Using Web Apps to Create a Culture of Civic Engagement

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Last November, the second annual Open Cities conference was held in Washington D.C. at the headquarters for the American Institute for Architects. Hosted by Next American City with support from the Rockefeller foundation, the conference brought together a group of urban planning and policy practitioners, technologists and public officials to discuss how new media can help local governments and community organizations make cities better.

One of the more exciting projects that was announced was Give a Minute Chicago, an effort by CEOs for Cities that was designed and created by Local Projects, with support from the Chicago Architecture Foundation. The project asks Chicago residents to take a brief moment to contribute their ideas about what would make them walk, bike or ride transit more often. Citizens can submit their ideas online or using a mobile phone. People’s input is creatively displayed on the Give a Minute website, and an analysis of all the input received will be provided to several key local officials. CEO for Cities plans to expand the concept to New York, San Jose and Memphis,Tennessee in the near future.

While Give a Minute is a great example of how organizations and governments can use technology to encourage public participation on important urban issues, it also highlights one of the major challenges regarding civic engagement. As the effort’s name implies, many people aren’t willing to spend more than a few seconds to participate in the public process of democracy. While Give a Minute hopes to start the conversation going, its hard to imagine that cities could ever hope to successful address the issues they face without getting more people actually involved in their community in a more meaningful way. And that might be a challenge beyond technology’s scope.

Recent research on levels of civic engagement of young people—who have overwhelming embraced online tools and technology—has shown that online public participation is most effective among young people who are already civic-minded. Without a pre-existing appreciation and concern for their physical community – today’s youth are more likely to see online communities like Facebook, MySpace and Twittter as a place to talk about Justin Beiber, not sustainable transportation. The takeaway: Even with all these great tools, its important to remember that technology isn’t sufficient to get people to get involved—rather, they need to already understand the importance of being engaged.

Fortunately, the Millennial generation has been recognized for being one of the most civic-minded generations in decades(though there is some dispute that this is only among young people from higher-income backgrounds). The cultural impact of 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hurricane Katrina, the global reach of the Internet, and increasing requirements for volunteerism at a young age have all been cited as contributing factors. Notably absent is the education system, whichhas slowly reduced or eliminated many civics, government and social studies classes in response to shrinking budgets and pressure to improve reading and math scores on standardized tests.

Several organizations and programs thankfully working to fill this void and help introduce young people of all ages and backgrounds to civic and urban issues. UrbanPlan, an educational initiative of the Urban Land Institute, has successfully engaged high school and university students around the country in the dynamics of city planning and urban development through role-playing exercises around urban redevelopment. In New York City, the Salvadori Center for the Built Environment, founded by the late Columbia University professor Mario Salvadori, offers enrichment programs in local public schools that teach students how neighborhoods work and engages then in architectural and urban design projects (while also working to strengthen math and science skills).

Implicit in these programs is the understanding that the young people of today will be the voters and stakeholders of tomorrow. Exposing them to even basic ideas about how a transportation system is planned, how affordable housing is built, and how community services are provided helps create more informed and engaged citizens for the future. Should the next generation fail to share the same interest for civic involvement exhibited by the current generation of young adults, its possible that the great online engagement tools discussed at Open Cities this year could go unused.

This article was written by Christian Madera and originally published on November 15th, 2010 on Next American City - a nonprofit organisation dedicated to promoting socially and environmentally sustainable economic growth in America’s cities.

  • Betterplanning

    Surprised to see no discussion on some of the efforts ongoing in disaster recovery efforts using web apps. Namely, the effort in Tuscaloosa. http://townhall.tuscaloosaforward.com