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NYC Planning Department Takes Citizen Engagement Online

The COVID-19 pandemic forced government organizations to explore newer creative avenues to engagement with the community, taking meetings and other events out of conference rooms, and interacting with more community members.

Architectural drawing of city with skyscrapers from above.
Shutterstock/Robert Kneschke
Residents wanting to weigh in on the planning and design of the New York City urban landscape have a new web portal to place comments, photos and other forms of communication.

The new interactive website is built on the concept of community engagement allowing residents — or for that matter, anyone — to offer a range of feedback on projects coming before the New York City Department of City Planning and the nature of neighborhoods.

“Our approach to the work is really to try to engage people, as much as possible, in as many ways as we can,” said Eugenia Di Girolamo, deputy director of urban design at the Department of City Planning.

“We found that through the development of this website, which is an active engagement website, it allows us to reach people we would not have been able to reach,” she added.

Community members are able to engage with the planning department “in their own time, and from home, and across a variety of ways that they would feel comfortable with,” said Di Girolamo.

The new site was partly born out of the COVID-19 pandemic which required governments of all sizes to transition the work of the public into formats that were safe — allowing for physical distancing — and equitable, so that anyone could participate.

When the pandemic forced cities into lockdown, city hall meeting rooms and council chambers went dark as public bodies migrated to video conferencing platforms like Zoom or Microsoft Teams. This technological evolution also meant the public was able to easily engage with public meetings often from the comfort of their own home.

The particular needs and challenges presented by the pandemic prompted New York City to develop and launch its NYC Engage platform. It allows New Yorkers and others to see what meetings are coming up, how to access them — whether they use video conferencing or a phone line, said Joe Marvilli, deputy press secretary for the Department of City Planning.

Web tools like these allows the city “to beef up the public review process in a remote setting,” said Marvilli.

Taking a meeting out of a physical room and placing in a digital platform has the potential to foster increased public participation by removing barriers to attending, say advocates. It’s why when government or other groups want to increase community participation, the answer can be as simple as keeping the gathering out of city hall.

“Like me holding a meeting at city hall downtown, how is that helpful if I’m inviting people from a specific community?” Waffiyyah Murray, program manager for the Better Bike Share Partnership in Philadelphia, remarked during a recent panel discussion organized by the Open Mobility Foundation to discuss transportation equity. “I want hold the meeting in that community, in a space where they feel comfortable, and it’s easy to get to.”

The site created by the NYC Department of City Planning goes beyond just written feedback. It allows engagement in areas like sharing photos, drawings and other media. Additionally, it allows for discussions by having participants post comments.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.