When it came time to engage citizens in a recent Master Planning process, the City of Lowell, Massachusetts opted for an unorthodox approach: an interactive online game. In order to engage a diverse population, the city partnered with Emerson College researchers to debut a newly developed participatory planning tool for the first time in June 2011.
Community PlanIt is an online game platform that encourages players to engage in local planning processes and express their opinions in order to earn “coins”, which can then be spent on issues that matter to them most. During the Lowell launch, a total of 411 coins were spent on Arts & Culture, Education, Housing, Jobs, Open Space, Public Safety, and Transportation.
The software, which will be made open source over the next year, was developed by faculty and staff at Emerson’s Engagement Game Lab and funded by the Knight Foundation as a way to engage a broader spectrum of residents than those that traditionally participate in local decision-making processes. “Instead of the only option being showing up at a meeting, now people can log on to a website and meaningfully engage in local planning,” said Emerson Professor Eric Gordon.
Over the course of the 10-day launch period, 175 community members signed up to participate, including dozens of young people from six local youth organizations around the city. Youth from several of these organizations, including the United Teen Equality Center and Boys & Girls Club, worked in partnership with staff from Lowell’s Department of Planning and Development to help ensure that the content and questions for the game would be relevant and accessible to residents of many different ages and backgrounds. Questions included “What would be the best place for a food truck to park during lunchtime?” and “What would be the best place for a community garden?”
Lowell Community Health Center Teen Coalition Youth Space
Participants engaged in meaningful dialogue with one another, and also suggested specific changes or improvements they would like to see across the city. Recommendations included the establishment of a vertical growing center in a vacant warehouse, and the creation of a city-funded artist residency program. In total, participants left over 1,000 comments in the system. The comments, along with data from a community survey and input from more traditional public meetings, will be considered as the city further develops its long-range vision for the future. Lowell’s Planning and Development Director, Adam Baacke sees the benefit of using tools like Community PlanIt to gauge the community’s priorities and enhance public participation. “A citywide Master Plan only has value if the vision behind it is truly shared by both the community and the city. Community PlanIt has helped create a platform for residents to discuss and share their vision in open and transparent ways.”