Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Facebook and City Planning

One of the toughest aspects of community organizing and government transparency is disseminating information. Twenty years ago a newspaper ads, a few mailings and some flyers would have been enough for a government office to alert a community about a future meeting. Today, planning has now moved online which means that e-mails and web posting can almost be as vital as the former methods of contacts. Even with critical information now being put online, most government agencies still miss the mark of reaching a critical mass of people.

Let's be honest how many of you read the updates of your local county or township's websites or sign up to receive e-mail updates?

Enter Facebook, the social network with over 200 million members worldwide, the majority of which are in the U.S. The site which connects social networks and old friends is now being used by community associations and government agencies to draw people, specifically young people to participate in the planning process. For many associations, agencies and even politicians, creating a facebook page has been a tremendous success. In Evansville, Indiana, the local Metropolitan Planning Organization has created a page displaying photos and facebook surveys. The Evansville Courier reports,

"Locally, Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel has a Facebook page where users can read his 2009 State of the City address or find out where the next Traveling City Hall program is located. Vanderburgh County Sheriff Eric Williams uses Facebook as a resource to promote department activities and to help solve crimes."

Recently I attended a community meeting where the association was organized entirely through facebook. Instead of creating a community association website, all activity was moved to facebook where agendas, photos and other notes where posted. The association which had just been formed months earlier, had a tremendous showing for it's first several meetings. Not only did the word get out about the meeting throughout the neighborhood but the association captured the elusive 25-35 year olds who very seldom come to meetings. This is an example of facebook producing real results for a community meeting.

Unfortunately in many offices, Facebook is either prohibited or blocked, preventing the possible use of promoting agency agendas and meetings. Hopefully in the future, government will see the power of Facebook and begin seeing the website as a tool for community outreach instead of just a social network site.

6 comments:

catchingupat20 said...

That is true. Here in Atlanta, there is a strong community tradition thanks to the Neighborhood Planning Units. And do you really think that overworked planners would be focused on sending out a message to their group about the next community meeting, or sending messages with the planner in the cubicle across the way ... i don't know ...

Swamp Thing said...

Like most things I think that the use of FB and other social networking stuff is really divided on generational lines. 30 years ago, your value as a planner was defined by your education, your rank in the office, years experience, and the quality of your planning documents, as viewed by other peers within your office.

In 2009, your professional value is much more defined by your (our) ability to impact the physical landscape and actually implement all these grand theories, whether it's walkable communities or urban reforestation. Your years experience and college education get you through the door into the "club" but unless communities, landowners, and staff in other regulatory agencies will listen (and defer) to you, you got nothin'. Your value = your ability to EFFECT CHANGE.

FB is a way to make these things happen. Whenever an old codger in the environmental field argues that email, FB, and texting are distracting, I ask them if they can remember the last time I worked a straight 8 hour day (answer? probably around 2002).

White-collar workers (per worker) are more productive than any time in the last 100 years....because we're dialed into our work 12+ hours a day, 7 days a week. The old guys can suck it!

BC Planning said...

CatchingUp,
I think there would be a problem of planners using FB for other purposes because out position are not meant to be interactive...at least for online use.

I think we would have to change the premise of what community planners do so the position would be more open and would allow planners to use any means they saw fit to interact with the community.

Ironically in the past, I think most planning offices would have been receptive into opening up the position but as with most professions the number of employees have shrunk and planners are asked to do more of everything but only in very defined ways to get things done.

BC Planning said...

Swamp Thing,

The accountablity placed on planners is both needed and a little frightening as well. Needed because we do not need mindless beauracrats who propose things that never happen but frightening because it's hard to get things accomplished when some decisions are beyond your control.

But the biggest barrier I see in planning for communities is the access to information. A lot of time and effort in planning is wasted on fighting off badly formed opinions and information. If we can present information to the public using non-traditional forms then so be it.

catchingupat20 said...

I think that planners would do well to implement more modern technology into the process. I know that Cleveland's Cuyahoga Planning commission has had a blog for at least two years, and it's been pretty successful. Technology might help to catch the Generation X and Millenial demographics into more involvement in community planning. But moving totally into these new, unestablished means of communication might alienate seniors and older middle-aged persons (the people who typically always show up with something to say).

I'm not an 'old codger,' in fact I'm a junior in college and I intern at the City of Atlanta. So I have a bit of knowledge on planners' work environment. Just in doing my own college work, I know how tempting facebook, and other communication means can be. True, they definitely help productivity, but they can also be a huge drain on your time and attention.

Mitch said...

The key issue in moving forward is how does it meet the open records or sunshine laws of many states.

The Internet is not considered an adjudicated medium. Many states still only require an agenda be posted on the door. The digital divide issue assumes that not everyone has access to the Internet. A while back the Florida Attorney General posted what he would like to see in an electronic meeting but two components are key: provide access to the Internet (workstations in the Library) but also provide a resource to help people understand the technology (for the technologically illiterate)

The California Brown Act requires that all deliberations be done in a public meeting.

My suggestion is to open a meeting in public, have a discussion online, at the next meeting have all of the comments entered into the record, ask for additional comments, and then deliberate.