Meeting of the Minds took a few moments to talk with Herrie Schalekamp about new working relationships between researchers and paratransit operators in South Africa and beyond. Herrie is the ACET Research Officer at the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Transport Studies. In addition to his research, teaching and consulting in the fields of paratransit and public transport reform he is involved in specialised educational programmes for paratransit operators and government officials. Herrie’s activities form part of a broader endeavour to investigate and contribute to improved public transport operations and regulation in Sub-Saharan African cities under ACET – the African Centre of Excellence for Studies in Public and Non-motorised Transport.
The Potential of Civic Leaders to Leverage Technology
It seems that we are all entrenched in a world full of mobile devices and wireless connections, providing ready access to the digital world. This connection has been said to limit the connectivity we’ve fostered with other people and the community around us. In reality, however, the digital world has opened up a clear pathway to understanding, navigating, and improving our cities in many different ways.
As mentioned in a blog posted on CEOs for Cities’ website titled Digitizing the Public Sphere, our public space has evolved to include the online platforms we use daily. The potential for our civic leaders to leverage this technology is incredible—the hangup is that it has to be intentional to be effective. So many leaders and agencies bemoan the lack of input they get from their constituencies and residents, citing weak attendance at public meetings and involvement by only those angry with the decisions being made. Only soliciting the ideas of residents in an archaic, often confusing (and let’s be serious, boring) meeting in a church basement isn’t always going to get people excited or talking. We need to rethink the ways we reach out, and the potential of the tools both on and off the net.
Change By Us is an online platform designed to foster public engagement through collective imagination, participation, and action. It is just one tool that is being used to connect citizens to their place, but satisfies three very important rules for engagement:
- It finds people where they are
- Users don’t voice their ideas on deaf ears
- It facilitates action
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg demonstrates the intentionality of one leader in utilizing technology for reaching out to his own constituency:
[blockquote align=”left” cite=”Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York City”]The whole idea behind ‘Change By Us’ is that any one of our city’s 8.4 million residents could come up with a great idea to improve our city’s future. And by working together, we can turn those great ideas into action and see the results in our communities and neighborhoods.[/blockquote]
Intention is only one piece of the puzzle, however. We need to examine how this tool is living up to the idea of effective engagement.
It finds people where they are.
With so many people using the Internet today, it is seems far more likely a citizen will lend an idea on a website than head to city hall on a Thursday morning. Change By Us increases citizens’ accessibility by finding them where they already are talking (online), and breaking down barriers to civic engagement by eliminating time and geographic restrictions. It only takes a minute to write your idea and press the send button!
Users don’t voice their ideas on deaf ears.
An important piece of communication is that it involves both a sender and a receiver. Having a group of people excited around improvements to be made in the city is great… but without someone listening that can make those changes the full potential of the platform is left unrealized. Change By Us NYC is run and championed by the Mayor’s office—making the pathway of these ideas to decision-makers vastly closer.
It facilitates action.
There is very little value to a technological tool fostering engagement if that communication ultimately leads to nothing being done. Change By Us not only allows civic leaders to understand the needs and be inspired by the ideas of their residents, but it also serves as a platform for organizing the resources for projects and disseminating grants for citizen-run initiatives. Thanks to Change By Us NYC, more than 2,500 users have directly interfaced with city leaders by submitting suggestions for urban improvements. Building on those suggestions, several-hundred neighborhood projects are now underway. Of those projects, 19 received grants from the City of New York, and 611 volunteers have worked together to make the crowd-sourced suggestions a reality. Ranging from a 1.5-acre community garden in Brownsville to a neighborhood chicken coop in Mott Haven, citizens are actively engaged in projects across all five boroughs.
As mentioned, this tool isn’t the only one of its kind. The increasing desire of civic leaders to digitally connect with their residents has lead to an influx of tech companies engineering these platforms. It is, however, important for these leaders to understand what makes a tool effective, and how they can best use it to serve the needs of their community. The success of Change By Us shows us that meaningful change can be achieved by effective digital engagement, and great ideas are sometimes just a click away.
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Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology
Brownfields are sites that are vacant or underutilized due to environmental contamination, real or imagined. There are brownfields of some kind in virtually every city and town in the U.S., usually related to a gas station, dry cleaner, auto repair shop, car dealership or some other ubiquitous local business that once benefited the community it now burdens with environmental hazards or old buildings.
In addressing this issue, technology has not been effectively deployed to promote redevelopment of these sites and catalyze community revitalization. We find that the question around the use of technology and data in advancing the redevelopment of brownfields is twofold:
How can current and future technology advancements be applied to upgrade existing brownfield modeling tools? And then, how can those modeling tools be used to accelerate transformative, sustainable, and smart redevelopment and community revitalization?
Across the country, urban parks are enjoying a renaissance. Dozens of new parks are being built or restored and cities are being creative about how and where they are located. Space under highways, on old rail infrastructure, reclaimed industrial waterfronts or even landfills are all in play as development pressure on urban land grows along with outdoor recreation needs.
These innovative parks are helping cities face common challenges, from demographic shifts, to global competitiveness to changing climate conditions. Mayors and other city officials are taking a fresh look at parks to improve overall community health and sense of place, strengthen local economies by attracting new investments and creating jobs, help manage storm water run-off, improve air quality, and much more. When we think of city parks holistically, accounting for their full role in communities, they become some of the smartest investments we can make.