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Charleston, SC Free Form Based Code Workshops

Monday, September 21st, 2009

Since I can’t find a link to this story I got in my email anywhere…

CHARLESTON, SC—(September 18, 2009) The Charleston Trident Association of REALTORS® will offer workshops to explore the use of form-based codes, a land development strategy that centers on form rather than use.

Placemakers, a national planning firm that specializes in form-based codes, is coming to Charleston for three days of education and exploration of whether the strategy of form-based codes will help build better communities.

“This is an opportunity for stakeholders, community leaders and the public to learn more about form-based codes. These type of land use and building ordinances have been discussed in virtually every city and county and in the Charleston region and as the ‘Voice for Real Estate’ in the area, we felt it was necessary to further explore the viability of form-based codes and how they work in context of the Lowcountry,” said Ryan Castle, CTAR’s Government Affairs Director.

Three public workshops will be held next week throughout the region:

Tuesday, September 22 | 6 p.m:  Mount Pleasant Town Council Chambers, 100 Ann Edwards Lane

Wednesday, September 23  | 6 :30 p.m. | Charleston County Library, 68 Calhoun Street

Thursday, September 24  | 6 p.m. | Greater Summerville/Dorchester County Chamber of Commerce, 402 N. Main St., Summerville.

At each free information seminar, Placemakers will explain what form-based codes are, and where they fit in to overall economic development and placemaking efforts.  They will also specifically address how form-based codes relate to issues pertaining to growth management, density, private property rights and preservation of the natural beauty of our region.

Crowdsourcing Part 2: Techniques & Examples

Friday, August 21st, 2009

Thank you for coming back for Part 2 on Crowdsourcing and public planning.  If you haven’t read Part 1, do so now so you know where I’m coming from.  In this post I am going to show some techniques that have worked for the handful of agencies that have tried this new method and give an few examples for you to browse.

To say that crowdsoucing a public document or plan is new would be an understatement.  This cutting edge technology has only been around for a few years.  The internet has made crowdsourcing available and easy to use.  Public opinion and expertise is invaluable to the planning process and has been tapped into in the past via surveys, questionnaires, and every planner’s favorite… charettes.  But the public doesn’t often feel as much a part of the process as they do a sounding board.  What crowdsourcing brings to the table is the chance for the public to be much more involved than even a charette.

The process is almost so simple that it’s difficult.  What is difficult is letting go of control of a project for a period of time and letting it organically evolve via the public’s input and learning how to decipher all the information that can be gathered.  There are a a few basic principals which should be followed:  I found these 12 examples from CoolTown Studios in Washington DC, one of the only private firms I have located that has a crowdsourcing methodology.

However, I believe the CoolTown model is almost too complex for what most towns need.  I believe the process should begin with a framework plan (first draft) that planners and/or consultants have created.  In this framework plan the expertise from the professionals should be included, government wish lists, and all the facts presented (population expectations, vacancy rates, and developable lands).  Then the public should be allowed to run with the plan both individually and as a group.  All ideas from the small to the lofty should be considered by the governing bodies.  As mentioned in my prior post, citizens know their specific street and neighborhood better than any planner or consultant for a town.  They may not have a future vision of the city as a whole, but they know where the problems lie in their neighborhoods.

Public participation is the most important factor to making crowdsoucing work and must be promoted early and often.  I believe crowdsourcing can be done without computers and technology, but the word must get out to get good participation.  Methods I have found useful are identifying the key community leaders early in the process and getting them involved and up to date.  These leaders can be HOA members, preachers, business leaders, and party leaders.  Also, getting the local papers interested in a positive way is a great tool.  The municipal website should promote the planning process in a clear manner with dates of meeting and locations easily identifiable.  If the community is small enough I would use postcards announcing the meetings well in advance.  Depending on the community, finding bi-lingual members of that community may be necessary to get turnout and gather ideas.  Finally shameless self promotion by the government and planning department is the best way to show enthusiasm and interest.  If the government leaders are serious and interested in planning the citizens should be too.

Getting input from outspoken and even timid individuals is easy compared to how all this data and input is deciphered.  Putting a second draft together while considering all the information that has been gathered is a daunting task, but the most important.  As mentioned earlier, all ideas should be considered and the community meeting should be able to help the planning department rank the importance of each idea.  This is where the bulk of staff and consulting time needs to be invested.  All edits to a plan should be marked up so the citizens can see what has been included and omitted from the original plan.

After the planning department has had time to compile a second draft another round of public meetings should be scheduled to gather more input and see if the recommendations set forth by all different communities are truly what the municipality wants.  This is also a junction which requires some special attention by the plan creators.  As CoolTown Studios mentions in their final step, a group must be critical of their own ideas to avoid groupthink or “thought exhibited by group members who try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without critically testing, analyzing, and evaluating ideas”. In order to avoid complacency the comprehensive plan process needs to be critical and the citizens need to be critical of all ideas, not just the planning department’s or other communities’, but their own as well.

Some examples of web-based crowdsourcing:

  • At the National Level Obama’s Urban Policy which was set up prior to his arriving in office to gather public opinions and rate them on importance.
  • The City of Austin has done a similar webpage to gather public opinion and rank the ideas.
  • Next Stop Design has an online contest to submit ideas for transit stops around the country and allow visitors to vote and comment on all designs.  Open source design has its own challenges and theories, I will not be discussing that here.
  • The Best example of internet urban planning and crowdsourcing has to be Pittsburgh’s Regional Integrated Transportation Plan.  With it’s own Wiki explaining the process and all parts of the plan they are very aggressively trying to get public input.  Each page of the Wiki has a discussion tab for the public to participate in.

Ideas for on the ground planning to include those groups that cannot be reached by the internet.  I must admit, it was much easier finding examples of web based urban planning crowdsourcing vs. real world examples, here are a few:

  • The City of New Orleans has a year long approach to their 20 year master plan, however concerns over a top-down approach are not being addressed.  My own opinions aside on the rebuilding of a city in a clear hazard area, NOLA has done a good job getting the public voice heard, now can they implement it?
  • Grays Harbor County, WA has put community involvement at the top of the priority list for their 2020 Vision Plan, as well as improving social and community networks.
  • Moscow, ID had an aggressive community outreach schedule for 7 local meetings to gather information and the final draft is open for comment, modification, and input online.

Thank you for reading the series on crowdsourcing, as more information becomes available this is definitely a topic I want to elaborate on and bring into my next job, I really believe it is the future of community visioning and comprehensive planning.   I would love to hear from you if you have some examples or other takes on crowdsourcing in the public realm, just leave a comment and I’ll get back to you.

Crowdsourcing: The ultimate in public participation.

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009


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.