Living Plans

At last night’s PlanningTech workshop, we diagrammed out planning processes to see where the insertion of technology might have been helpful.  The processes we looked at ranged from seemingly simple (getting a bike rack installed on your street) to massively complex (advocating for funding for MTA’s capital plan). Keep an eye out for digitized versions of the diagrams, as well as the opportunity to help expand them.

One idea that stood out, and that solicited some good discussion, was the notion of a “living plan” — a planning document that, rather than being static and falling out-of-date quickly, would evolve as a community’s context, needs, and priorities evolved.  Of course, such a plan would be unthinkable in an analog world, and seems  ridiculously obvious in a wikipedia world.

But that’s not to say it would be easy to implement.  Last night’s group raised a handful of questions, including: “what about dealing with large, complex expensive projects? (e.g., transit expansion)” and “what about blowback from early participants when the plan changes over time?”, and “what about ‘planning fatigue?'”.  All important questions to ask, and I won’t try to answer them here.  But the gist of the idea was that given a set of guiding principles (a constitution, if you will), a “living plan” might allow for more flexible planning and easier decisionmaking down the line.

It was good timing, then, that I came across this post on Streetsblog, covering some potential street design changes around Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza.  There’s debate over a DOT proposal to remove eastbound parking on Union Street and add a traffic lane, in order to reduce traffic buildup entering the plaza.  Community advocates are concerned that such a proposal won’t solve the fundamental “traffic vortex” problem, and doesn’t take into account the broader goals of creating a more livable and “world class” public space at GAP.

One section by the Grand Army Plaza coalition’s Robert Witherwax stood out to me:

All the tweaks to the plaza, so far, have been consistent with the planning principles GAPCo and its partners have promoted. The problem, says Witherwax, is the city’s piecemeal approach, which the Union Street proposal has cast into sharp relief. “DOT has been an excellent partner,” he said. “It’s not so much that what they have done, or are proposing, is bad — it’s that they aren’t going far enough.”

Witherwax is calling for a “buildable master plan” — a blueprint that would help guide planning and transportation decisions throughout the plaza area according to consistent goals. “Once you have that structure in place, you can say what happens if you do X, Y, and Z over here,” he said. But to date, he added, DOT has resisted the idea of a comprehensive plan.

Perhaps a “living plan” is somewhere in between the current, incremental planning that DOT is practicing an Witherwax’s notion of a “buildable master plan” — something that nurtures the development of guiding principles and longer-term projects, while still allowing for short-term experiments and responsive design.

This whole discussion makes me wonder how technology, in the form of a living plan or otherwise, might inform the debate here.  I can think of a few ways, to start:

  • A website that visualizes competing plans or visions for the future of GAP, where each idea could be discussed, analyzed, and tweaked.
  • An online traffic simulator (for all of Brooklyn?!) that lets anyone make tweaks and see the impacts, in a sim-city sort of way.
  • A tool that explains, via an interactive diagram, the planning process as it’s currently laid out.  Who the decision makers are, where the input points are, and what the schedule is.
  • Anything that generally increase sthe “touchability” of the proposed changes, moving them away from the abstract, wonky world. Perhaps this is something that our friends at the Environmental Simulation Center would be able to help with.
  • (insert your idea here)

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If you dig this kind of thing, head over to the PlanningTech google group and come to one of our upcoming meetups.  If you want to help TOPP and others build tools like these in the near future, check out the (as yet vaporware) Cosm project.
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