Almost every city, county, and region within the United States has a comprehensive plan. A comprehensive plan is usually a conglomeration of many months, sometimes years, of fact gathering, public polling, meetings, and eventually political review (and influence) before it is adopted (click here for a good explanation of what comprehensive planning is). This plan typically lays out where the municipality sees themselves in 5-30 years and sometimes further. Issues like land use patterns, future public capital expenditures, water/sewer expansion, and road improvements are discussed. Some of the suggestions are realistic while others are wishes. I believe the most important aspect of the comprehensive planning process is the public participation, after all, the citizens are the ones who have to live with, and pay for, the scenarios laid out within the plan.
In the past and almost everywhere currently the public process ranges from a public meeting or two at the municipal building to massive outreach campaigns that attempt to get public input from all sectors of a community through mailings, websites, and meetings. Most often a presentation with flashy graphics and pictures is given by the planning department or hired planning consultants. After the presentation, public opinion can be collected, but too often the plans are already setting like concrete and little can be done to make any significant change. Here is where crowdsourcing can come in.
Crowdsourcing is the process of letting societies, in this case a municipality or community, make changes to a document or plan until, by silent consensus, the plan is considered complete. As an example, Wikipedia is a completely crowdsourced website where the definitions and articles are created, edited, and agreed upon by users, even anonymous ones, until fewer and fewer edits and changes to an article happen and the definition is considered, by the majority, acceptable. It is assumed that the public has certain non-expert knowledge that may not be thought about within the confines of planning or engineering.
Though it may be radical, especially to politicians and planning directors that like more control, crowdsourcing almost assures that the public voice is heard, and satisfied by the results, since they had a large part in creating the plan. Now, I don’t believe the average citizen is capable of creating a base comprehensive plan, but if a planning department or consulting firm has created a framework, or initial plan, to allow the public to then edit the plan as they see fit, a more perfect document can then be created. Perfect in this case means publicly acceptable. This is probably one of the biggest issues of comprehensive plans is that the public does not feel their voice or opinions have been heard or respected and the plan was rushed through just to get it done. It is time to embraced the fact that the public has the ultimate knowledge of their spaces and their voices should be heard, this we call democracy.
There are a few issues which arise due to crowdsourcing a public document. In some communities there are silent minority groups. This can be an issue when the majority of a municipality would consider one option but the minority groups would consider another option. This can, and should, be discovered by giving different regions different plans to work on individually and the planning department can interpret the differences to come up with the best scenario for all groups. Equal access to computers and technology can also affect the results of crowdsouring within a municipality. There are other options that don’t rely on the internet to crowdsource a plan, I will explore those options later this week.
As technology, computer access, and education improve crowdsourcing will become a more acceptable and useful public approach to comprehensive, small area, and redevelopment planning. Of course, in the end, the facts and expertise that planners and engineers bring to the plan has to be included, but the public input will be much more involved in the process than they can be now and produce greater results than current methodology.
Join me later this week for Part 2, as I discuss how crowdsourcing can be introduced into plan making, where it has been used, and what resulted.