Connecting state and local government leaders
In contentious city planning meetings, the louder voices in the room often control the narrative, but technology can reframe the conversation and streamline the engagement process.
With the nation dealing with a shortage of millions of units nationwide, adding more housing is a non-negotiable task for many cities. But when the only people showing up to planning meetings are those objecting to projects—even if those nay-sayers believe their communities need more housing—it’s challenging to move projects forward.
Under California law, for example, municipalities are required to set goals and create strategic housing plans to address the state’s chronic housing shortage. One city, Elk Grove, needed to identify sites that could collectively host more than 4,000 new units—a big ask in the age of not-in-my-backyard mentalities. But technology helped engage residents in development discussions in a new way.
In 2021, the city partnered with Balancing Act, a company owned by Polco, to create a simulation that put residents in municipal planners’ shoes and let them walk through the decision-making process. Users were tasked with meeting a 2,063-unit goal for low-income households. They could review all the potential sites where increasing housing density had been proposed and learned about the zoning changes each site would require and how many affordable units each site would create.
Residents could try different combinations of sites to reach the goal, and when they had identified where to locate the required number of new housing units, they could submit their suggested housing plan to the City Council with just a click.
The digital tool aims to help users shift their mindsets from how developments affect their immediate vicinity to how it could help the entire community reach its housing goals, according to Chris Adams, president of Balancing Act and a senior fellow at the University of Colorado School of Public Affairs.
“They were given the opportunity to say no to what they really didn't want, but in order to fully participate, they had to indicate what they'd say yes to,” Adams said at a recent event with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “I think that's a really positive way of … reframing this issue and helping communities overcome that cognitive dissonance between saying, we really hate this housing project that you're proposing right here, but we actually want you to provide housing for our community.”
Elk Grove’s simulation is just one example of how communities are moving online to gather better feedback.
Community engagement is an intrinsic challenge to land-use reform and housing development. The traditional methods of collecting residents’ input—gathering people in a room at city hall, for example, to share thoughts on a specific project—can be exclusionary and not always helpful to local officials. Not everyone has the time or ability to show up to planning committee meetings, and those that do may not represent everyone in the community.
“We're in a very different world today than we were when many of our planning strategies were originally used,” said Ben Metcalf, managing director of the UC Berkeley Terner Center for Housing Innovation. Now, many people “are very cut off from traditional civic institutions and engagement. Figuring out ways to use technology to our advantage to cut through that is of critical importance.”
Simulators can be a good tool to help residents think differently about local housing challenges, but gathering people together to talk about those issues—whether virtually or in person—is still a powerful method of community engagement. When the pandemic shifted many municipal meetings online, many saw the benefits. It allowed more people to share input with local officials from the convenience of their homes.
“Traditional engagement tools allow the louder voices in the room to control the narrative,” said Taiwo Jaiyeoba, city manager of Greensboro, North Carolina. “I think technology can balance the voices because it tends to take the message and the engagement to where people are.”
Cortico, a nonprofit aiming to improve engagement in civic settings, is using tech to do just that. In collaboration with the MIT Center for Constructive Communication, Cortico developed digital tools and methods to document, analyze and share residents’ thoughts and concerns on any given issue. The project, called Fora, has three parts: gathering small groups to discuss a topic and recording those conversations; using machine learning and artificial intelligence to identify themes and trends; and creating platforms, portals and websites to share those learnings back to the community.
That last point, to keep residents in the loop throughout the process of any project, is a key part of community engagement, Jaiyeoba said.
“You can't just have collaboration … or engagement at the very beginning, and not carry through the whole process,” he said. “What I've found out in planning is that the first group of people to show up at the beginning of the process may not be the people that you deliver the product to.”
Communities change over time, making it critical to involve people of all ages, races and income levels in planning. In developing Charlotte, North Carolina’s award-winning 2040 comprehensive plan, Jaiyeoba said the city spoke with kids in elementary school because they’re the ones who will be left with the impacts of the plan.
“We wanted to make sure that the entire spectrum was engaged in a collaborative fashion, in a consistent fashion, but also in a continuous fashion,” he said.
As governments continue to modernize, there’s no shortage of digital routes residents can use to share their concerns, whether it's through social media, email, Zoom meetings or an online chatbot. As MIT’s civic design expert Ceasar McDowell put it, technology “has the capacity to let people speak in the language in which they feel most eloquent.”
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