Why websites for planning projects?

Considering the daily barrage that inundates our inboxes and newsfeeds with recommendations for “must-read” articles or “refreshingly unique perspectives” on current events, it is always a pleasant surprise when I open one and find the content legitimately fascinating.

I experienced this recently reading about upcoming changes to the State of Vermont’s Open Meeting legislation. These changes will mandate very specific requirements regarding public notice before and after meetings. In response, a number of municipalities are considering completely de-activating their local websites in order to mitigate the risk of non-compliance. This is the part of the story I find especially interesting.

For municipalities to consider shutting down their websites suggests to me that some city staff still view online engagement as an non-essential resource. Despite significant progress, websites are often underwhelming tools for civic engagement. I’ve been exploring planning websites this summer, and I’ve discovered that many planning project websites seek to inform citizens about in-person engagement opportunities like meetings, instead of engaging directly online.

A well designed community meeting will always provide a more powerful, and productive experience than even the best project websites. But, not enough people attend community meetings to represent local views. Citizens accumulate first hand knowledge and experience each year they live in a certain location. Successful planning efforts unlock this “local expertise” to identify priorities–and online tools are a great way to gather it.

With engaging tools, project websites can provide meaningful opportunities to participate in the planning process right there online. Through tools like Shareabouts interactive maps, communities can share their knowledge and engage with each other. During my fellowship at OpenPlans this summer, I’ve been looking at other tools that can help planners create websites that foster two-way communication about projects. Stay tuned for future posts which detail other lessons I’ve learned through my research.