Tools for Community Planning, Part 1: Three Stories

At OpenPlans, we want to see more citizen-led neighborhood planning. We believe that online tools can help people connect, gather data and organize for positive local change.

We’re always on the lookout for opportunities to build new tools for community planning. When we identify a problem and a tool that can help fix it, we build that tool as an open source software project — for example, Shareabouts, which helps people crowdsource information like dangerous intersections or stations where more bike parking is needed. We want to build tools that serve real needs, through careful discovery of problems and people's existing approach. When you spend most of your time in front of a computer (like we do), it's essential to go out and talk to people on the ground.

In that spirit, we turned our attention this summer to challenges around local street improvements: just what does it take to get a bike lane, slow zone or pedestrian plaza?

Through conversations with 18 engaged community leaders, we explored the steps taken to change city streets and make better neighborhoods, and the tools — digital and not — used in those campaigns. We're sharing this process with you: the stories, our research methods to discover community needs, and some of our ideas for next steps. Look out for the series here on the OpenPlans blog, we'll also share all the stories as a downloadable doc once we're done.

These conversations have given us insights into better community planning tools. We hope they are useful for you too.

Tools for Community Planning, Part 1: Three Stories

Here are stories from three community-led projects for small-scale street improvements in Brooklyn, representing different points of view, methods and results. Although the stories below are all Brooklyn based and bike related, they represent the variety of ways available for New Yorkers to create local change in their street or neighborhood. Learn how Hilda collected 1,600 signatures supporting a bike lane, how Paco proposed street safety improvements, and how Judy gathered suggestions for bike rack locations.

Make Lafayette Avenue Safer

Hilda Cohen campaigned for a bike lane on her street, and collected 1,600 supporting signatures. We first read about her story on Streetsblog. We invited her over to hear more about how she did it.

“We are just two moms who wanted to make a difference” Hilda lives in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. She is in architect and a biking mom. Hilda always thought that a bike lane on her street, Lafayette Ave, will improve safety conditions for everyone. On October 2011, a crash on the street triggered her to act, and start a public campaign for a bike lane on Lafayette Ave. The first thing she did was create a website for her campaign. She also created a petition and started collecting signatures at the local farmer’s market. At the same time, she went to Brooklyn Community Board 2, and requested to present her proposal at the transportation committee.

“I’ve never done anything like this before.” In preparation of her presentation at CB2, Hilda did lots of research and collected documents to support her case. She added everything to her website, as a point of reference. For example, she created a map of the existing and proposed conditions. She added photos to demonstrate the street’s character. She explained the health benefits associated with biking. She measured the cars’ speed, using a radar gun. And she took a video while riding her bike along the street.

Hilda focused on gathering public support and developing a local network. She contacted local community organizations, the local City Council member, local media and businesses. She created a Google group for volunteers, and provided downloadable petitions and flyers on her website. Within a few weeks, she collected 1,600 signatures supporting a bike lane on Lafayette Ave.

“When you speak for 1,600 people, the truth is in the numbers.” In January 2012, Hilda presented her campaign to CB2’s transportation committee. Following the presentation, CB2 recommended a NYCDOT study of the street. In June 2012, NYCDOT presented the study’s conclusions, recommending a shared bike lane on Lafayette Ave.

Key insights. From Hilda’s story, we learned that a combination of on-the-street and online presence were key for gathering public support. Demonstrating this support and building a strong case were important for obtaining the Community Board’s support. For neighbors, the website was a go-to resource displaying the campaign’s background, information and documentation. For Hilda, it was a way to delegate authority and spread the word.

Make Lafayette Ave Safer – campaign flyer

Street Safety Improvements on Court Street

Dave ‘Paco’ Abraham started with an idea for new bike parking on an intersection on Court Street, Brooklyn. He ended up with a comprehensive proposal for safety improvements along the street. We first read about his campaign on Paco stopped by to share his story with us.

“There are many ways to connect the dots [to make change]”. Paco is a native New Yorker, who has lived in Cobble Hill for eight years. He chairs Transportation Alternatives’ Brooklyn volunteer committee. He’s a public member of Brooklyn CB6’s transportation committee. He is the vice president of the Cobble Hill Association (CHA). He volunteers at a local park. And, he works in television. This was a great opportunity to learn from a dedicated citizen with lots of experience.

“It was recognizing a need, and pieces of solutions that started coming up to me.“ Paco noticed that the intersection of Court St and Pacific St, was unsafe for pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers. He realized that cars were parking in a no-standing zone, resulting in limited visibility of the intersection for everyone. To ensure a clear view of the intersection, Paco thought of replacing the no-standing zone with bike parking. “Bike parking is a bonus, we just wanted the no-standing enforced. It’s not just a gift to cyclists, and it’s not just a punishment for drivers. It’s about equalizing an intersection.”

“I was looking at one problem and thinking of a simple solution, but it became more comprehensive.” In collaboration with Cobble Hill Association, Paco decided to propose a series of street safety improvements for Court Street, in addition to the original bike parking idea. The Association submitted these suggestions directly to DOT. Paco created a presentation with before and after visualizations of the different suggestions. DOT approved the bike parking and started the implementation process.

Key insights. Paco is an unusually active New Yorker, who already knows “how things work”. From his story, we learned about several ways to develop a strong and successful campaign. First, his idea to replace the no-standing zone with bike parking had clear benefits for multiple users. Also, the broader, comprehensive context helped increase the relevance of the project as a whole. A clear and visual presentation, with the backing of a local organization, was important in conveying the message and demonstrating public support.

Cobble Hill Association – rendering of bike parking proposal

Crown Racks

Judy Bartlett and Chris McNally submitted a bulk request for 63 bike racks in Crown Heights and Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. We spoke with Judy to hear more about how they did it.

“I’m new to NYC, I have background in community organizing and this seemed like a good place to start.” Judy lives in Crown Heights. She’s a member of the Crow Hill
Community Association and TA’s Brooklyn volunteer committee. Judy and Chris worked together on collecting suggestions for bike rack locations from residents and businesses. They set up a dedicated website to manage the data and create a consolidated proposal for Brooklyn’s Community Board 8.

“I’m not a city girl, so it took me years to figure out how to participate in a city of 8 million.” Judy and Chris discovered that DOT prioritizes bulk requests. As a first step, they started working on creating a package proposal for CB8. They worked in two parallel paths – general community outreach, and attending CB8’s public meetings. They reached out to the community through local organizations, businesses and blogs, asking for bike rack location suggestions. They also asked businesses to fill out a support letter template to accompany their suggestion. With the assistance of several volunteers, they surveyed the streets to make sure the suggestions match DOT’s specifications. Judy got more than 200 suggestions, which she narrowed down to 63.

“I’m a program evaluator, so I believe in needs assessment and community involvement.” The result of this process is documented in the Crown Racks website. It includes a detailed list of bike rack location suggestions, photos, support letters, and a map of the requests. When we spoke at the end of August, Judy and Chris were waiting for updates from DOT, after receiving CB8’s support of their application.

Key insights. Judy’s story emphasizes the benefits of working in parallel paths. The combined efforts of a dedicated website, face-to-face outreach, and attending Community Board meetings was fruitful. Crown Racks is an example of a campaign that maximizes an existing DOT application process. Creating a bulk bike rack request and gathering local support in a structured way were key. For neighbors and businesses, the website is a go-to resource for information about the application. For Judy and Chris, it was a way to manage data and easily create a consolidated package for CB8 and DOT.

Crown Racks – map of 63 requests

Stay tuned for the next blog post in this series, and learn about our research toolbox.