Wednesday, May 15, 2013

New strategies for community engagement: Screen shot of a crowdsourcing initiative in Ithaca, NY.
If you are on twitter/follow planning blogs, “crowdsourcing” and “crowdsourced placemaking” has become so ubiquitous that it almost feels like the concept of having public participation in community planning was just invented. It wasn’t. But it is being reinvented.

Here’s a great website for learning more about crowdsourcing & case studies. 

Community Engagement: Out with the Old...
For too long, community participation was limited to weekend workshops or evening public meetings where participation usually ended with a thank-you and follow up was mostly through blurbs in the local newspaper.

Today, crowdsourcing is reinvigorating the process. Its strategy isn’t inviting people to a public meeting; it is inviting citizens to be part of the process. Instead of a municipality saying, “we will listen to you,” they are saying, “we will collaborate with you.”

Technology is a big component. Often, with crowdsourcing, a community website is developed to provide not just an online forum for conversations and background information, but a place to post ideas for new business and community amenities where the crowd can vote on them. The most popular ideas rise to the top where the city, developers, and entrepreneurs can take notice and make them a reality.

Crowdsourcing, while not exclusively urban, is not yet widely used in smaller towns. The first crowdsourced placemaking initiative that caught my eye a few years ago was in suburban Bristol, Conn, when the initiative, Bristol Rising, was just getting off the ground. The Bristol Rising website is a fantastic model to follow because you can get a sense for the entire effort and follow its progress as they move forward. You can see how the community redevelopment is taking shape and get an idea for its pace.

A private firm helped lead the community process – offering facilitation, the crowdsourcing software platform, and master plan development – and worked in a true partnership with the city, the Bristol Downtown Development Corp., and local citizens (including creating the online community). In-person and virtual engagement let the citizens shape the community – starting with the vision.

Bristol crowdsourcing has an offline element, like cash mob events
There were many steps involved in the process that I don’t mean to over-simplify, like zoning amendments, acquiring a 16-acre parcel of vacant land, conducting market research, and writing site plans and much more. But, throughout the whole process, the community was involved at every step and could tell the developers and leaders what they wanted and which types of projects and businesses they would support. This type of customer feedback builds the confidence of stakeholders – the residents know they are being heard, developers can gauge which projects would have a built-in customer base, and the city can gauge which public improvement projects would have public support.

People registered on the Bristol Rising website so they could give feedback in discussion forums (which were moderated and read to prevent people’s concerns and ideas from emptying into a black hole), suggest ideas, and vote on proposed ideas. For example, people indicated they wanted more restaurants. A local entrepreneur who dreamed of opening a cafĂ© posted her restaurant idea. It got 100 “likes” in two days, which was a record. She then posted information about her menu and hosted a sold-out ticketed tasting event. She is moving forward with her plan and is asking the crowd to help shape her concept so she can build a restaurant that they want. For now, she is incubating her business within an existing restaurant while she gears up to go out on her own.

Given the success of Bristol, I am very excited to see what is starting to happen in Middlesboro, Ky. The Main Street program, Discover Downtown Middlesboro (DDM), obtained grant money to fund a strategic planning exercise through the Appalachian Regional Commission. They are a pilot community for from Storm Cunningham’s new that offers resources and software for crowdmapping (identifying opportunities) and a crowdsourced community planning effort.

The effort was kicked off last month through two public lectures and facilitated discussions to get people familiar with the concepts and technology. I was lucky to participate in this event and was pleased to see that folks support this idea and can’t wait to get started.

[Of note: When it came to “crowdfunding” projects, however, skepticism emerged around who would make the first investment pledge and if people could trust that the money would be used for the proposed project. A completely understandable concern. But, at the opposite of the spectrum, check out how people are diving into funding a project in DC’s H Street Main Street lead by the crowdfunding trail-blazers Fundrise. They believe we should be able to invest in our own neighborhoods. Learn more about their work in Amy Cortese's NYT article.]

Crowdfunding platform for Fundrise's latest investment opportunity in DC
DDM’s initiative also incorporates a town-gown component – it will work with faculty and students from Lincoln Memorial University School of Business to analyze feedback and conduct additional research to prepare the formal strategic plan. Getting student involvement is brilliant because the university is literally just a few miles from downtown and their participation can shape the kind of college town they always wanted. I always love youth engagement but see potential for developing new partnerships and programs that literally graduate students into business owners and place them downtown storefronts. Filling vacancies and growing entrepreneurs.
Downtown Middlesboro, Ky., was built in a crater.

The opportunities for Middlesboro seem endless. I read the plans and consultants’ reports, I toured the town, and I visited the nearby communities. Middlesboro has so much potential – starting with its history. The town was built inside a crater! It had a boom economy and a period of lawless days that earned it the nickname “Little Las Vegas,” and was home to a host of characters with storied pasts. Downtown still has many of its historic buildings – they just need to fill them with businesses and add in historical site interpretation.
Me looking down at Middlesboro at the foot of the mountain

The downtown is ripe for tourism. (The fact that the town is “dry” will continue to hinder business development, which more people are becoming aware of.) This scenic part of Kentucky has much potential to connect several natural assets via bike-ped trails. The Cumberland Gap National Historical Park is literally at its doorstep. Daniel Boone’s Wilderness Road cut through the very mountain that you can see while standing on the main street. All of these assets, along with the nearby university, can and should be connected.

No doubt if anyone could navigate this crowd-led initiative in Middlesboro, it is DDM’s director Isaac Kremer, who you might remember from Oyster Bay Main Street in New York, where he lead a really cool planning process with DoTank:Brooklyn. The community came together to envision the future of their downtown and thought about what they could change in 48 hours, 48 days, and 48 months. Part of the effort included a “pop-up” component of which I am a huge fan. (Let people experience an idea rather than tell them about it!)

In their case, they made some short-term improvements like a pop-up street activation project where they added in streetscape amenities like benches and temporary landscaping, created popup businesses, hosted a small farmers market (which became permanent), and activated a previously desolate street. It was a cool way to show how design elements can impact a town.

I love a good crowd. Especially one that rises up to make a community better, and puts their money where their hearts are. Crowd technologies and crowd engagement techniques are made for downtowns and are game-changers for how we approach community development. All you need is a progressive and inclusive community leader and a dedicated citizenry who want to get involved so they can realize their vision together.

That has Main Street written all over it.