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Digital Urban Planning Starts with Common Tools

In Louisville, Ky., government leaders are looking to new ways for meeting organizational goals -- ways that many are overlooking.

In Louisville, Ky., Ted Smith, chief of economic growth and innovation, is working to help his fellow government agencies meet their goals by harnessing new approaches to open data in what he calls "digital urban planning."

"Traditional city planning is just about the built environment -- things that are made of atoms and molecules," he said. "Digital urban planning is looking at your same city, but strictly in its digital representation and planning for its digital future.”

Nationwide, governments attempt to build online representations of their regions but typically fall short, Smith said, because they're either not focused on the citizen or are too small in their reach.

QR code projects, for instance, are limited in their reach for two reasons: A QR code is useful only to the person standing in front of it, and it offers no greater context for the thing being referenced. And GIS projects, while often of great value to real estate developers or government agencies, are not often used by citizens.

“What we don’t have right now is a formal discipline in government that says, ‘We have everything accurately portrayed in our built environment, in common digital tools,'" Smith said, referencing such search tools as Google Maps, Apple Maps and MapQuest. Digital urban planning will begin with ensuring that government’s local assets – buildings, tourist attractions, public art, private businesses – appear in the tools most commonly used by the public. So if people are using Google Maps and Apple Maps, Smith said, then government should learn to use those tools too.

Smith said one of the reasons governments have stayed out of this arena is because it's essentially owned by private companies -- which has kept a lot of governments away from the conversation. And that, he said, may be misguided.

"Essentially what you’re saying is, ‘Because I don’t run that platform, I probably shouldn’t have anything to do with it,’" Smith said. "I feel like we’ve been somewhat arbitrary about when we avoid private ventures and when we don’t.”

Pretending that Google and Apple don't exist will not make the companies disappear, he said. They’re the platforms that people use, and government should embrace that.

Louisville's Digital Urban Vision

The digital urban planning pilot program in Louisville will not begin with the creation of a new database or app, but with community outreach, Smith said. Scheduled to start this summer, the city will select two retail corridors and visit businesses to show them how they appear online on Google, Apple and Microsoft map platforms, and work with businesses to improve their online meta-data.

“We think a great retail corridor is one that looks nice and has pretty trees, but also is available electronically,” he said. “The difference for me is we’re not going to make an app for every dimension of our society. What we really need to do is make it easy to connect things.”

Smith’s vision of digital urban planning in Louisville goes beyond maps -- eventually it could include every aspect of local life, connected online and linked to the real world. But he’s starting small and teaming up with Kentucky Historical Society Education Director Jody Blankenship to lay a foundation for his idea. Blankenship’s mission is to promote Kentucky’s history, and Smith’s vision of digital urban planning presented new ways of doing that. To start, Blankenship and Smith looked at new ways of delivering historical data to the public. 

“The way historical markers are working now, they’re fine,” Blankenship said. “They’re aluminum signs on a stick that say, ‘This history happened here.’ There’s some value in that and people love that program, but it didn’t reflect the way ... that we felt history could be most utilized by people and by communities. It’s extremely limited.”

Ideally, historical data for a given place will be richer and linked to all other historical data. Currently, when someone sees a historical marker, they read it (or not), and then the experience is over. But digital content delivery provides an opportunity for Blankenship to offer more to the public.

The Kentucky Historical Society has a large collection of data, photos and objects that most people never see unless they take a day to learn about local history -- which most people don’t do. But if that data could be made available online and then delivered to people when they're in the relevant geographic location, Blankenship’s organization would begin truly meeting its goal of linking people’s lives with history.

Digitizing content is one thing, but providing context for the information and linking it digitally to geographic places is when things get interesting. Even the minor addition of digitally linking one piece of public art to all other nearby pieces of art would allow people to conduct their own impromptu art tours, whereas today the “tour” is over after a person finishes reading the first placard. For Blankenship, government can do more than just stamp a marker and leave it somewhere.

And he hopes that digital urban planning will not only offer more history to the public, meeting his organization’s goal, but also revive a change in history’s role in decision-making. For 18 years, the Kentucky Long-Term Policy Research Center assisted government in making decisions that affected the region’s financial and cultural future, but in 2010, funding to the center was cut off. Before being eliminated, the center presented crucial information, such as when it identified through historical trends that burley tobacco would not be a financially viable crop for Kentucky to grow. The state switched to other crops, which proved to be a good decision, Blankenship said.

“We’re faced with similar challenges time and time again, and yet we tend to make decisions based on political ideology or trends in public sentiment instead of looking at the actual information we have available to us and making sound, rational decisions," he said. "But all that information is there, and it’s not really that difficult to comprehend. When we think about the historical society and history, we don’t want people to just think about it as being the past, we want them to think about it as a way to understand where we go in the future.”

Photo of Louisville, Ky., courtesy of Shutterstock

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.