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Tech Helps Planners Weigh Development, Historic Preservation

A partnership between Urban Spatial and a University of Pennsylvania professor aims to make it easier for city planners to gauge resident preference for preserving historic homes against need for higher-density housing.

Old townhomes in Philadelphia’s Spruce Hill neighborhood.
Older homes in Philadelphia’s Spruce Hill neighborhood.
Shutterstock/Spiroview Inc
MetroLab Network has partnered with Government Technology to bring its readers a segment called the MetroLab Innovation of the Month Series, which highlights impactful tech, data and innovation projects underway between cities and universities. If you’d like to learn more or contact the project leads, please contact MetroLab at for more information.

In this month’s installment of the Innovation of the Month series, we highlight OurPlan, a project that is gathering and organizing land use preferences from actual residents to help planners better weigh development and preservation options. MetroLab’s Ben Levine and Josh Schacht spoke with the leaders of the project: Ken Steif, the director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Master of Urban Spatial Analytics program, and Akira Drake Rodriguez, a planning professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Ben Levine: Can you describe the origin of this project and who is a part of the team?

Ken Steif: OurPlan began as a proof-of-concept project lead by two of my graduate students in the Master of Urban Spatial Analytics program at Penn and myself. The team worked with a local community organization in West Philadelphia to use publicly available open data and a photo survey tool to better inform local planning decisions. At the crux of most planning decisions in this neighborhood was the tension between preserving single-family historic homes and developing denser, smaller units to accommodate growth and affordability.

Fast forward a couple years: With seed funding from Spruce Hill Community Trust and the Knight Foundation, my consulting company Urban Spatial and Penn Planning professor Akira Drake Rodriguez are partnering with a team of planners and technologists to scale out these tools for any Philadelphia community looking for new ways to communicate about and plan for important land use and zoning decisions.

Josh Schacht: What is the core challenge OurPlan is addressing?

gif of a user walking through the steps of using the OurPlan tool
Steif: OurPlan addresses several challenges in the land use planning process. The first is asymmetrical information between stakeholders, which is created by developers and planners who have more knowledge and access to land use processes and data compared to local residents who may not. We’re also dealing with difficulty in democratizing the community engagement process and the use of outdated or unreliable data to guide decisions.

Online photo surveys and an open data-driven mapping application allow stakeholders to express their own land use preferences and to visualize property characteristics, cartographically. Critically, these tools are embedded in a larger education and community engagement narrative that we hope brings to the fore the importance of land use planning, particularly in changing neighborhoods.

Levine: How does a community member interface with the tool? How do they contribute to it and what can they learn from it?

Steif: The OurPlan user first takes a photo survey to express their preference for preserving (or not) certain land uses. A machine learning algorithm then extrapolates the preferences of many survey takers to get a preservation score for every property in the community. Having completed the survey, the user can then move on to the mapping application where they see how this preservation score for each property compares to measures of development suitability and other critical indicators. These comparisons will help pinpoint development and preservation opportunities, creating a tool that stakeholders can use to guide land use decisions.

Akira Drake Rodriguez: The success of OurPlan relies on a diverse set of community members willing to participate in the process. Along with technology, we are developing a series of educational and community engagement tools that we will demonstrate at local community meetings and events to inform more people about how land use decisions can play an important role in achieving citywide equity goals.

Schacht: What impact do you hope to see OurPlan have in the Philadelphia community?

Drake Rodriguez: We hope that OurPlan will demystify the land use planning process as well as bring greater awareness about the potential for planning. We hope it will bring about more equity, education and engagement in planning decisions at the local level. We want to generate conversations between stakeholders that would not have happened but for the engagement and visualization components of the tool. We are building the tool to scale to any Philadelphia neighborhood, and we hope that with some refinement, OurPlan becomes a best practice citywide.

Levine: Which of your results so far have been particularly surprising as you roll this out to neighborhoods?

Drake Rodriguez: Right now, we are developing educational materials and putting together advisory committees for our two neighborhoods. So far, through early engagement, the most surprising result has been the diversity of values stakeholders are interested in preserving. While this tool emerged as a response to tensions between historic preservation and denser development in a growing neighborhood, there are other tensions that we hope future iterations of the tool could be able to capture. These tensions include those between short-term renters, or students and young professionals, and long-term renters around issues of affordability. We are hopeful that other groups will use the open-source nature of the tool to customize their plan to their needs.

Schacht: What’s next for this project? Where do you see OurPlan in terms of Philadelphia and other cities two years from now?

Steif: We hope to see dozens more OurPlans in the next two years, taking up these different tensions and bringing new innovations around surveys, education and open data to address the complex problems of modern cities. We hope that over time, we see more plans with indices for things like culture, climate, environment, small businesses and light industry, shared equity, and other aspects worth preserving or developing in our cities.
Ben Levine serves as executive director of MetroLab Network.
Josh Schacht is the director of technology and strategy at MetroLab Network. He works to support MetroLab members and the civic research community as a whole in promoting evidence-based policy and local community engagement. Prior to his role at MetroLab, Josh was a solutions architect on the Master Data Management team at Katerra, working to leverage sustainable building materials to create efficient and affordable housing.<br/><br/>