Wikiplanning™ is an online system created in 2008 by Ryan-Harris LLC to increase civic engagement in the community planning process. It was designed on the belief that the interactive Web 2.0 technology had the potential to transform the way in which community planning is undertaken.
The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation provided funding for the beta testing of Wikiplanning™, as its promised to meet their goals of increasing social capital and encouraging citizens receive local news and participate in their communities in new ways. Testing in Charlotte, North Carolina attracted almost 700 participants and yielded 20 pages of posted comments about a proposed light rail station. Since then, Wikiplanning™ has been deployed in a wide range of planning projects in communities ranging from a blue-collar, former mill town in North Carolina with a population of just 5,600, to San Jose, California, with over one million citizens.
In Silicon Valley, Wikiplanning™ proved to be an effective way to reach thousands of San Jose residents and employees and gain their input into the 2040 Envision San Jose planning process. During the projects’ initial year and a half, about 600 residents showed up at project workshops, but in four months, Wikiplanning™ attracted almost 5,000 participants, who posted over 100 images, completed 2,784 surveys, and left 240 pages of posted comments.
In San Jose and elsewhere, Wikiplanning™ was launched to simulate a typical public meeting and as a complement to the traditional design charette. To enter the site, participants are asked to sign in with their email address and zip code, which takes them to their community’s “meeting”. There they find an audio and visual welcome by a community leader and an activity guide introduced by the project’s team leader. Activities for participation include online surveys with instantaneous results, a blog or message board, a real time chat room, a mapping exercise, a page where pictures can be posted, and background information including maps, plans, and recorded presentations.
In a typical Wikiplanning™ project, citizen input is easily summarized by noting the occurrence of repeated words and phrases, but participants can read all the comments left by their peers, as can elected leaders, thus allowing a chorus of authentic voices to emerge and persist. The costs of compiling the report are minimal, as is an entire Wikiplanning™ campaign, because the log of comments and the results of the survey are cumulative over time, and written by the participants. Local planners can then use these comments to influence public policy in much the same way that they use citizen input received at traditional public meetings.
As with any public meeting process, the success of Wikiplanning™ is probably best measured by the number of people who participate on-line, their diversity, and by the quality of their input. Available 24/7, Wikiplanning™ gives voice to the silent majority of people who either cannot or will not attend a traditional public meeting. This diverse diverse group potentially includes parents, shift workers, the physically challenged, the elderly, and people who may just have a fear of public speaking. Further, Wikiplanning™ attracts a diverse audience relative to both age and ethnicity. In the San Jose project, only 10% were under the age of 26. Just over 30% fell into the 26-40 age group, 34% were between 41 and 55, and 25% were older than 55. Viewing this same group for ethnicity, 2% were African American, 11% were of mixed race or described their race as other, 13% were Latino, 14% were Asian/ Pacific Islander, and 60% were white.
Achieving this level of diversity was the result of an extensive invitation strategy built on contacts made available through the Steering Committee and City Council members, affinity groups, arts and culture organizations, and through social networking sites. The majority of respondents (88%) reported learning of the Wikiplanning™ effort via an email invitation, through a newsletter or from a friend. Incentives to increase participation were also employed. In San Jose, 106 prizes were donated by 18 local arts and cultural organizations, and randomly awarded to Wikiplanning™ participants throughout the 135-day project. The selection of winners was announced via blast emails to participants, as were postings of updated information on the site, or noteworthy events (like a city council meeting during which an important vote was to be taken).
At the conclusion of the Wikiplanning campaign in San Jose, Lee Butler, a Planner with the City of San Jose reviewed its relative impact in their community planning process, stating “Both the total number and the demographic distribution of participants establish this technology as a very effective outreach tool. The 4,463 participants swamp the total number of distinct participants that we’ve had in our 2+ year process!”
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.