When New Orleans officials unveiled a city recovery plan in January, more than a few residents were angry. The plan proposed that residents and experts form planning teams and decide by May the fate of neighborhoods heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina, and it put a moratorium on any individual rebuilding in those areas until then. Many New Orleanians protested both the extended ban on rebuilding and the requirements for whether an existing neighborhood will be preserved (half the residents must commit to returning).
Coming to consensus about community planning is always difficult, but it’s particularly complex after a disaster like Katrina and in a city like New Orleans, which already had big problems with land use, says Ken Snyder, chairman with the IT division of the American Planners Association (APA). Getting public feedback early helps planners and developers avoid costly roadblocks.
Snyder has been experimenting for five years with a variety of technologies—including content management systems, group-ware, mapping software, survey systems and audience response tools—to engage residents in community redevelopment programs. “The tools help people see where their communities are heading now and decide what they want to see happen in the future,” he says.
Similar tools were used to facilitate discussions at the APA-sponsored Louisiana Recovery and Rebuilding Conference last November, with the help of AmericaSpeaks, a nonprofit that collected New Yorkers’ ideas for rebuilding Lower Manhattan after 9/11. Then, nearly 5,000 Manhattan residents participated in an event called “Listen to the City.” The residents broke into groups for discussions about policy, resource allocation and planning concerns. Each group used wireless computers to submit ideas, and each participant could vote on specific proposals using a polling keypad. The large group then responded to the strongest themes generated from the discussions and voted on final recommendations. As a result, the New York Port Authority (one of the agencies responsible for the rebuilding plans) realized that its key assumption—the amount of office space to be included in the plan—was off base, says Joe Goldman, a senior associate with AmericaSpeaks.
During the Louisiana conference, 150 civic leaders, educators and health-care providers from areas affected by Katrina contributed their goals for rebuilding. Evan Paul, a program associate with AmericaSpeaks, says this input was incorporated into a set of principles that are guiding regional redevelopment efforts. The group is working with New Orleans planning groups to incorporate additional citizen participation as redevelopment moves forward.Goldman says technology brings citizens back into a process in which they’ve lost faith. “The way that cities are planned defines people’s lives,” Goldman explains. “We have found that by providing a significant portion of the public with a real voice in early decision making, it is possible to generate substantial buy-in to the process and consensus on plans and policies for moving forward,” he says.