On Sunday, October 12, 2013, I attended Planning Camp at Laney College in Oakland, California. About fifty people of various backgrounds gathered into an auditorium to discuss how urban planning and technology can be bridged to guide social change. The day-long session was hosted by OpenPlans, a nonprofit that develops open source technology to solve planning and transportation issues. This was the second of five stops in a tour visiting cities across the country.
OpenPlans started Planning Camp as a way to gain ideas from the public that could be used for Plan In a Box, an open-source web-publishing tool used to market planning projects. Oakland’s Camp brought together individuals from across the Bay excited to share their ideas. What awaited us was valuable networking, enlightening conversation, a delicious lunch and an even better Happy Hour. And it only cost $15 - not a bad deal if you ask me.
The event was set up as an unconference, meaning the attendees ran the show. After a couple hours of mingling and introduction, everyone had the opportunity to write down a potential discussion topic. Ideas were collected and used for the four sessions that sparked inspiring collaboration. Common themes included equity, democracy and public participation.
Participants separated into groups to discuss the specific topics. The diversity of expertise is what made the day special. How often do get a such a range of professions - including urban planners, tech entrepreneurs, housing advocates, students, transit professionals, among others - in a room together to discuss our society’s most pressing social issues?
My four sessions included the following:
The connection between urban planning and public health;
Engaging communities with less access to technology and information;
Displacement as a result of transit-oriented development;
Improving Bay Area transit.
Perhaps the most meaningful aspect of each discussion was the passion exuded from the participants. Although we may have swayed off topic more than once, there was something to be taken away from each group. Some of the main points are addressed here:
Although the link between urban planning and public health may be clear in some people’s minds, quantifying the connection is difficult. Our group agreed we need a more transparent system that will allow us to target our efforts towards education and preventative health care. The trick is supporting these systems with the necessary data.
We cannot use the same methods to communicate with every community. Language barriers, culture, education and many other factors come into play when determining the best way to engage citizens. We need to create structures that make it easy for people to get involved. Then we must ensure the input we gain from the public is transmitted to local powers. Several members of our group represented local organizations that utilize technology people can easily use, including Textizen and LocalWiki. Making the public more aware of these tools can help create a voice for many groups.
Because transit is now a valued amenity, building affordable housing in transit-rich locations is a challenge. The land is often expensive to build on, so naturally the homes are expensive. Much of the discussion ended up focusing on housing policy - a prominent headline in the Bay Area, to say the least. However, several members of the discussion addressed how prioritizing jobs near transit rather than housing may entice more people to use public transportation.
Several Bay Area transit systems, particularly MUNI and AC Transit, are not operating to the level that most would like. The group agreed that a strong political will and a powerful voice can help incite change.
There is one clear theme from these discussions - people value public participation. The challenge is effectively engaging various populations and then translating that communication into results.
I am not saying these efforts have not been made many times over. Nor am I saying every single opinion will transform into action. What I am saying is that those in power, those who have the tools to create change, need to facilitate public engagement so that the opportunity to share an idea, and the system to empower an idea, is there for all. Thank you OpenPlans for strengthening this movement.
How do you want to see technology and planning used to facilitate social change?
Credits: Data linked to sources. Images credit of Robert Poole.