Thursday, September 18, 2008

Garbage In Garbage Out

I wrote the following article for the June 2008 Northwest Architect, an AIA Chapter publication. In it I make the point that for Planning and related urban design professions, content, design and professional skill are all critical when blogging.
Don't just blog to publish! There is greater potential in the blogosphere for Planners - unfortunately the technology lends itself to a high level of mediocrity. Remember GIGO - Garbage In Garbage Out.


"Planners and Architects, are challenged by choices about designs, presenting information, and conducting strategic planning. These directly affect the quality of stakeholder participation and the end product of our efforts; this in turn influences the livability of our communities.

The elegance of two poignant phrases, coined by fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan, “global village” and “the medium is the message”, will help me highlight some new approaches I am using to address these challenges.


When reading between the lines, what does a single legal document/specification/drawing represent when written in a way that is wildly incomprehensible to the average citizen or stakeholder? What is the message, and is it intended? Perhaps it is merely a well crafted tool fulfilling a particular purpose. What if it is one of countless other similar documents that influence how our communities look and function? What message should we take from this body of work in terms of the value of stakeholder input and participation? Finally, what is the potential if this information were more accessible and easily understood?


“Global village”, refers to how technology assists us in relating to each other at a personal level, typical of small communities, even when separated at global scales. Physical proximity is no longer necessary to engage in meaningful dialogue with online tools now available. For example, blogs facilitate participation by people separated by distance, and at a time that is convenient to their schedules.

Numerous social networking web sites and blogs exist, and the numbers and complexity grows daily; however municipalities, the development industry, and urban design professionals have not made the leap to integrate these into their work. The time has come where this is a vital step for both public agencies and private firms to be current and facilitate meaningful input; develop public support; manage conflict; drive solutions; and create beneficial partnerships.

It is relatively common for Cities to use blogs for general communication, a kind of voice mail on growth hormone. By developing project specific blogs for the update to subdivision regulations ( & I have begun to use these online tools in ways that are innovative for municipalities. These blogs are designed to enrich participation; advance citizenship; improve access to information; and integrate greater accountability. The blogs provide a central platform for the entire system of the project which includes: urban form analysis; mapping; video reporting; polls; code analysis; urban design proposals; and action research. A video describing how this system works is viewable on the main blog, or search YouTube for “Subdivision Public Engagement”.


Blogging as I am using, and propose, is not only a tool but an entirely new platform for community engagement. Standard methods of stakeholder participation typically achieve less than desired results; often caused by the increasing complexity and busyness of people's lives and processes designed toward expert participation. By designing the subdivision project to include facilitative leadership, alternative meeting and presentation methods, and accountability features within the blog framework this has been greatly improved.

Creating a blog does not turn desktop screens into magic windows; be prepared to have the curtain pulled back to reveal the great Oz. Using blogging in your project management and strategic planning requires a committed that is not disingenuous, tokenism, or decorative. The content must be robust, the site well designed and functional, and you must be prepared for the necessary time commitment.

To achieve the benefits of blogging you must be aware of how your information/content is designed/presented – back to messages. For example, with the ability to generate more and more information, we often fall into the trap of increasing the complexity of what is being represented; sacrificing clarity, for comprehensiveness. To counteract this tendency for the urban form analysis component of my project, I used a mapping technique called “delayering” (based on the work of architect Mario Gandelsonas, The Urban Text, MIT Press, 1991) to highlight specific characteristics and improve comprehension. This approach allows professionals and lay persons to see aspects of their community that often go unnoticed and was best suited for posting to the blog.

Becoming the Chief Blogging Officer is potentially appealing to the designer in all of us. Have fun, enjoy, and prepare to be surprised by how your work can be improved with these new approaches to strategic planning and design, these new ways of thinking about messages and the global village. I end with the words of an artist, and designer whom I greatly admire: “The more I play, the larger my world does become”, Xavier Voigt, three years old."

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