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On airplanes I prefer window seats because of the view. Most of the time I have the clouds and distant landscape to myself, but when we start coming in for a landing, the other passengers join me in gazing down at the sights below. Everyone, it seems, has something to look for.
For me it’s the settlement patterns: open fields and agriculture here; houses there; industrial areas over there; stores and malls and football stadiums; and then finally the sprouting rectangles of downtown.
From that vantage point you feel so powerful, so influential. It’s as if you could reach down and move things around like pieces on a game board. You could tend the place like a garden, carefully planting new seeds of houses in neat rows, or transplanting sprouted stores to a new location next to the flowering apartments. What kind of garden would that make? What would it be like to live there?
Now you can actually find out.
Imagine standing at a medium-sized table with five or six of your neighbors. Laid before you is a glowing map of the place you all call home. At first you see something that resembles a photograph that you might have taken from your airplane window.
But there is more. The map is computerized, so you and your table-mates can call up overlays of useful information, like place names, road labels, natural habitat areas and boundaries.
By means of a color coded grid, the computerized map also tells you things you could never see from an airplane, like the distribution of jobs across the area or the relative risk of storm damage for buildings near the coast. Using a marker-like pen as a mouse, you and your neighbors can zoom in, pan around, explore.
It’s as if you’re piloting your own airplane!
And then the gardening starts. You’re given a challenge, which is the same challenge communities face everywhere: hundreds of thousands of people will be moving to your area in the next two decades. Where will they live? Where will they work? It’s your job to find places for them all.
With some simple controls along the lines of an artist’s palette of paints, you sketch new kinds of development on your map. “Let’s put some offices and retail stores over here,” you suggest, gesturing with your marker. “We need more jobs in the neighborhood.”
“But what about this wetland?” your neighbor wonders. “Shouldn’t we leave that intact?” Okay, so keep the new buildings close together and off the wetland, you all decide.
With swishes of your mouse-markers you draw on the map and watch it turn colors in response. That decision made, now on to the next—you have a lot of people to house!
As you work, the computer keeps track of your progress. At first the scores are simple: How many homes have you placed? How many jobs? But as you grow more comfortable with the process, you start discovering more data is available:
How much land have you consumed? How much water will your new development use, and how do the patterns you’re choosing affect water quality in the nearby bay? How transit-friendly is your plan? How will it fare in the event of a flood or storm? Your group doesn’t like some of the outcomes you’re seeing, so you go back and make some changes to your plan, tuning and adjusting as you go.
It’s like a giant puzzle—except that it’s not a game. It’s real. That’s actually your community lying out on the table in front of you, and those jobs and houses and water impacts will happen during your lifetime.
As you work with the software, you are learning about how the system that is your community works. You are discovering issues you may not have thought of before and are starting to think more deeply about your priorities and choices. You are working with your neighbors to find common ground and shape your community together. And from all reports, you’re having fun at the same time! And hey—that’s your back yard right there…you can zoom in and look at it. Hmm, how about a coffee shop on the corner? A playground nearby?
This experience—computer-enabled tabletop sketch planning—is on the rise. The technology that makes it possible has been around for a decade or more, but recent developments have given us a leap forward in public-friendliness. Here are the pieces:
While the technology is cool and new enough to delight the geeks among us, the real measure of success in my mind is whether it can turn invisible. Not literally, of course! I mean invisible in the sense of fading into the back of your awareness, the way the pages of a book do when you read. The ideal technology simply supports the conversation you and your cohorts are having about your future. It gives you information and answers your questions, but it never intrudes.
Innovators all over the country and the world are building applications like this using CommunityViz, or sometimes other software, as the platform. You can find some examples at the Placeways site or in The Planners Guide to CommunityViz, available from APA Planners Press. The technology is rapidly improving and costs are dropping.
The photos on this page are from a very recent example project developed by Steve Mikulencak and John Jacob of Texas A&M University’s AgriLife Extension and the Texas Coastal Watershed Program, with help from our company, Placeways. They gave it the charming name CHARM, and this was its first pilot. Have a look at the people gathered around these tables. Doesn’t it look even more fun—and more productive—than looking out an airplane window?
Doug Walker also writes about this topic on the blog Geodesign in the Curriculum.