In their own words: updating a thoroughfare plan AND creating online-relevant documents from UIS

The CEO of Urban Interactive Studio, which makes EngagingPlans and BrightPages, comes from both a tech and an urban planning background, and I’ve found that online engagement platforms with that kind of dual foundation “get” the needs — and blind spots — of their local government clients in a way that people from a different background might not understand.  Chris Haller understood from a long time back that one of the things that makes good public engagement — online or in person — so hard is that the professionals are coming to the issue from a world of facts and figures and data that the general public doesn’t always have.  And even though planners try to share those “Existing Conditions” reports, most of the time those reports are massive piles of small print text.  If they’re posted online at all, it’s as a huge PDF file that you can’t search for the issues that you want to know about.  And, guys, I’m sorry — I’m a planner, and don’t read those things if I don’t have to, myself.  When we assume that our residents have that kind of spare time or interest in every little bit equally, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot.

Chris has been working on this issue in conjunction with the very flexible EngagingPlans platform for quite a while, and this is one of the first explanations I’ve seen of how BrightPages is unpacking and reformulating the Existing Conditions Report experience.  Check out the BrightPages page for some examples of this strategy in action.

Full disclosure: Chris is the publisher of EngagingCities, for which I am the Managing Editor.  Just in case that’s news to you.

Here’s Chris:

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College Avenue – the most traveled thoroughfare in the city of Fort Collins, Colorado – is being transformed from an aging avenue to a world-class street. “Midtown in Motion” is a transportation study, the second phase of a broad plan by the city to increase mobility, safety, and beauty along this corridor. The majority of the street design is over 50 years old, it’s time for an update.

The concept of staying up-to-date is also true for the documents used to communicate such plans to the public. After all, if great design and modern technology will be key drivers in making College Avenue accessible and user-friendly, the materials used to convey and discuss these changes should be defined by the same elements – especially when public feedback is desired. Too often, momentous project plans are presented as a list of static PDF links and text-heavy web copy, which fail to convey the excitement and vitality of the plan. Public input is usually collected separately, and getting feedback can be difficult, as most citizens aren’t up to wading through long documents that require time to download and decipher.

There’s a better way. Like College Avenue itself, the online documents for the transportation study will be in keeping with the times. That’s because the City of Fort Collins is using BrightPages to present the plan content in a fun, engaging way – ensuring maximum citizen comprehension and participation. Instead of being overwhelmed with pages of information upon entering the project website, users will see bright infographics and simple headings that make it easy to navigate to areas that interest them. Whether walking, biking, or driving is their preferred mobility focus, they can jump to parts of the plan that contain those elements. Or they can explore how the plan will affect certain districts and intersections, making use of zoomable maps and colorful renderings that make the information easy to digest.

Most importantly, feedback happens right alongside the information on the project website – definitely an update from the old methods of creating forums or surveys separately, hoping people will follow the links and offer their opinions. “Midtown in Motion” is more than a transportation study – it’s a conversation between planners and public, offering feedback opportunities on every page. Questions like “Does this improve College Avenue?” and “Do you like this part of the plan?” give citizens a chance to comment immediately on specific aspects of the study, with no need to exit the website or do anything other than join the conversation. Oh yes, and it’s all optimized for mobile, too.

Just like the streets, town centers, and systems they aim to improve, plan documents need to be brought into the 21st century. They need to be made accessible, fun, and beautiful. Plan documents come to life with BrightPages – which helps beloved public spaces like College Avenue come back to life, too.

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