Technology helps planners weigh development and historic preservation

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MetroLab Network has partnered with Government technology to bring its readers a segment called the MetroLab Innovation of the Month series, which highlights the impactful technology, data and innovation projects underway between cities and universities. If you would like to know more or contact the project managers, please contact MetroLab at [email protected] for more information.

In this month’s episode of the Innovation of the Month series, we highlight OurPlan, a project that collects and organizes the land use preferences of real residents to help planners better assess development options and preservation. Ben Levine and Josh Schacht of MetroLab spoke to the project leaders: Ken Steif, director of the master’s program in urban spatial analysis at the University of Pennsylvania, and Akira Drake Rodriguez, professor of planning at the University of Pennsylvania.

Ben Levine: Can you describe the origin of this project and who is part of the team?


Ken steif: Our plan started as a proof-of-concept project led by two of my graduate students from Penn’s Urban Spatial Analysis master’s program and myself. The team worked with a local community organization in West Philadelphia to use publicly available open data and a photographic survey tool to better inform local planning decisions. At the heart of most planning decisions in this neighborhood was the tension between preserving historic single-family homes and developing denser, smaller units to accommodate growth and affordability.

Fast forward a few years: With seed funding from Spruce Hill Community Trust and the Knight Foundation, my consultancy firm Urban Spatial and Penn Planning professor Akira Drake Rodriguez are partnering with a team of planners and technologists to develop these tools for any Philadelphia community looking for new ways to communicate and plan important land use and zoning decisions.

Josh schacht: What is the main challenge OurPlan is tackling?

Steif: OurPlan addresses several challenges in the land use planning process. The first is asymmetric information between stakeholders, which is created by developers and planners who have more knowledge and access to land use processes and data compared to local residents who cannot. . We also face the challenge of democratizing the community engagement process and the use of outdated or unreliable data to guide decisions.

Online photographic surveys and an open data-driven mapping application allow stakeholders to express their own land use preferences and visualize property characteristics, in a cartographic fashion. Importantly, these tools are embedded in a larger narrative of education and community engagement which we hope highlights the importance of land use planning, especially in changing neighborhoods.

Levine: How does a community member interface with the tool? How do they contribute and what can they learn from it?

Steif: The OurPlan user first carries out a photo survey to express his preference for the preservation (or not) of certain land uses. A machine learning algorithm then extrapolates the preferences of many respondents to obtain a preservation score for each property in the community. After completing the survey, the user can then move on to the mapping application where they see how this preservation score for each property compares to development suitability measures and other critical metrics. These comparisons will help identify development and conservation opportunities, creating a tool that stakeholders can use to guide land use decisions.

Akira Drake Rodriguez: The success of OurPlan relies on a diverse set of community members willing to participate in the process. Along with technology, we are developing a series of educational and community engagement tools that we will demonstrate at local community meetings and events to educate more people on how land use decisions can play a role. important in achieving city-wide equity goals.

Schacht: What impact do you hope OurPlan will have in the Philadelphia community?

Drake rodriguez: We hope that OurPlan will demystify the land use planning process and increase awareness of the planning potential. We hope that it will bring more equity, education and engagement in planning decisions at the local level. We want to generate conversations between stakeholders that would not have happened without the engagement and visualization components of the tool. We are building the tool to fit any neighborhood in Philadelphia, and we hope that with some improvements OurPlan will become a best practice across the city.

Levine: Which of your results so far have been particularly surprising when you rolled it out in neighborhoods?

Drake rodriguez: At the moment, we are developing educational materials and setting up advisory committees for our two neighborhoods. So far, thanks to early engagement, the most surprising result has been the diversity of values ​​that stakeholders wish to preserve. While this tool has emerged as a response to the tensions between historic preservation and denser development in a growing neighborhood, there are other tensions that we hope future iterations of the tool can capture. These tensions include those between short-term tenants, or students and young professionals, and long-term tenants around issues of affordability. We hope other groups will use the open source nature of the tool to customize their plan to suit their needs.

Schacht: What is the next step in this project? Where do you see OurPlan in terms of Philadelphia and other cities in two years?

Steif: We hope to see dozens more OurPlans in the next two years, picking up on these different tensions and bringing new innovations around surveys, education and open data to answer the complex problems of modern cities. We hope that over time we will see more plans with clues for things like culture, climate, environment, small business and light industry, shared equity, and other aspects that deserve to be preserved or developed in our cities.

Josh Schacht is the Director of Technology and Strategy at MetroLab Network. He works to support MetroLab members and the broader civic research community in promoting evidence-based policies and local community engagement. Prior to his role at MetroLab, Josh was a Solutions Architect on the Master Data Management team at Katerra, working to leverage sustainable building materials to create efficient and affordable housing.

See more stories from Josh Schacht


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