The first open-to-all step in gathering public input for Tulsa's new comprehensive plan--the first such plan in 30 years--drew hundreds of enthusiastic participants to downtown Tulsa last week. But it also generated a sense of unease and incompleteness, a feeling that something more was needed in order to gather the best grassroots ideas for planning Tulsa's future development.
PLANiTULSA played to a full house at the citywide workshop at the Greenwood Cultural Center on the evening of Sept. 22. A smaller number turned out the following afternoon on the floor of the BOK Center. Between 800 and 900 Tulsans marked up about 100 city maps.
Each table was to figure out where and how to accommodate 100,000 more people and 42,000 more jobs over the course of the next 20 years. Those are big numbers, but demographers say that's how much bigger Tulsa will get if it grows at the same rate as the metro area as a whole.
Over the course of about two hours, participants stuck stickers, drew lines around areas that don't need to be developed or redeveloped, and drew in new roads and transit lines.
Each sticker represented 75 acres worth of typical Tulsa development types like "strip center," "business park," "residential subdivision," "commercial center," and "light industry," along with what planner John Fregonese called "new crayons in your coloring box" -- development types that aren't used for new development here, such as "urban neighborhood," "transit oriented development," "village," and "main street."
Each table began by picking one of four packets representing a certain development approach. Ranked from least to most dense, the packets were labeled "Trend," "Economic Development," "Neighborhood Empowerment," and "Retaining Youth." Each packet had a different combination of stickers that added up to the projected 20-year growth in households and jobs.
There was a special instruction with the "Trend" packet--only 40 percent of the stickers could be placed within Tulsa's city limits. If development trends continue, Tulsa will grow much more slowly than its suburbs.
Over the course of the exercise, you could swap one or more stickers from your packet for different stickers that would accommodate approximately the same number of households and jobs.
Following the mapmaking exercise, participants from a random selection of the tables briefly presented their ideas and rationale to the rest of the room. Monday night's crowd responded with cheers and applause to the ideas they liked best (but never any boos). Tuesday afternoon's bunch was more subdued, perhaps a response to the cavernous emptiness of the BOK Center, perhaps a function of the time of day.
I served as a facilitator Monday night and returned the following day as a participant. I would like to be able to give a 100 percent enthusiastic report about the workshops, and although there was much to like about the events, I found the process frustrating and have some concerns about whether we'll get value out of the workshop maps on par with the effort and heart that the participants put into making them.
I've heard similar reactions from planning-savvy friends who started out enthusiastic about the process but came out feeling worried or let down. One friend said he wanted a "do-over." The third workshop on the evening of Oct. 28 may fill up with previous participants who'd like to try again, this time with a clearer idea of what they want to get on the map.
(To sign up for that workshop, visit PLANiTULSA.org or phone 576-5684.)
Here are some observations -- some mine, some from other participants:
The group dynamics at some tables weren't conducive to brainstorming. Some participants wanted to debate the placement of every sticker. Others had hundreds of questions. Some veered off into lengthy digressions.
A good facilitator might have intervened to keep the conversation moving, but some facilitators took their neutrality mandate as a requirement to become absolutely passive.
Some tables had people there who just came to see what it was all about. Tables with too few active participants had fewer brains available for brainstorming.
It was hard to develop a plan covering the whole city if a table's experience only covered part of it. Our table's placement of stickers in west Tulsa shouldn't be given too much weight, as no one at our table knew the west side very well.
The most vivid ideas seemed to come from tables that ignored the rules. Instead of trying to fit all the stickers in their packet, they concentrated on recording the planning ideas that were foremost in their minds, whether expressed as development types on a map or as a few phrases in the comments box.
Swapping stickers was complicated. A few examples of valid swaps were provided but not enough. Both the table where I facilitated and the table in which I participated looked for ways to reduce the acreage required for household and job growth.
The second day I came prepared with a spreadsheet on my smartphone, so that I could quickly calculate the number of jobs and households that a given set of stickers represented. Even with the technological help it was tough to get the balance right.
There were worries about how the maps would be interpreted. Tables had different ideas about the meaning of each kind of development represented on the stickers. The distinctions between types of development weren't always clear; for example, "village" vs. "urban" vs. "urban neighborhood."
It helped on Day Two to hear one of the planners explain that putting a sticker on an existing area would be interpreted not as wholesale scraping and redevelopment, but as cautious infill with the type of development on the sticker.
That leads to the realization that a 75-acre tract of urban neighborhood is going to result in fewer new households and jobs if it's infill in an existing neighborhood rather than new development on a hayfield.
After the Tuesday session, I asked a member of the planning team what would happen with the maps. I knew that the maps would inform the creation of development scenarios, but it wasn't clear just how that would work. I was told that the input would be "digitized," which I took to mean that each sticker on a map would be turned into a data point in a GIS database.
I came away from the conversation with the idea that they'd be looking to see how frequently a development type occurred in a given location, which bugged me. I heard ideas from other tables that I wished I could support, but it was too late to add them to our map.
Another worrisome thought emerged: What if a sticker that our table intended in one way is interpreted as something completely abhorrent to us?
There were different levels of care in the way stickers were placed, even on the same table's map. The stickers placed early in the exercise were much more carefully considered than those slapped on when we were trying to use up the stickers in the last five minutes, but the planner analyzing the map won't know the difference.
There were some concerns about out-of-towners participating. At my Monday night table, we had a Broken Arrow resident who owns rent houses near Woodland Hills Mall and works for a major Tulsa construction company. Should his input count as much as that of someone who lives in Tulsa? And how could you distinguish between his idea and that of someone else at the same table?
And what will happen with ideas, principles, explanations, and general comments that we scribbled in the corner of the map or on the map itself? Will my idea of a homeless shelter (I mean, "apartment building") at 41st and Lewis make it through to the next round?
We're still waiting for the planning team to post the comments and full data from Collective Strength's in-depth interviews and survey, promised over a month ago. Will the workshop comments also vanish into the ether?
The point of the map exercise is to capture the knowledge Tulsans have about the places where they live, work, worship, and play. While the map exercise was a good way to get a lot of ideas on paper quickly, its shortcomings are great enough that we need to be able expand and refine the mapping results.
I want the chance to cast my vote for ideas that were on other maps.
I want the chance to get specific about what we meant by the way we placed our stickers and drew our lines.
I want the opportunity to have give and take with my fellow Tulsans about competing ideas for specific locations.
I want to have the same kind of give and take about the pros and cons of overall development approaches and specific development strategies.
I want to be able to register ideas that I didn't think of during the two hours we had to mark up our maps.
With Web 2.0 technologies, I think there's a way to make this happen, mashing together aspects of Google Maps, Flickr, Wikipedia, and discussion forums.
You'd click on a map and see the various ideas for that area of town. There would be thumbnails of images from Flickr that are geotagged to that location. Elsewhere on the page, you can see the satellite and street views.
You could drill down a level to read and offer comments on a specific idea. There would also be a topic, opened for comments, for each of the verbal ideas written on the map.
You'd also have the ability to offer a simple thumbs-up or down, or perhaps a ranking from -3 to +3, on each idea.
If you have an idea that wasn't on any of the maps, you'd be able to open a new topic.
Putting together this sort of website and managing the public input once it's up and running will be a challenge. Requiring participants to register and comment under their real names would be a way to encourage politeness and care.
Users could add personal details to their profile to explain where they're coming from. For example, I would explain that I grew up in far east Tulsa, went to school in Midtown and south Tulsa, lived in Brookside for about five years, and have lived near 21st and Yale for 15 years.
This would give readers a way to evaluate the credibility behind a comment. Someone commenting on, say, Pine and Peoria would be able to let you know whether she lives, works, or owns property in the area.
This online, ongoing planning workshop would be available 24/7. There's a problem with that: When you're able to do something "anytime," you tend to put it off for more urgent demands. It could help to have some designated periods for more intense give-and-take, when more people are likely to be online, participating, and when planning team members would be available for live online chat.
The mapping exercise was a great way to generate a lot of ideas in a short period of time. But many Tulsans would like the chance to elaborate, explain, and expand on those ideas before the planning consultants take them and run with them.
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