January 16, 2015 Housing Action Coalition

Could Texting be Used to Improve the Public Planning Process?


Cities and innovation are often considered synonymous. But for a variety of reasons, the two fields most responsible for building the cities we live in – urban planning and real estate development – are often late adopters of technological innovation, texting.

What could happen if evolving tech tools were applied to the planning and development of our built environment? A new technology tool has emerged that could disrupt traditional planning process. We have outlined it below.

Note: This is the fourth post in a six-part series. Stay tuned in the coming weeks for profiles of other emerging tech tools that have the potential to impact planning and real estate development practices.

“Textizen”: Gather and Analyze Input Directly from Community Members on a Proposed Development (As Well as From Potential Buyers/Tenants)

Textizen (a mash-up of text + citizen) is a text message survey platform that allows developers and planners to solicit ongoing input directly from stakeholders. Textizen has two primary uses for proposed development projects.

1. Engage more voices in the development process (beyond the usual suspects). Community engagement in some form is an important part of any planning and entitlement approvals for most new development projects. Yet the ability to easily engage community stakeholders is often challenging and costly. Often the process is dominated by the loudest voices or those who are not constrained to attend numerous meetings: evenings, weekends or, especially, weekdays. This excludes many parents, shift workers, and anyone else who has other things to do in their free time than listen to the usual suspects talking (or shouting) past each other. At the end of the “public process,” developers often wonder whether anything meaningful has been learned. Textizen allows developers and planners to engage individuals directly to gather input on new development projects located in their communities. With an overwhelming majority of individuals owning cell phones with texting capabilities, Textizen has the potential to be one of the most accessible and equitable forms of public engagement, allowing those who don’t have time to attend community meetings to have a voice on projects that will have a direct impact on where and how they live. Textizen survey results can also be integrated with online and paper surveys. In addition, Textizen can be used to supplement traditional public outreach techniques (e.g., hold a kick-off workshop and then push ongoing survey questions out to attendees at the workshop that provided their cell phone numbers). Finally, Textizen allows developers and planners to send reminders to project stakeholders about upcoming approval hearings and encourage supporters to text/email a short “public comment” expressing their desire for the project to be approved.

2. Crowdsource market analysis. There’s no substitute for a good market analysis. But Textizen provides developers in the early stages of the development process with an alternative method to test market support for different building uses and even business types. For example, a developer could post a sign on a property they just optioned asking community members to text what uses the community would like to see in the project, or what businesses and services are most needed in that community. This process also provides a low-cost method to create a list of cellphone numbers from project stakeholders, so future surveys or announcements about the project can be pushed out to that list to keep them engaged and solicit their support for the project that they themselves helped shape.

“We’ve designed Textizen for developers and neighbors to connect from the start and stay engaged at all points in the planning and development process, minimizing one-time crises and forging stronger, more connected communities.” – Michelle Lee, CEO of Textizen

Key benefits: 1) Improve the community engagement process by broadening and diversifying participation (reducing the influence of the usual suspects) and 2) Understanding market demand for building uses and even specific commercial tenants prior to a full market analysis (or to confirm an existing market analysis).

Urban planning and real estate development will always be based on face-to-face interactions and personal relationships. For this reason, we don’t believe that the technology tools highlighted above will entirely replace traditional practices. Rather, we believe that these tools can supplement existing practices to leverage the efficiency of established developers and reduces barriers to entry for new developers.

Do you think Textizen could impact the future of urban planning and development? We welcome your ideas and questions in the comments section.

About the Authors

Will Heywood is an SFHAC Business Member and Senior Associate at the San Francisco District Council of the Urban Land Institute. He can be reached at will.heywood@uli.org.

Jeremy Nelson is a SFHAC Business Member and President of REgeneration Strategies, where he advises public and private clients on community revitalization plans and real estate redevelopment projects. He can be reached at jnelson@regenerationplan.com.

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Image credit: http://www.bizingenuity.com/

Housing Action Coalition

The Housing Action Coalition is a member-supported non-profit that advocates for the creation of well designed, well-located housing at all levels of affordability. We believe more housing means more choices and better solutions.

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