Rich data, qualitative feedback, smarter maps and involved citizens lead to more successful projects and an ever-evolving platform, according to the citizen engagement company based in Boulder, Colo.
As Neighborland CEO Dan Parham tells it, the problem of addressing major issues like urban transportation is often not an engineering or even a financial one, but a problem of political will.
Whether because of a history of failed projects, a skepticism about lofty goals or a disconnect between citizens and officials, state and local governments sometimes find it hard to both include and persuade the public when planning a major project. Parham’s community engagement platform and its new product, Neighborland for Transportation Agencies, purports to do just that.
Since it launched in 2011, Neighborland’s software platform has been involved with over 200 projects and about 50 government agencies around the country, helping officials conduct public discussions, receive comments and ideas, prioritize goals and generally open lines of communication with citizens.
Parham said the impetus for the company’s specialized new tool for transportation agencies was the need for better interactive maps and scenario-planning software. This came up when Neighborland was helping local governments plan for development of San Francisco’s Central Waterfront and Dogpatch neighborhoods — particularly, to coordinate complete streets and open space projects between several public agencies and community groups in anticipation of population growth.
“We realized (transportation agencies) may want an interactive map — and our base map is a Google map — or they may want to draw their own map using whatever tool they would like, from a design perspective,” Parham said. “Maps, whether they’re interactive or static, are super important to transit agencies, and we really need to build out a map-based scenario-planning tool.”
He said the company created templates specific to the types of plans that transportation agencies run, including both long-range plans and complete streets plans, and that are able to be integrated with other tools that governments use internally.
Parham said this flexibility has led Neighborland to add new capabilities and hone its product, adapting to more needs and gaining complexity over time. He said some of the company’s work with San Francisco Planning on the Dogpatch neighborhood project has since been used by 20 other agencies.
“We’ve been able to learn from our partners,” he said.
Besides smarter maps and rich qualitative data from citizen feedback, one thing those partners get in return is a political dividend: more ways, and occasionally trust, to reach citizens in the future. Parham said his clients aren’t just collecting data and input, but building reusable lines of communication that can engender some faith and interest in the public planning process that can grow with use.
Cynthia Lambert, a spokesperson for MetroPlan Orlando, credited Neighborland with helping her agency get feedback from more than 1,000 people early last year on design concepts for a two-mile street study.
“It helped us to understand the major issues for the community, what were the design features they liked the most, what were the things that concerned them the most,” she said. “Because we had so many different design concepts and so much information to present, we chose Neighborland as our platform because it allowed us to put lots of really complex information together in a clean format.”
Neighborland’s website lists similar engagement statistics for the aforementioned Dogpatch neighborhood project in San Francisco, with more than 1,500 residents contributing feedback in 300-plus hours of online engagement on the platform.
According to Senior Planner Robin Abad Ocubillo with the San Francisco Planning Department, Neighborland’s collaboration engendered enough support for the project that it went through a legislative process and was adopted into the city’s general plan, which is atypical of a public-realm plan in San Francisco.
“It wasn’t just the end product, it was a deep enrichment of our community engagement process. We probably would not have had the breadth of reach or depth of interaction … were they not a partner,” he said. “We were also able to have much more buy-in and support, ultimately, in the design and community investment recommendations that the plan put forward.”