The British ‘ePlanning’ Invasion

MosaicThere were a few items that came out of the American Planning Association Conference in Philadelphia I attended I wanted to note here. Not the least of which was the art of Isaiah Zagar I stumbled across in an alley, and the recently saved Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens. I couldn’t helped but be reminded of Detroit’s Heidelberg Project, although the two projects are not without important differences. I’ve included some other photos from my trip below.

One of the most intriguing presentations I attended at the conference was by a British company, Limehouse Software, peddling an integrated software package for planners. Basically, their software allows the planning department to easily draft documents internally, post them online for public comment or publishing, and interface with more robust software packages as needed, all using open source formats. Their tools are behind an effort by Providence, Rhode Island that has posted the entire draft master plan to the web for public comment. (Contrast that to D.C., where community leaders were given just a few short weeks to digest an enormous master plan document before the city council voted on it.)

Modern RowhomeWhile I’m usually leery of integrated single-vendor solutions to complex information management problems (having personally experienced the clunky nature of many proprietary CMSs), I found the presentation by their chief information officer lucid and exciting, demonstrating a real understanding of the importance of open formats and usability. After summarizing the software’s features, he described the usual observed benefits:
1. Improved “customer” experience (his word)
2. Improved transparency
3. Growth of interaction typically by 6-60% in one year, including involving “ordinary citizens not involved in the planning process before.”

It seems clear to me that if these outcomes weren’t enough, building a broader understanding and consequently political constituency for planning can only be positive in the long term. While my recent column on the topic of Web 2.0 applications in planning received some positive interest, currently even an innovative planning agencies face an imposing gauntlet of various systems and tools. Companies like Limehouse are presenting for the first time turn-key solutions making technical sophistication realistic.

Ironwork in Old CityI was curious to discover the company is based in the UK, not otherwise known as a hotbed of Web 2.0 startups. It turns out the “ePlanning revolution” got started after in 2001, Tony Blair set the goal of moving all government services online by 2005. Significantly, the initiative pledged 25 million pounds to fund “pathfinders” projects, and the national government has launched a nationwide planning portal designed to interact with local governments, even including a “national planning application register” of all applications nationwide. In response to the interest and funds, a variety of British companies have sprung up selling ePlanning tools. Limehouse has moved aggressively to expand into the U.S. market, since January 2006 opening offices in Miami, Chicago, and Irvine, California, and signing contracts with cities as varied as Fort Worth, Texas, Providence, Rhode Island, and Buffalo, New York. Let’s hope the Brits’ technology injects some badly needed transparency and vitality into our often sluggish and flawed planning policies.

> LimeHouse Software
> eGov Monitor: “Planning Portal – Enabling Transformational Government
> BBC: “Online Planning System Goes Live
> UK Planning Portal
> See also my previous post”How Can Planners Use the Web?

Author: Rob Goodspeed