Susan Hopkins & Jen Topa
Do-it-yourself temporary street improvements—a.k.a. “Tactical Urbanism” events are a powerful way to demonstrate the benefits of Complete Streets.
As part of a larger Complete Streets initiative, the Town of Tonawanda, with help from Highland Planning and TY Lin, organized a Tactical Urbanism event along Parker Boulevard to help demonstrate the benefits of a Complete Streets design. The demonstration included protected crosswalks, parking modifications, narrowed vehicle lanes, bike lanes, and a mini-roundabout at the Parker-Decatur intersection.
The Town used a variety of creative materials and techniques to simulate the effects of street improvements, including stormwater silt socks, cones, chalk paint, used tires, reflective tape, and temporary signs.
Highland team members Jen Topa and Sue Hopkins were on hand for set up earlier this week. Within minutes of re-opening the street, cars, bikes and pedestrians were flowing through the intersection smoothly. The Town will be collecting feedback about the demonstration through an online survey.
Kudos to Tonawanda! For a video of the completed demonstration, click here.
An average user spends 50 minutes out of each day on Facebook platforms, viewing hundreds of posts in that time. Facebook has a tool, called “boosting a post” that will allow you to ensure that many people in your project area see your event. A boosted post, however, comes as an advertisement from Facebook itself, not from a trusted source. While boosting posts is a good step to ensure your event is seen by a wide range of Facebook users, to optimize your reach you should be sure your event appears to users from one of the following three trusted sources:.
1. Pages the user “Liked.”
Research what pages are most “liked” in your project area. Government agencies, chambers of commerce, neighborhood/merchants associations, and local news agencies are good choices that often have a few thousand likes each. Seeing an event shared or even hosted by a page the user specifically chose to follow increases their trust in your event as worth their time. Be sure to plan who will moderate and respond to comments on the post. It’s best to assign someone who can post as the page in question, since they will get notifications about any new comments. If this is not possible, someone from the project team will have to be assigned to check in on each post periodically.
2. Groups the user has joined.
With a little Facebook searching, you can find groups for specific neighborhoods, regional special interest groups, and groups specifically for sharing events. Generally, membership to these Facebook groups is restricted, requiring approval from someone already in the group, or from a group administrator. These restrictions mean posts from these groups have a higher trust for users. In order to post, you can ether request to be added to the group yourself, or find someone on the project team, or a stakeholder group like a steering committee, who already has membership in the group. As before you should have a plan in place for moderation, keeping in mind who can access which posts.
2. Personal friends.
Nothing in social media (or in life) is more powerful than a personal recommendation. If you want your event to be successful, you need a plan to get individuals to share the event. Stakeholder groups like steering committees are essential, as they are generally made up of community leaders. Asking them to invite all (or close to all) of their Facebook friends, and to post it to their personal feeds, is the single most effective step you can take in promoting your event. Instructing them to pick two influential people who are not on the committee and asking them to personally invite all of their friends will multiply your reach even further.
Social media is complex.
It’s tempting to assume that putting up posters and making a Facebook event is all you need, and that once it’s on social media, your work is done. However, social media is made of people, and is as complex as a middle-school cafeteria, or a political party, or any other human group. With platforms powered by networks of people that value each other, having valued voices speaking for you is worth more than any advertisement. With these tips on how to capture those valued voices, I hope you are able to bring more of the voice of the public into your planning processes.
by Tanya Zwahlen
Last night was the first public meeting for the City of Rochester Bull's Head Brownfield Opportunity Area Step 2 Revitalization Plan project. The purpose of the meeting was to share existing conditions data and obtain input from the community on what the data cannot tell us about demographic and economic conditions, how parks and recreation are used, transportation and infrastructure needs, and land use opportunities.
1. Get the Word Out... Far and Wide
In spite of the fact that it was a perfect summer night, more than 90 people attended the meeting, including Mayor Lovely Warren. We had representation from City Council, the Rochester Police Department, the Urban League, Rochester Regional Health, Susan B. Anthony Neighborhood Association, 19th Ward Neighborhood Association, Neighborhoods United, Plymouth Exchange Neighborhood Association (PLEX), as well as dozens of neighbors, business owners, and property owners. The key to getting people in the room is casting a wide net. Our team sent 800 postcards, emailed all the business and neighborhood leaders, and conducted door-to-door outreach as well.
2. Deliberate about Meeting Design
The second key to meeting success is meeting design. Amidst all the work to prepare for a public meeting, this is an overlooked but critical aspect of successful public engagement. It's important to give participants enough information (but not too much), and to ask the right questions that will inform the next steps of the project. It's also important to designate time for people to ask questions and to talk amongst themselves.
Our consultant team and the City of Rochester Project Manager, Rick Rynski, spent a lot of time considering the best way to solicit input. First we thought about what information we needed to know. We decided that we wanted meeting participants to provide more depth to the existing conditions data. We wanted them to tell us what only people living and working in the project area would know. We chose a combination of cardstorming, World Cafe, and mapping exercises. We deliberated over the wording of each question we asked. We decided that Rick would respond to questions by members of the public, and that each station would have a designated facilitator.
Ultimately, our discussions about meeting design and preparation were a good investment of time. Each of the activities worked well. Meeting participants felt informed and that their input was valued. To me, that's what matters most.
3. Assess the Need to Pivot
It didn't happen last night, but sometimes meeting participants need information you didn't anticipate they would want. They might want to comment on something you didn't think to ask them. If this happens, you need to pivot. Sometimes consultants and project sponsors can be rigid about sticking to the meeting agenda, but I always encourage them to be flexible. If the most important thing is that meeting participants feel informed, that their questions are answered, and that their input is valued, you may need to change the game plan to achieve that goal. So be ready to do so.
It is *thrilling* to be a part of a project when this many people are engaged. Now to summarize and analyze the input! Stay tuned for more on Bull's Head as we progress.
Redefining Economic Development through Public Engagement
Economic development can be intimidating. There is a reason we don’t see charrettes or mobile workshops or photo contests devoted to topics like “evaluating a local economy’s comparative advantages.” That is because policy discussions with the words “economic” or “economy” are both terrifying and boring at the same time.
Many of us view economic concepts as bewildering abstractions, and rightly so. While economic data is important, who among us gets excited about a planning process that features GDP, location quotients, target industries, employment growth, agglomerations, clusters, mega-regions?
Data Can't Make Decisions for Us
Economic development planning efforts often overlook the importance of public engagement--or fail to effectively engage the public at all. It’s challenging to involve community members in a highly technical and inaccessible process. Yet, engaging community members in economic development planning is crucial. The public plays an important role in developing a common understanding of what a local economy does well, what it has to offer, and what the community needs. Community members are uniquely positioned to provide the most essential ingredients of an economic development strategy; local history, expertise, understanding capabilities, needs, and vision.
The way that we talk about economic development at the outset of a planning process can have a major impact on the type of process we use to develop a strategy, the extent of buy-in and commitment from the community, and the overall effectiveness of the end product. Consider a commonly used definition of economic development:
“Economic development is the process of improving a community’s well-being, through job creation, business growth, and income growth.”
When I share this at meetings with community members and stakeholders, everyone’s attention immediately turns to the “jobs” “business” and “income” and the discussion takes off from there. While these are extremely important indicators that are the key to wealth creation and economic well-being, we risk elevating them to become primary drivers of strategy, rather than measurements of success. We jump into the hard data because it offers a reassuring sense of credibility. But data cannot tell us anything useful about a community’s goals or its determination to achieve a collective vision.
If we rely on economic data to make decisions for us, we risk prolonging (or creating) a sense of powerlessness within our communities. We miss opportunities for true community empowerment.
It's the People, Stupid
At its most fundamental, an economy is a set of behaviors and practices undertaken by…people. The public. That’s you and me and the communities we serve. We are the “economic agents” that make up a local economy and define its values, culture, history, and vision for the future. The economic domain is truly a social domain. Likewise, an economic system is about people and the choices we make, both as individuals and as communities.
Improving the economic well-being of a community starts with engaging and empowering the people that make up the economy.
Communities that integrate community engagement techniques into their economic development planning efforts are better positioned to build an enduring economic development strategy that truly empowers the community and sustains long-lasting success.
A Challenge to Planners
The question for planners and economic development professionals is: how do we make sure the economic development planning process starts with people and maintains a focus on the community?
by Susan Hopkins
As New Yorkers, we cherish our summers. As planners, we know that summer can be a challenging time to engage communities in planning initiatives. We’re competing with summer vacations, festivals, backyard cookouts, and sunny weather. No one wants to sit indoors on a beautiful summer evening. How can we take advantage of summer weather to engage community members in our planning initiatives?
Here are some examples of engagement techniques that take advantage of warm weather and long days!
Host a paddle meeting. Invite participants to experience a waterfront site or trail from a new perspective (i.e. from the water itself). Give community members the chance to experience the water, learn about waterfront access, redevelopment, and think in new ways about future opportunities. Kayaks, stand-up paddle boards (SUPs), and canoes can offer a low impact and accessible way for people of all paddling abilities to participate.
Lead a bike tour. Help community members experience a trail, connection, or street by bike—for the first time or in a brand new way.
Host a Bike Trolley Pedal Tour. Fifteen people on a giant bike. Need I say more?
Use alternative forms of transportation to engage elderly or disabled community members. Consider including golf carts along with the above techniques to allow less mobile members of the community to participate.
by Tanya Zwahlen
Last month, the Western New York Section of the American Planning Association (APA) awarded
the City of Olean North Union Complete Street Transformation Project with the “Great Places in Western New York: Great Streets” award. We had worked on this project since 2012, and were thrilled receive this honor with our team partners from Mott MacDonald, Architectural Resources and SMA Consulting.
The North Union Complete Street Transformation converted a four-lane automobile-oriented arterial roadway into a two-lane “complete street.” between State Street and Main Street. The new street supports economic vitality, improves the environment with innovative stormwater treatment, and improves mobility, safety, and accessibility for all users. The street formerly had four travel lanes and 15-foot diagonal parking on either side, for a total curb-to-curb width of 82 feet. Wide lanes encouraged speeding, and seven signalized intersections within the project area forced vehicles to either make frequent stops or try to avoid red lights by speeding.
The project includes the following features:
The project offers sustainability benefits in the areas of good repair, economic competitiveness, environmental sustainability, and safety.
State of Good Repair
North Union Street was the primary commercial and entertainment district when Olean became an oil boom town after the Civil War. Many of the downtown buildings date from the late 1800s or early 1900s. The underground infrastructure also dates from this time, and sewer line and water line breaks are common.
North Union Street was last reconstructed in the 1970s. Public infrastructure was in poor condition and beyond its useful life. Numerous pedestrian facilities did not meet Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards. Sidewalks existed, but were generally in poor condition and lacked ADA accessible designs.
To address the poor state of the infrastructure, the North Union Complete Street Transformation included these project objectives:
Large employers and educational and medical institutions supported the project, believing it will create a downtown that will attract students, residents, and visitors, and help employers recruit the most qualified employees. The completed project is now expected to help attract much-needed capital investment to the corridor’s adjacent real estate and attract new businesses and residents to occupy the current vacancies.
In October 2016, Jeff Belt, co-chair of the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council, said, “The project, of course, represents much-needed infrastructure, but it also represents a huge bet on the most effective economic development strategy working today, and that is the creation of a walkable urban place. Just think for a minute of all the wonderful assets of our city — our beautiful hills, our historic downtown, our wonderful neighborhoods. This traffic-calming, walkable streetscape project is going to tie it all together. It’s going to proclaim the unique authenticity of what’s wonderful in our city.”
The North Union Complete Street Transformation was designed to be eligible for Gold Certification under New York State Department of Transportation’s GreenLITES program (Green Leadership In Transportation Environmental Sustainability). Certification is currently pending. GreenLITES recognizes transportation projects and operations based on the extent to which they incorporate sustainable choices.
Environmental benefits of the North Union Complete Street Transformation include these:
With 268 accidents occurring on a 0.6-mile segment of road over a five-year period, the accident rate on North Union Street before the project was 13.48 accidents per million vehicle miles of travel (mvm). That was over 4.6 times greater than the New York State average of 2.92 accidents/mvm for four-lane undivided urban roadways.
By replacing the seven signalized intersections with modern roundabouts to calm traffic and improve safety for pedestrians and drivers, the accident rate is expected to have a significant decrease. Studies in the US and Europe have shown that roundabouts help to reduce all crashes by 37%, fatal crashes by 90%, injury crashes by 75%, and pedestrian crashes by 40% (Washington State DOT). A reduction of this magnitude can save over $520,000 per year in accident related costs.
The community was engaged throughout the conceptual and final design processes with surveys, focus groups, public meetings, and updates to the project website. When City leaders and the public expressed concern about roundabouts, the consultant team arranged site visits to East Aurora and Hamburg. Project Advisory Committee members spoke with municipal representatives about their projects and toured the completed projects. During construction, an extensive community effort was developed to ensure that the public received regular updates on the status of the project and any traffic and/or parking changes. This information was disseminated through different media to try to reach as many residents, businesses and travelers as possible. The major forms of media used included:
A Complete Success... Already!
The North Union Complete Street Transformation has completely changed the look of downtown Olean. Instead of a wide expanse of asphalt, there are now trees, shrubs and flowering perennials lining the street and in the center median. Instead of seven traffic signals creating stop and go traffic with drivers speeding from signal to signal, there are now five roundabouts that slow traffic and create a quieter urban environment. The City has new water service to all the businesses on North Union Street, a stormwater system that has less inflow due to the Green Stormwater Infrastructure that captures much of the street runoff, and efficient LED streetlights that reduce electrical consumption. Bicyclists enjoy using the 6’ wide bicycle lanes, and pedestrians can rest and admire the landscape on the numerous benches placed along the corridor. New businesses are locating to the downtown, and property owners are renovating their buildings. One of the largest employers in the region can still make the shipments that are so important to the economy of the region, and the citizens of Olean can continue the tradition of gathering on the street with their families each year to celebrate the start of the holidays.
The project has transformed the entire community, not just North Union Street. As Mayor William Aiello said at the project ribbon cutting: “The North Union Complete Street Transformation is a complete success.”
Read more about the awards program here.
by Susan Hopkins
Inspiring, exciting, and energizing. That’s how I would characterize my first two weeks at Highland Planning. Long before I came to work here, I found myself impressed by firm’s mission, the team’s passion and energy, and of course, their focus on innovative facilitation and public engagement techniques. I’m still impressed and I’m thrilled to be here.
Here’s the quickie version of my bio: I grew up in Rochester near Cobbs Hill, but spent much of the last 20 years in other places - Colorado, Portland, New Orleans, and Detroit. While living and working in a variety of cities has exposed me to some incredible experiences (and excellent craft beer), I’m excited to be back in my home town where I can put my energy into my own community as well as communities throughout New York State. Highland’s office space on South Clinton Ave is especially fun for me, as it’s just down the street from some of my favorite childhood stomping grounds at Highland Park, Warner Castle, and Mt. Hope Cemetery.
One opportunity I’m most excited about is the chance to unite two of my professional passions: facilitation/engagement and economic development analysis. You might ask how a self-professed data geek who loves technical analysis can also love facilitating meetings and engaging the public? I’ve always felt that the two can (and should) go hand in hand. Both activities have a few things in common: they both involve careful observation, asking good questions, and listening.
I’m excited to be working with the Highland team to expand our capabilities in economic analysis and evaluation—and ultimately help our clients and partners explore socio-economic trends, market and housing dynamics, retail opportunities, fiscal impacts, and other economic factors that can influence a community’s future. I think this is a natural fit with Highland’s expertise in public engagement. A local economy is very much a social realm and it makes sense to me that people should be the focal point of any economic development strategy or project.
Along those lines, I’ll leave you with a question to consider: If we elevate a community’s collective knowledge and expertise to the same level as other economic data points, what kinds of new possibilities will we find that help us create long-lasting prosperity?
If you have an interesting question, a cool idea or collaboration (or just want to geek out over gourmet tea or craft beer) send me an email. In the meantime, here’s to many more inspiring, exciting, and energizing weeks at Highland Planning!
Learn more about our growing capabilities here.
by Tanya Zwahlen
I'm on my way back from the American Planning Association conference in New York right now. By Amtrak train. Which means I've got time to kill. Like seven hours.
I've never been to the national conference. It was amazing. Four days, 6,000 people, and more than 380 sessions. I saw current consultant partners, colleagues I haven't seen in 10 years, and met a lot of people.
I'll share two quick stories...
The first few nights of the conference, I stayed with friends in Brooklyn. I went to four or five sessions and a reception on Saturday night at WSP. Early Sunday morning, I flew home to see my daughter's dance recital. And then flew *back* to New York and arrived at the tail end of the Women in Planning reception at Cornell University's Art, Architecture and Planning space on Broadway. I met a bunch of women and on the way out, took this goofy picture with my friend Beth and "Fearless Girl."
Beth looks adorable and fearless. I look.... extremely tired from flying to Rochester, helping my daughter get dressed for her recital, watching the recital, packing my bag again, flying back to New York, and taking a car to the reception. Right after we took this photo, I went to sleep.
NYC DOT Street Ambassador Program
On Monday, I was at a session called "Participatory Planning in Health and Transportation" at 7:30AM. It was torture to get there on time, but I'm so glad I did. Inbar Kishoni from New York City Department of Transportation (NYC DOT) told us about the Street Ambassadors program for her agency.
In 2015, NYC DOT acknowledged the reality that everyday people have no time to attend public meetings. So they decided to bring their outreach directly to New Yorkers. The Street Ambassador team is a multi-lingual group that set up mobile information stations in locations where DOT projects are being considered or have been implemented to collect ideas and input from the public. In 2016, Street Ambassadors had 32,000 interactions with people related to 82 projects. They did this over 328 individual deployments. This approach created the opportunity for the agency to receive input from actual street users. It also expanded the number of residents engaged.
My Aha Moment
I reflected on our experience with go-to-them strategies. They are effective and efficient. People are appreciative that you care to ask. And 90% of the time, they are responsive. And while you'd think it would take a lot of time and effort, it doesn't. We reach more people than we would with a survey, a public meeting, a focus group.
The take away for me was that the most effective engagement technique is to keep it simple stupid (k.i.s.s.). Go to them. Ten minutes is more than enough time to tell someone about a project and solicit their input.
Here are some of the handouts and games that NYC DOT uses to engage people:
Still not home. Still on the train. It's getting old. But I'm excited to get back and find opportunities to get out in the field for engagement. We will start keeping our stats and report back on our progress. More soon!
by Jen Topa
It brings me pleasure to serve in the role of Street Liaison for the City of Rochester, because the position merges my background in Sales and Marketing with my love of city living. Before taking a job with Highland Planning, I spent eight years working for Automatic Data Processing (ADP) in New York, Cleveland, and then Rochester. Fresh out of college, my sales territory was the Garment District in New York and I soon grew to love the stories that unfolded as I spent my days foot canvassing. And, yes, sweat shops did exist.
Building relationships is my passion, and for the past five years, I have been walking the commercial corridors in the southeast and northwest quadrants of Rochester. Each time I embark on a new area, I am fascinated by the entrepreneurs I meet and their passion for the businesses that they run. There are so many interesting stories within each storefront, and it brings me joy to discover each one.
I focus on informing businesses about the financial assistance programs that the City has to offer and I work with business associations to attract people to their commercial districts. Our goal is to spur investment through grant and loans. Through my work on Show on Monroe, South Clinton Goes Batty and Springtime on Dewey, I have helped to plan events that showcase these vibrant avenues. I also help to organize Clean Sweep, advertising campaigns and small business promotions.
Ultimately, I hope that my work will improve the commercial corridors, occupy all the storefronts, and help businesses thrive. When it is all said and done, I want to have a positive impact on my city.