A sign in front of sunflowers with a busy intersection in the background
To help guide a community plan, residents texted their suggestions for local development. Courtesy of coUrbanize

As cities make their data more transparent and accountable, this project in New York found one way to use technology to engage the residents in the planning process—by prompting locals to text in ideas.

“I’d like to buy culturally conscious books and cards that represent me,” writes one commenter. A few others keep their requests for Brownsville, Brooklyn, pretty simple—a Burger King or a Chase Bank would do.

These are comments left by residents of Brownsville in response to a prompt to tell city officials “what’s missing” in their neighborhood. The answers populated an online map, a tool used by New York’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) in a new planning project. Earlier this month, Mayor de Blasio and the HPD released the Brownsville Plan, an outcome of a year’s worth of planning by the community and municipality, which will create 2,500 new affordable homes and spruce up the neighborhood’s cultural and recreational facilities. According to the comments on the map, these are very welcome additions.

“As [New York] continues to grow and change, community residents should have a voice in shaping their neighborhoods’ future,” said HPD Commissioner Maria Torres-Springer at a press conference held this month. The Brownsville Plan is very much reflective of Mayor de Blasio’s push to involve the neighborhood in city planning—a core message he promoted in 2014.

A screenshot of the online map with suggestions from the community. (coUrbanize)

This isn’t necessarily a radical or new platform—community board meetings, for instance, have been around a long time, serving as spaces for residents to come out and get involved in their own neighborhoods. But the crowdsourcing efforts behind the Brownsville Plan carved out a new kind of space for neighborhood engagement.

In a collaboration with the online platform coUrbanize, the department put up signs all over the neighborhood—in vacant lots and subway stations, in front of storefronts and restaurants—that asked residents to text thoughts about what they would like to see more of, or what needed improvement. The prompts were open-ended: “This space could use some love. What would you put here?” or “It’s kinda dark down here… How can we make Livonia a safer, friendlier street?”

Signs prompted Brownsville residents to text in their ideas. (Courtesy of coUrbanize)

Community input began last July and included dozens of advocacy organizations, the collaboration with coUrbanize, and the help of around 500 residents. Once a resident texted a response, they received a reply that would allow them to get updates on the planning process and keep them in the loop with details on future activities and meetings. The call for texts was kept open for six months, and the comments submitted (either via text or online) were mapped and categorized in a manner that made clear what residents thought Brownsville needed more of, and what the neighborhood should hold on to (the community garden, for example, needs to remain, according to one resident).

Engaging the neighborhood in city planning isn’t a new concept, but it’s not always easy to do. “It’s a great idea to have an option of gathering information via text—it makes it accessible, especially for those who might not be able to attend community events because they’re homebound or working overtime,” says Giovania Tiarachristine, neighborhood planner at HPD. However, this platform is only complementary to the more personal crowdsourcing happening on the ground—“we can’t build a plan solely on online engagement,” Tiarachristine says. Before rolling out the text-integration platform, the team met with community stakeholders, organized advocacy events, and outlined important guidelines in their research process. But the call to text certainly helped bring more voices to the table, especially since residents didn’t need internet access to participate, adds Simon Kawitzky, assistant commissioner at HPD.

How did the idea of using text messages to create a plan for one of New York’s poorest neighborhoods come about? According to Kawitzky, there has been a growing collaboration between municipalities and online platforms. Neighborland, mySidewalk, and Textizen were a few platforms they considered before landing on coUrbanize.“It’s becoming more routine for cities to integrate tech and data in their planning process,” he says. This has led to more and more startups getting involved in urban planning and design, points out Karin Brandt, cofounder and CEO of coUrbanize. “Cities and towns have a lot of interest in handling data now,” she says. “Technology can strongly support new kinds of crowdsourcing.”

coUrbanize’s texting and mapping strategy has been used in similar capacities by the city of Boston as well as in suburban New Jersey. Brandt has noticed that, in any neighborhood, the first step is asking residents questions they can answer without industry jargon. “In planning meetings, they might talk about something like zoning, which requires a degree of specific knowledge,” she says. But by simply asking residents to share ideas about their neighborhood, the barrier to participation is lowered—and it takes about five seconds. “If you make the first step easy, you’ve increased your odds,” she adds.

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