In this guest blog post for IDEA New Rochelle, our Vice President of State Programs & Connecticut Director Melissa Kaplan-Macey reflects on her experience visiting the IDEA lab to learn more about our New Rochelle Mayors’ Challenge Project.
A few weeks ago, at the invite of the City of New Rochelle’s Mayor Noam Bramson, I paid a visit to a new coworking space immediately above the New Rochelle Train Station called the IDEA lab, where I was told that there was a project in progress that might interest me.
Upon arrival, I was encouraged to try two technologies that the team had presented in one of its recent public outreach events at the New Rochelle Grand Market. The first was a virtual reality experience where I wore a headset and was instructed to circle parts of a local park I found most valuable. The second technology was an augmented reality game on a smartphone that allowed me to place, view (through my phone screen), and “walk around” a realistic virtual version of a park bench in the space where I was standing.
As an urban planner and policy analyst dedicated to ensuring a sustainable future for the NY Metropolitan region, I was excited see these prototypes and hear more about the team’s plans to use new forms of immersive media (such as augmented reality) to, as they put it: enhance the city planning process by allowing citizens new ways to co-design public spaces with their City, as well as helping citizens better visualize and understand physical projects that have already been approved or in the process of being built.
To understand why, let’s back up a little bit. I work for the Regional Plan Association, an independent, not-for-profit civic organization that conducts research on transportation, land use, housing, good governance and the environment in the New York Metropolitan area. We advise cities, communities and public agencies and advocate for change that will improve the economic health, environmental resiliency and quality of life for all residents of the region. We have released four major regional plans over the course of nearly 100 year history, the most recent of which we published in November of 2017.
Our work on the Fourth Regional Plan began by talking with and listening to people from across the region. What we heard was that people love living here, but they also have some serious concerns: housing is too expensive, commutes can long and unreliable. There is uncertainty surrounding jobs — despite today’s flourishing economy, future growth is far from guaranteed, and the growth we’ve already experienced has failed to lift the standard of living for far too many households. As the destruction of Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy have shown, our region is vulnerable to climate change — residents have raised questions about how prepared we will be for the storms to come.
But the most distressing concern we heard in our initial research was that many people believe these and other problems are just too big to solve. People feel disconnected from the institutions and processes that decide upon and enact the kind of changes we will need to make in our region. As we have written elsewhere, the process for evaluating and approving proposed development projects is time-consuming, expensive, and inefficient. Moreover, it’s inaccessible to most of the people whose lives will be impacted by these plans, especially low-income communities of color.
That’s why I was so excited to learn that the City of New Rochelle, IDEA New Rochelle and the New Rochelle Downtown Business Improvement District are taking an exciting new approach to solve these problems highlighted in our Fourth Plan by developing new immersive technology software that will help residents become more engaged in the planning process, and give local governments a cheaper, more efficient way to solicit feedback from the public on proposed projects. As we state in the Fourth Plan: “Much more needs to be done to expand the scope of engagement formats, including the use of online and social media tools [and] municipalities need more guidance and training on how to effectively communicate and engage with local communities early in the process.” It sounds like this team has been thinking very hard about both of those issues and how to incorporate them into their project, and I’m so excited by the synergy in thought that the RPA has with this group.
As someone who works with a spectrum of communities, I also see how use of these technologies, once developed with larger cities in mind, could benefit many different communities across the tri-state region including smaller cities and suburban towns and I was encouraged to hear that the New Rochelle team is trying to develop a platform that is scalable.
We at RPA believe that it is possible to provide the housing, commercial space, and infrastructure that is needed for all those who want to live here, to achieve greater equity, shared prosperity, better health, and sustainability. However, in order to do this it will be necessary to continue — and intensify — a civic dialogue that breaks through the short-term thinking of the past. Projects like IDEA New Rochelle’s represent promising opportunities for changing the way these public conversations happen, making sure that more people are included and empowered to make meaningful decisions about the infrastructure and development projects in their communities. I’m excited I got an early glance of what’s to come and look forward to staying in touch with the team’s progress moving forward.