photos on their own sites, professional planners and amateurs alike can post photos, embed them in blog pages, and even allow other users to contribute photos with ease. They also offer nearly limitless storage space, so planners don’t need to worry about picking the “perfect” image to represent a project; they can post as many images as they want.

The authors don’t mention PhotoSynth, sure to be one of the most astonishing tools for aggregating images of “place” and creating “space”.

Online Surveys
They also speak of YouTube as a place where videos for a small target audience can esaily be disseminated, and then write about online surveys:

The ultimate result of online surveys is that planners may reach the typically disinterested stakeholders who do not want to attend in-person meetings or who may not be passionate enough about a project to compose their own commentary, yet are content to respond to surveys. In this respect, web surveys may capture opinions that could counterbalance NIMBYs and busybodies who do frequent meetings.

Social Networks
The most popular growth area of the Web 2.0 has undoubtably been in social networks, and Stein and Stephens note how these communities can benefit the planning effort:

Planners in particular are beginning to tap these communities’ potential for facilitating serious discussion and professional connections. Rather than build proprietary pages from scratch, users can tap into online communities as templates for straightforward but highly functional, affordable websites. Depending how they position themselves, they can reach a significant share of the sites’ total membership — which number in the tens of millions.

Recently established Facebook groups include those relating to the American Planning Association, Planetizen, planning alumni from a variety of planning schools, and issue-based groups such as Americans for Multi-Modal Transit, Urban Infrastructure and Development, Curb Urban Sprawl, and simply Urban Planning. Group pages can accommodate photos, videos, message board posts, web links, event listings, and any other items that members might consider of interest to each other.

There is no limit on the scope of a group, and planners can tailor them to narrow neighborhood and even individual projects, resulting in groups that closely mirror actual communities. The town of Bradford, England, gained a presence on Facebook when city planner Ben Marchant set up a group dedicated to a proposed plan for the town center. Bradford advertised the plan’s official site via a link on the Facebook page, and he posted notices about public meetings and commentary on the plan’s merits.

Tools for Visualization

Lastly but certainly interesting, the authors consider mashups – mostly known in music circles as the squishing-together of disparate sound elements – as a useful tool for planners. For example, they note that using data banks in combination with online maps can create new forms:

One of the original and most famous mashups is HousingMaps (, which mashes together GoogleMaps and the classified advertising site Craigslist by culling data from Craigslist’s apartment listings, assigning map points to each listing, and then linking each map point to the actual Craigslist ad. The result is that prospective renters can see an entire city’s worth of properties — with relevant data such as price and street address — in one glance…

Countless similar sites have been established that help users create custom maps on a variety of themes using data banks, but planners can create powerful custom maps of their own using data they have on hand. For instance, planners can identify map points where a building might go and then attach an informational pop-up window containing text, photos, and even video pertaining to the location. Many such maps seem so sophisticated that they belie the ease with which planners can put them together…

The result for planners is that they can present project areas not just in maps, photos, and commentary but rather as all three all at once.

While the article neglects the work being done in virtual worlds, it’s a nice round-up, although it would be great if it had been appended with examples of 3D collaboration such as the Wikitecture project.

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