People Love What They Help Create

by | March 21, 2013 0 Urban Design + Planning

We have recently referenced some of the exciting augmented reality work we’ve been working on, but did you know that we’ve been using various technologies to engage the public during planning projects since the early 2000s? One of our goals at SERA has been to always communicate planning problems and potential solutions in ways that are easy to understand and that allow people who live in the community to directly inform the process. People will take care of and support things that they help create.

A good example is streets. Streets are almost always in the public domain and significantly influence the way a place feels and functions. For decades, streets have been engineered for mobility – primarily to move automobiles and freight (and to often store cars as well). It’s only in the last decade or so that communities throughout the US have started to demand more from our public rights-of-way and to redesign streets to accommodate all users and uses. And it’s only recently that sophisticated planning tools have been developed to help community members directly participate in what was once an exclusive, “experts only” process.

Code For America recently released a really cool interactive street cross-section building tool. It’s still in its alpha stage and has a ways to go before it’s ready to be used in a professional design process, but it’s a fantastic start and has tremendous potential to put urban design and transportation planning tools directly into the hands of the community. (Pair this with a DIY traffic counter and the new Sim City and watch out, planners!)

SERA has been using a similar approach for the last decade, albeit with less-sophisticated technologies. We have always dreamed of being able to develop a drag-and-drop street building tool with all sorts of cool urban design components and real-time analysis of implications and trade-offs. But we’re architects and planners, not software developers; we’ve never had the capacity or resources to develop our dream tool. Given this reality (and the fact that traditional street cross-sections often cause the viewers’ eyes to glaze over), we built a better cross-section with the technology we had on hand.


Figure 1. A typical engineering street cross-section. We can improve on this, right?


Preliminary Draft Design Standards Document_081108.indd

SketchUp cross sections from a project in West
Sacramento, California.

Using SketchUp, an accessible but robust 3D modeling software, we created dynamic model components that could quickly be arranged in multiple street cross-section configurations. The result was an attractive and informative way to illustrate how street elements can be arrayed in the public right-of-way – as well as to show the character of adjacent development. We found that people could really understand the 3D street cross-sections and they helped tell a more complete story about the street and its surroundings. But they were still a little too static. People couldn’t interact with them and test out their own ideas in real time.

To address this issue, we stepped backwards along the technology spectrum and built physical models to-scale out of wood and cardboard. We took these models to streetscape workshops and had people arrange pre-constructed streetscape components within a model town. It’s low tech, but the physical model is a fun-to-use tool to help educate communities about how public rights-of-way work and how various street components can be arrayed. It’s also a great hands-on tool for idea testing and getting people engaged. The downside, of course, is that the models are big, heavy, and will break into hundreds of pieces if checked on an airplane (trust us).

The street model in action in Sandpoint, Idaho. (Look out, pedestrian!)

The street model in action in Sandpoint, Idaho.
(Look out, pedestrian!)

Allowing the public to be involved in their community’s planning process is vital for successful and resilient communities of the future. Enabling an educated public is one step better. And whether it’s a wood scale model or a slick looking 3D cross-section or an interactive web program, all of these tools will help educate people about planning and design and help make better places.

What about you? Do you work in the public involvement realm? What are you using to engage people in your practice?

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