Online Platform Aims to Make Lousy Community Meetings More Inclusive and Productive

Often, only a small percentage of people interested in participating in community planning actually attend in-person meetings, limiting ideas and feedback for projects. . (Photo: Rawpixel/Shutterstock)

Have you ever been to a city or local planning meeting? I have. Twice. In two decades. As a homeowner and active voter, I'm kind of embarrassed to admit this. But it's true.

I'd like to be more involved, and I know many other people feel the same way. The problem is always time — because community meetings go on for hours. So maybe the solution to getting more people involved is to make it easier and simpler, via technology.

That's the idea behind CoUrbanize, which calls itself "... an online community outreach platform for real estate developers and municipal planners." The idea is to empower communities to be actively involved in local development in a way that makes sense for busy, modern people.

If you've ever been to a local planning meeting, you know that the people who show up don't always represent the community at large. An online portal with a variety of tools sounds like a good way to get more (and more diverse) voices involved. It helps to look at a specific example to understand how it works. This is how CoUrbanize co-founder and CEO Karin Brandt explains it:

It’s a known fact that the development review process is often contentious, negative and slow. Most people just accept this pain. We believe technology can transform this traditionally difficult conversation by engaging people in a positive, visionary, and even fun experience. Our customers ... transformed the community engagement process ... by asking pedestrians to send comments to coUrbanize via text message. People sent over 200 ideas to improve parks, open space, retail, and the overall plan. Instead of learning about 1 million square feet of new development when cranes appeared, people learned by being asked to envision together. We’ve seen again and again that lowering the bar to participation, in combination with our real name policy, shifts the tenor and tone of the conversation to a more positive and on-point dialogue.

There must be a better way

"I think a reason that a lot of my classmates went to grad school is that we wanted to create change in communities — change around sustainability, affordability, creating equity so more people have opportunity," CBrandt told Fast Company. She and her co-founders met at MIT's School of Architecture and Planning. "Then when we went out after grad school and got into planning meetings, we saw that the big ideas that we had to create change continued to get stopped by opposition that showed up at every single meeting and didn’t want any of that change to happen. I thought that there must be a better way to have more fact-based conversations, make it easier for more people to influence how their communities grew."

CoUrbanize offers a few useful ways to get information from local communities about what they really want to see in in their cities and towns.

In situ engagement

CoUrbanize's work isn't all online — those involved also post signs and do on-the-street events to get feedback that way. Physically posting smart questions (like the example above asking what people would like to see in a vacant storefront) can be a way to find out what people who live and work in a neighborhood really need. Instead of assuming that people might want more banks or fast-food restaurants, ask them what they need and want; it might be more places to buy fresh, affordable produce or household necessities (like a good bodega would provide). Directly soliciting opinions means planners and builders can utilize locally sourced, creative solutions.

Everything in one place

project map for Lincoln, Mass., project
Here's a good example of how all the parts of a revitalization project in Lincoln, Massachusetts are spelled out in one place. (Photo: Snapshot from website)

Depending on where you live, a one-stop info shop that includes all the details for a proposed development project can be impossible to find. And one where you can use an interactive map to see others' ideas and post your own? I've never seen that. One of CoUrbanize's functions is to serve as a destination for projects with everything in one place.

Being able to see the entire scope of the project — including maps, proposals, links to city resources and architectural drawings — can be a useful way to understand how it might impact the community and how to create an informed opinion about it. Comments can turn into conversations, and the developer or other voices can respond to questions and clarifications.

"I think that people have more constructive ideas when they actually can write them down and access all the information and research," Brandt told Fast Company. Makes sense.

Community comments

Comments about a development can better reflect the diversity of people in a neighborhood by collecting feedback and ideas via a few methods. And all of these comments are collected and submitted as part of the public record. CoUrbanize's platform can even include information and accept comments in a variety of languages. In a Glendale, California project, information was solicited in English, Spanish, Armenian and Korean, reflecting the local population.

Community involvement in development projects is more important than ever, as more people choose to live in more populated urban environments. We can push for even more if we all get involved, say what we need, and figure it out together.