Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Believe It or Not – Blogs Work

With this post cowritten by Cac and myself , we describe our initial municipal planning blog successes. We also outline why the Planning profession, and for that matter all professions associated with urban design, and development of the PUBLIC realm or community assets, should embrace blogging and other social media.

"If WE told you that you can get over 50% participation from a PUBLIC notice would you believe us?

If WE said that with creativity and existing technology you can get valuable input from a significant number of community members throughout an entire Planning process from beginning to end, would you believe us?

If WE told you that by adapting your project framework you can have more citizens engaged in a single project than all PUBLIC meetings and hearings combined in a given year, would you believe us?

WE can go on and on, but you may raise your eyebrows, roll your eyes and sigh a big “WHATEVER DUDES!”

Well it is possible and has been proven in Oak Harbor, WA. Believe it or not, the tool we are using to achieve these results is this very thing you are reading - BLOGs. By adapting this simple communication format for Planning projects and incorporating notification, education, dialogue, discussion etc. in the blog design, the City has been able to involve over 2000 people in its recent Planning projects over the past eight months. That’s at least 1700 more than attended all the PUBLIC hearings and meetings in 2007.

By developing municipal blogs as project specific community engagement platforms, WE have successfully used web 2.0 tools to 1) enhance our Planning practice, 2) increase community involvement, 3) incorporate accountability measures, and 4) improve internal project tracking for staff, Council and Planning Commission. Monitoring our progress has shown substantial benefits over traditional public participation practices in these and other areas. As with any other successful venture, this comes with a price – TIME. However, the benefits far outweigh the costs on multiple levels.

Success stories of meaningful, substantial and effective PUBLIC input for municipal projects are few and far between. As Planners, WE seek techniques to engage the PUBLIC because WE believe they should be involved throughout the entire Planning process. WE should strive for high response and approval ratings from our constituents. However, standard Planning practices have fallen far short of this mark for decades, and are resulting in decreased citizen involvement; increased systemic elitism; unnecessary complexity and confusion; reduced accessibility; and inefficiency. Just ask yourself when was the last public process or meeting that you conducted, that didn’t have at least some similarities to a TV reality show, such as: misinformation; lack of transparency or cooperation; unnecessary misunderstandings; and a shortfall of community identity. Comparing our lofty goals for Planning processes with our less than stellar results, are WE not failing miserably?

WE have lived with this wonderful machine of the web for just over 5000 days, a major milestone. It has changed how WE view and understand the world, see each other (literally and figuratively), how WE define community; and for more and more of us, WE are unable to imagine our world without it. How WE communicate, access information, and expectations of information availability are all based on the increasingly pervasive framework of the web and the interaction web 2.0 tools provide. As Planners WE have to find ways to better embrace this technology to benefit the work WE do.

The Planning profession is inherently involved in developing communities. Not just the bricks and mortar of our buildings, streets, and neighborhoods, but the environments in which community is nurtured and citizens born. By not embracing the technology of today, are WE not turning our back to the way people relate and interact? How far are WE willing to fall behind by not using web 2.0 tools? It is unacceptable to continue asking “should WE use blogs or social networking tools for our projects?”, this equates to professional navel gazing. WE are losing ground as communities move beyond our standard approaches.

Everything in life has pros and cons and so do BLOGS. They are both panacea, and a can of worms that once opened will have repercussions that must be dealt with. Used wisely and carefully designed and integrated into our professional activities, Blogs, Knols, social networking, and other web 2.0 tools will have profound impacts on the plans, projects and processes that WE as Planners are assigned to steward. So go ahead and BLOG! WE dare you! Believe it or not, it works".

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