Tim is a current student and member of the class of 2017. This essay was inspired by his work with GIS during the winter term, where student projects are larger, planning scale projects. For their winter term project, Time and his classmate Andrew Kilduff are working with town officials and residents of Brockton, MA to create a city-wide urban agricultural plan.
Have you held a community meeting that was lacking critical voices? Or wished there was a way to integrate the information of a survey with the spatial relationship information gathered during community mapping exercises? Software technologies informally called either geo-referenced surveying or collaborative mapping and academically named alternately SoftGIS or Bottom-Up GIS (BUGIS) provide an effective fusion of these common planning exercises. Instead of questions answered in the linear fashion of the traditional survey format, participants can scroll around a map of the area with the ability to select and comment on favorite places. They can see places where other survey users liked, and comment in response to them. Participants can attach comments to certain locations picked out by the survey administrators. This is one of many applications for Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in community planning. GIS and related software have a range of potential applications, from business analytics and informatics to community development and collaborative mapping. I have been attracted to the applications since our digital design class here at Conway introduced us to ESRI products.
CJ Lammers presented novel applications of the technology in her Ecological Design Workshop presentation on policy and land use planning. CJ presented the Prince George Atlas, a GIS portal that anyone including planners and citizens can access. It includes maps of current and proposed development projects and land use history that can enable residents to stay up to date on proposed development projects or potentially build a case for altering or preserving certain land use trends. Other included layers like aerial images, property information, and environmental conditions can help residents to understand current land use and environmental considerations in their neighborhood. The strength of the portal is the power and information it provides to users of diverse backgrounds and knowledge levels. It brought to mind the planning trends Anne Whiston Spirn initiated with her Mill Creek Project. This included University of Pennsylvania students supporting neighborhood youth and community members in their own discovery of neighborhood history and engaging them in design processes for the future of the neighborhood. How might making local and regional information accessible, as the Prince George Atlas does, influence planning projects like Spirn’s in the future?
Molly Burhans ‘15 was the next to introduce our class to the applications for GIS portals through her GoodLand Project work. In concert with the Catholic Church, she is digitizing existing data and gathering additional environmental data. This data will be developed into geodatabases that can be made available through local GIS portals to dioceses around the globe. Easy availability of data can streamline local efforts to prioritize ecosystem preservation and management projects. For communities most vulnerable to climate change, it offers a hope of creating informational feedback loops that can inform leaders in initiating local mitigation and adaptation efforts. For example, residents of a village in North Africa can see patterns of the urbanized areas, vegetated areas, and land in cultivation alongside projected sea-level rise, precipitation change, and temperature changes. This information puts decision-making power into the hands of the people rather than solely in the hands of NGO’s and other outsiders who don’t know and experience the land the way a resident does.
This brings us back to the BUGIS and SoftGIS that we began with. I happened upon these mapping technologies while working on my winter project, an urban agriculture plan for the City of Brockton, Massachusetts. These technologies were first elaborated on by Emily Talen in her paper Bottom Up GIS (2000) and later expanded upon by Finnish researcher Maarit Kahila in SoftGIS Method as a Bridge Builder in Collaborative Urban Planning (2009). These technologies enable a wider audience to participate in community decision-making. Software developers and planners are building on the concepts in these papers by developing geo-apps that enable citizens to comment from anywhere directly into an interactive platform that functions like a virtual community meeting. This has the potential to encourage more people to civically engage and improve the efficacy of projects with public input. Comments can be placed directly on a map. Digital input can be solicited in the real world through questions on signs placed in the physical areas under consideration so that people can text ideas to a phone number and have their thoughts geo-located onto the existing conversation map. People can use these tools to interact with spatial ideas as a community over longer periods of time. The technology has been developed for different purposes and intended audiences. The Boston-based coUrbanize is focused on serving municipal and private development projects, Social Pinpoint out of Australia is oriented towards use by smaller design firms up to municipal uses, and Maptionnaire from Finland is similarly applicable to projects across a range of scales.
There are certain challenges that arise from these technologies too. The first is that a surplus of similar apps often lead to a saturated market where it can be difficult and time-consuming to identify truly innovative or exceptional products. The second challenge is relying too heavily on technological solutions. This can lead to the exclusion of those with insufficient access to or knowledge of computers and smartphones. Are there methods for inclusion that could extend to these overlooked communities?
The significance of these technologies for ecological design are great. They offer a new avenue of expression for systemically marginalized communities who are disinclined to attend community events. Many of these software programs overcome hurdles that can plague community meetings. For one, many products embed translation services that enable administrators to easily translate surveys into other languages. The second benefit is an open-ended time-frame that enables users to respond at their leisure. This can include in the conversation those voices that are normally absent because of unusual or long working hours that normally conflict with community meeting times. Software programs like these have the potential to generate a sense of community ownership because more people can be heard, know they are heard, and feel a part of changes made to their environment.
My project partner, Andrew Kilduff, and I have been exploring the potential for applying the BUGIS technologies to our winter project to develop a Brockton Urban Agriculture Plan. Roughly 80 Brockton residents attended the first community meeting but we noticed that the Haitian and Cape Verdean populations who make up greater than 50% of the population were dramatically underrepresented. We wondered if contributions including systemic racial oppression, historic under representation in local government, and the current national political climate could be counteracted with a technology like BUGIS. After conversations with high school faculty and area residents it was clear that the youth and educational system are the best places to reach out and invite the Haitian and Cape Verdean communities into the dialogue. As a result, we are currently exploring the use of social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram but are interested in coupling these efforts with technology like BUGIS to gather information more interactively.
MASS Development has already used coUrbanize for a downtown development project, providing precedent in the city of Brockton. Even with this precedent though, time is an issue that makes it difficult to fully engage with these questions during the winter project. If there is an opportunity to pursue this project further after graduation, we hope to trial these emerging technologies as an option for greater community participation in the planning process.
Since 2012, Tim Tensen has leveraged his nomadic lifestyle to engage with diverse professional experiences in ecological design, regenerative agriculture, residential landscaping, and community process. Highlights include: holding a variety of positions on organic farms around the country, working on living roof projects in the San Francisco area and subsequently teaching a section on living roofs for Toby Hemenway’s 2015 Seattle PDC, volunteering with community projects like Seattle’s Beacon Food Forest, and consulting with landscape businesses in the Seattle and Boston areas. He has studied Analog Forestry in Costa Rica, ecological land design and management in California, and most recently the Regrarians platform for farm planning in New York.