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Researchers Say Making City Planning Into a Game Actually Works

BY Sam Roudman | Friday, March 1 2013

Composite illustration: Nick Judd / TechPresident

Big box store or public park? Business incentives or afterschool programs? Bike lane or more bus stops? City planning decisions affect neighborhoods in profound ways, shaping their character and quality of life for their residents. But while planning departments in cities large and small hold public meetings to get feedback from residents, they only collect opinions from a small sample of a given neighborhood.

“There’s always a segment of folks who aren’t going to participate in a real live meeting,” says Clint Randall, city planner at the Philadelphia City Planning Commission.

But public meetings and focus groups aren’t the only tools at the disposal of planners and communities. For help, some cities are looking to a game. As Boston and Detroit did before them, planners in Philadelphia have turned to an online game called Community PlanIt, developed by the Engagement Game Lab at Emerson College, to augment their planning process.

In Philadelphia, planners are using Community PlanIt to gather information about the city's University/Southwest District as part of Philadelphia2035, the planning commission's long-term zoning project.

“At its most basic, it's essentially a survey mechanism,” says Randall. The three to five week game is divided into three “missions,” each of which includes 12 survey questions or “challenges.”

Players pass through the game by answering survey questions developed by planners and community organizations, and their responses can be seen, “liked,” and commented on by other players (although this commenting feature is rarely used). To compel players through the game, they receive coins for answering challenges, and at the end of each mission can put them towards a local cause of their choice. At the end of the missions, the three causes with the most coins receive real project funding. Causes are a relatively new feature of the game, and so far 6 grants of $500 have been awarded to organizations in Salem, Mass., and in Philadelphia.

Questions in the Philadelphia game range from the open-ended, “What is the single most beautiful sight in the all of the University/Southwest district?” to the specific, like one that asks players to examine a map showing access to healthy food in a neighborhood and comment on its accuracy.

The questions also attempt to build empathy between neighbors. One asks players to consider a 70-year-old grandmother, “Celia,” who is having trouble running errands since stores have closed in her immediate neighborhood. It asks, “If you were Celia, how would you ask the city to make itself more friendly and convenient?”

The question’s 117 responses cover everything from elderly transportation services to incentivizing small stores to open and stay in business.

While players learn about the issues affecting their city or neighborhood, city planners and decision makers can get a wider sense of community opinion on those issues than they had before.

In Philadelphia’s recent game, 921 players signed up, and 426 completed the game’s challenges. Planners say this is bringing in a new cross-section of participants to the planning process.

“Our largest community meeting I think that we’ve had is maybe 160-170 people,” says Randall. The Philadelphia game yielded thousands of comments as well. “We received more comments through the game than we ever do in meetings because of the timeline: people had three straight weeks to think and comment, as opposed to a couple of hours.”

Jennifer Erickson, regional planner at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, is helping run a PlanIt game in the Point neighborhood of Salem, Mass., where 322 players contributed to the game.

“Which is pretty great for a neighborhood of 4,000 people,” she says. Those players left 5,000 comments to sort through.

Salem is using PlanIt as one piece of a project to develop an action plan for the Point in June. The effort also includes focus groups and public meetings.

Community PlanIt grew out of a partnership between the Engagement Game Lab and the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics in Boston, which experiments with new ideas and approaches to city services.

After nine months in development, Community PlanIt was first used in October 2011 in a campaign to engage the public about performance standards for Boston Public Schools.

“The process is you try [a project] locally, and then deploy it to other localities,” says Nigel Jacob, Co-Chair of NUM in Boston. In this sense, Community PlanIt is their model project. After the Boston experiment launched, Community PlanIt won a $675,000 grant from the Knight Foundation. After another six months of development the game deployed to Detroit, Michigan, where it culminated in a meeting attended by 120, and was used to help create a long term plan for the city. The game also hit the city of Quincy, Massachusetts before being deployed in Philadelphia and Salem this year.

Community PlanIt is part of a larger agenda between NUM and the Engagement Game Lab to see what makes civic engagement tick. The two organizations are testing ideas like PlanIt, evaluating the results, and producing reports.

“There are a lot of claims being made, but not a lot of understanding of what’s happening,” says Chris Osgood, the other co-chair of New Urban Mechanics in Boston.

Using online tools to involve people in their communities is not as simple as setting up a network and pressing the engage button. And while it’s not so difficult to measure the success or failure of tools that aim to make government processes more efficient, gauging community engagement or analyzing online interactions requires more than a tally of clicks.

Eric Gordon, director of the Engagement Game Lab and a professor at Emerson College, does interviews with participants to see how Community PlanIt and other tools like it shape their engagement, and the work is yielding insights.

In a blog post on what he learned from the Detroit game, Gordon described what motivated players.

"In Community PlanIt, it was very clear that the extrinsic motivators (points, badges, missions) never replaced the need for existing intrinsic motivations," he wrote. "The desire to learn about and participate in the local community drove use, and the game mechanics simply introduced the possibilities of that use."

Gordon has also dug into the ways in which age affects participation.

“One of the most interesting things we’ve found is how important youth are in a project like this,” says Gordon.

Whereas normal community meetings are generally dominated by adults, Community PlanIt cultivates connections with younger residents. In the Detroit game, for instance, 47 percent of the participants were 18 and under. In addition to using media more creatively than adults in the game (uploading more photos, commenting more, etc.), Gordon found that youth involvement creates more civility amongst adults, since adults believe they need to model behavior to the younger players. Conversely, Gordon found that for the youth, “it legitimized the process that they got to be in a system with adults.”

For cities though, the hope is that Community PlanIt is more than a tool with which to explore the many mysteries of online citizenship. It should inform policy.

“It’s hopefully momentum that we can use to take forward,” says Randall, the city planner from Philadelphia, “not only in the communities but to the decision makers and elected officials.”

This post has been corrected to carry the proper name for Emerson College's Engagement Game Lab. It has also been updated with more recent figures on the number of participants for the "PlanIt" game in Salem, Mass.; an earlier version had a lower tally that was out of date.