6 Ways to Become Your Own City Planner

October 10, 2014

4:30 pm

The trend is that governments are not only opening up data, but also their urban planning and budgeting processes. Public participation is taking on a whole new look. Local civic advocates are stepping up as collaborators who are well-versed in details once reserved for professionals.

Wait – what?

That’s right. Civic leaders around the country are tackling the normally staid topics of urban planning and traffic engineering on their own terms. I led a discussion about this October 8 at Mobility Lab in Arlington, Virginia. At its regular Lunch at the Lab Meetup, trailblazers in local governance attended and discussed some of the current directions. Here’s an outtake of what we talked about:

Tactical urbanism

Tactical Urbanism refers to small-scale, often unsanctioned, improvements to public spaces. Locally, DoTankDC, has installed street furniture, signs and sidewalk improvements.

mango 4

Another great example comes from New York. A frustrated graphic designer created simple parking signs showing when drivers can park on a street and when they could not. This one time chart replaces three confusing signs.

Parkign sign

Self-organized civic groups

Traditionally, residents get their information from geographically defined neighborhood associations. While this serves a great purpose, this type of delineation can limit how neighborhoods link to the larger region. In the Washington D.C. region, self-organized groups like Ward 3 Vision in D.C. and the Lee Highway Alliance in Arlington formed to better understand and promote livability.

Happy hours

Let’s face it – public meetings are not that much fun. Happy hours are fun. So why not combine the two? Locally, the AWE2 group in Arlington (featured in Mobility Lab’s blog and short for Arlington Women Educating and Empowering) gathers around good food, wine, and policy. In Tampa, Congress for the New Urbanism Tampa Bay and the Urban Charrette host Urbanism on Tap. Anyone up for a city design or civic technology pub crawl?


Games are a great way to reach more people. The app Streetmix lets anyone mix and match the different parts of streets like sidewalks, bike lanes, parking, and streets. The Kickstarter Cards Against Urbanity (which closes October 20 and was featured here in Tech Cocktail) pokes fun at cities while letting everyone in on the jokes (and the story behind creating great cities).

Individual cards 2


Too often, the best research and case studies on city design are locked behind professional paywalls. In response, blogs like Untapped Cities and GreaterGreater Washington, civic fundraising like ioby and new how-to manuals like GreaterPlaces (disclosure: my startup) bring new ideas and stories to the public at large.

Outreach – taking planning to the people

Finally, public meetings are essential, but it’s only a small element of getting planning into the hands of the people. In New York, the Center for Urban Pedagogy deploys the What is Zoning Toolkit (contained in an actual toolkit). In Santa Monica, California, the city mocked up potential street-calming methods using inexpensive landscaping supplies.

So what is the secret? Three things: (1) take planning to the people, (2) make it small and incremental, and (3) make planning fun.

What other examples do you have for bringing planning to the people?

This article was written by Lisa Nisenson. She is co-founder of GreaterPlaces, an urban planning tech startup with the tech incubator 1776; principal of Nisenson Consulting in Arlington, Virginia, specializing in smart growth, comprehensive planning, and water policy; and blogs at Mobility Lab.

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Paul Mackie is communications director at Mobility Lab, a startup that focuses on ways to help people have better commutes than driving alone in their cars.