New Tools for Civic Engagement: A Regional Assembly Preview

As someone who was originally trained as an architect and morphed his career to urban design and then to planning, I have become acutely aware of the power of drawing during the community planning process. The power comes from the iterative process by which ideas as are continually re-inscribed, and the way that that shapes the discussion and ultimately the outcome going forward. This is, of course what responsible planners recognize as the difference between "drawing a map" — the pretty picture — and "mapping."

The late Kevin Lynch, author of The Image of the City and other books who created the foundation for an entire discipline by synthesizing maps that emerged from his interviews with citizens, was acutely aware of this. He also lamented the static nature and geographic limitations of his methodology. One can only imagine how his research would be conducted today if he had access to the variety of new media both widely available — cell phones, Google maps, pervasive gaming software, locative media, digital story-telling, even humble e-mail — and the less accessible and technically sophisticated modeling softwares — so called Planning Support Systems such as Sleuth, INDEX and CommunityViz.

While Lynch no doubt would have been thrilled to have such tools, most current planning professionals are still struggling to adopt them. As someone who does a great deal of community-based planned and design in the New York metro area, I'm aware of how little such interactive media have been used, beyond a few exotic experiments. Participants in planning sessions have used various technologies to share information, but have not been encouraged or shown how to use them in the planning and decision-making itself.

Recently, I have been discussing these issues at gatherings and with colleagues, including Damon Rich, founder of the Center for Urban Pedagogy, and Nick Grossman, Director of Civic Works at The Open Planning Project. We have been thinking about ways to re-shape the planning process in this age of new media. Some of the concepts that are emerging from these discussions include "just-in-time city planning," "getting the city to design itself," and "deliberative complexity." We grapple with how new technologies can make planning more open, more participatory, and simply better in its outcomes.

There is considerable discussion about what the role of the planner should be in such a process. Is it to help the community figure out what questions to ask? To help the community articulate the principles that would guide the process? To create the right kind of room in which people interact? To find new ways to reposition data to reveal new perspectives? Peter Hall, Senior Lecturer in Design at the University of Texas at Austin, authored a paper on this topic called Weapons of Mass Participation: Collaborative Planning with Loaded Tools and Wicked Problems. His suggestion? The role of the planner is to make planning fun.

I agree with all of these perspectives and suggestions: We need as big a toolbox as possible. When I think of where planning may go, it grounds me to remember one of my favorite quotes from Kevin Lynch's classic, The Image of the City:

"In the development of the image, education in seeing will be quite as important as the reshaping of what is seen. Indeed, they together form a circular, or hopefully a spiral, process: visual education impelling the citizen to act upon his visual world, and this action causing him to see even more acutely. A highly developed art of urban design is linked to the creation of a critical and attentive audience. If art and audience grow together, then our cities will be a source of daily enjoyment to millions of their inhabitants."