I recently returned from a conference on “City Planning, Civic Engagement and the Internet” held in Princeton, New Jersey co-sponsored by Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and Center for Information Technology Policy. The conference was planned largely by Christian Peralta, the former editor of Planetizen, who did a great job assembling a fascinating group and making sure everything ran like clockwork. For the benefit of those who couldn’t attend I thought I would write a short description of some of the highlights..
Best Practices in Local Government
An employee of an independent government agency, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, I took particular interest in the representatives from local governments. Representing the City of Toronto’s Public Consultation Unit were Mike Logan and Robert Davis. Their unit has evolved since its creation in the late 1980s into the city government’s go-to resource for public involvement. I think this is a model that could be replicated elsewhere: one office maintains the expertise about all the approaches to involve the public, and works with the project sponsors to create and implement an appropriate and resource-efficient approaches. It also creates one central place at the city for citizens to approach with questions. They presented on some of their work to use Facebook to reach communities (it required special permission from the IT department), and discussed the unusual challenge of working in Toronto’s highly multicultural environment, which requires extensive translation. Public consultation coordinator Mike Logan even handed me a business card with the information imprinted in braille on it, which itself was a statement to their commitment to excellence in accessibility.
Another particularly noteworthy presenter was Mark Elliott, whose consulting firm Collabforge set up a wiki for a recent planning process in the City of Melbourne, Australia. As you might expect from someone who earned a PhD with a dissertation on “A Theoretical Framework for Mass Collaboration,” Mark impressed me with his thoughtful approach to integrating collaborative technologies to planning. In general I think advocates of wikis underestimate the technical complexity of the technology, as well as the limitations to a radically flattening technology. Mark’s work on FutureMelbourne was apparently successful and he’s definitely someone to watch.
Also attending was Seattle’s Chief Technology Officer, Bill Schrier, who blogs about technology and government at his blog Chief Seattle Geek. Mark Bosworth, a GIS expert from Portland, Oregon’s regional planning agency Metro gave a whimsical presentation on the history of GIS and highlighting some of their many customized web applications including a bicycle trip planner (of course), and a “build your own” transit system tool.
Private Sector Innovation
Several consultants attended, presenting on a wide range of topics. Edward Andersson, from the UK consulting firm Involve, gave a thoughtful presentation on the history of participation in the UK and their firm’s approach. The company’s website PeopleandParticipation.net is a rich resource on the topic. Rhiza Lab’s Josh Knauer and Jeff Christensen presented on their firm’s powerful online data and mapping tools. It was a wonder they made it since Josh explained they’ve been working nearly around the clock on their FluTracker website. Lastly Jocelyn Hittle and Jason Lally from PlaceMatters displayed some amazing touch and light-sensitive technology made using two Wii remotes and a lot of ingenuity.
View from the Academy
The academic speakers provided interesting perspective and a glimpse of their latest research. Ohio State’s Jennifer Evans Cowley presented on her research analyzing the use of social networking in urban planning, and has even created a Facebook group dedicated to the topic. Hunter College’s Laxmi Ramasubramanian presented on the theoretical context for public participation, and Iowa State’s Chris Seeger presented on his extensive background in participatory GIS.
Out of the Box
Of course, some of the presenters fit none of these categories. Adrian Holovaty, founder of the totally unique Everyblock.com, presented on his work harnessing the web’s geographic data to create a hyperlocal news source. Although I missed the presentation, Matthew Golas from PlanPhilly.com described that website’s civic mission to foster dialogue on planning in Philadelphia. Also presenting were John Geraci, from DIYCity, a project to imagine a new interactive “DIY” urbanism, and Nick Grossman from the invaluable Open Planning Project, the folks behind Streetsblog. (Aside: We need a Boston Streetsblog) The Sunlight Foundation’s John Wonderlich and Ali Felski are working hard in D.C. to improve government websites and access to data. (My friend Tom Lee is also with their lab).