Tools for Community Planning, Part 2: Our Toolbox

This summer, we hit the streets to learn more about the on- and off-line tools used in community planning. As people who spend our days building software, it’s essential that we take time to find out what problems community organizers are facing.
Along the way, we're sharing this process with you: the stories, our research methods to discover community needs, and some of our ideas for new tools. In part 1, we recounted three stories of local change.

In this post, we’re setting out our process – how did we structure our conversations, what props and questions did we use, and how have we made sense of what we heard?

Tools for Community Planning, Part 2: Our Toolbox

Gathering Information

How did we structure our conversations with community organizations?

Defining the structure. We spoke with eighteen groups and individuals in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. We heard inspiring stories about slow zones, bike lanes, plazas and more. Since every story includes a lot of information and represents a different point of view, we had to find a way to compare what we heard.

We decided to start with the initial motivation for a project, and end with its submission. We broke down each individual process by defining common phases: discover > research > discuss > prepare > gather feedback > submit. For each phase, we wanted to know: What happened? Who was involved? How long did it take? What were the tools? What were the issues?

Using action cards. Knowing that local efforts here in NYC are often part of a long and complex planning process, we created a series of cards representing lots of small action steps in the process of change. For example, “get feedback from my neighbors”, “research”, “create a map” and “talk to my Community Board”.

Our action cards.

For several interviews, we asked people to tell us their story using our action cards. This helped them reflect about the process, and helped us follow each unique path.

The people we spoke to devoted months, and sometimes years, to these projects. Laying out the cards on the table helped them break down a complicated process to small steps. Something complex like a public plaza campaign translated to a simple flow: I want to make my block better > Do research > Talk to my neighbors > Learn about the formal process > Document the current conditions > Create a flyer…

For people who told us about a completed campaign, this was an opportunity to think about what worked and what they could have done differently. For those who were in the middle of a campaign, this was a chance to think ahead and consider next steps.


We gathered a lot of information. How did we find the common themes among these unique stories?

Our user-centric research process has helped us understand more aspects of what works and what doesn’t in the community organizing process in NYC. But it’s not about becoming community organizing experts. It’s more about trying to understand how organizing is different for different people because everyone’s personal stories are so diverse.

Understanding the common challenges helps us identify the need for tools we can build. Understanding the user and project characteristics helps us think about the kinds of users who might be working with these future tools.

Visualizing the process. For each story, we created a detailed process visualization. Using colorful sticky notes, we identified what happened (for example, gathering support) and how it happened (for example, starting a petition). We also identified challenges (for example, how to build the case) and strengths (for example, rough planning knowledge). Translating the stories into these diagrams helped us understand each project as a whole, and start thinking about common themes.

Our process visualization for Make Lafayette Ave Safer. Click to zoom in.

Summarizing the story. After visualizing the processes, we summarized each story with five key takeaways. Not an easy task, given there’s so much to learn from everyone. Here’s an example from our conversation with Jonathan Rabinowitz from Bike Upper Manhattan:

  1. Initial challenge was understanding the formal process
  2. Gathering neighbors’ support and attending public meetings were essential for CB support
  3. Strong community outreach process, combination of online and on-the-street
  4. CB now sees the group as local expert
  5. Aspirational project is harder to accomplish, even with CB support

An analysis session with the team.

User characteristics. Who are the people changing their neighborhood? In order to think about the types of people that might be using our future tools, we characterized the interviewees by community organizing and outreach skills, NYC planning and transportation knowledge, use of online tools, and whether she was working alone or as part of a group project.

User characteristics.

Project characteristics. What types of projects are we talking about? In order to start defining the scope of our future tools, we characterized the stories by reactive and aspirational, whether they’re linked to an existing city process, length of the process, and local government support.

Project characteristics

Why is this methodology a good approach?

The models and characteristics we developed helped us identify a range of effective strategies and common obstacles across organizers, as well as the unique motivations, perspectives and contexts of the individuals interviewed. The models were also helpful in sharing the research with other members of our OpenPlans team.

We now have a richer empirical understanding of what local organizers in NYC need to be successful and are better equipped to brainstorm tools that may help improve the process for others. We hope other people will find this approach useful.