EnvisionColumbus.org: A Conduit for Alignment & Empathetic Outreach in Community Building
DAVID RUBIN Land Collective
Client: Heritage Fund, The Community Foundation of Bartholomew County
"EnvisionColumbus.org has been an extraordinarily effective tool in facilitating broad public engagement in the development of the new Downtown Strategic Development Plan in this design-rich Indiana community. The beautifully designed and well-used site has demonstrated that new technologies are effective tools for stimulating the voices of a wide range of diverse constituencies, building on traditional citizen meetings and creating new ways to share information and collect public views. This project doesn’t just inform an important planning process for the civic realm, it actively helps strengthen the cohesion of the Columbus community itself."
- 2019 Awards Jury
- DAVID RUBIN Land Collective (Landscape Architect/Lead Design)
- Impart Creative (Web and Graphic Design)
EnvisionColumbus.org is an interactive website designed to facilitate broad public engagement across a wide range of diverse constituencies during the creation of the new Downtown Strategic Development Plan for Columbus, Indiana. The website builds upon the City's legacy of centering the voices of citizens in shaping the City itself. It represents a twenty-first-century approach to the kind of community building and alignment that has defined Columbus's planning history. The website was a critical component in a robust overall strategy, complementing traditional analog exercises that engaged hundreds of citizens during in-person meetings. An inclusive platform for the voices of an expansive and changing citizenry, the site ultimately engaged more than 2,000 survey responses and 15,500 unique views. The site's compelling visual language and intuitive architecture offered an invaluable venue for gathering data and constructive feedback. Taking advantage of modern modes of communication while maintaining a humanist approach, EnvisionColumbus.org represents an essential tool to the planning process, ultimately shaping a final plan that is both beloved by and reflective of its citizenry.
EnvisionColumbus.org is an interactive website that facilitated broad public engagement across a wide range of diverse constituencies during the creation of the new Downtown Strategic Development Plan for Columbus, Indiana. The website builds upon the City's legacy of centering the voices of citizens' in shaping the City itself, and represents a twenty-first-century approach to the kind of community building and alignment that has defined Columbus's planning history. It served as a vital source of information and point of dialogue between the community and the team of urban planners, landscape architects, connectivity experts, and economic advisors working on the plan. Launched in early 2018 as part of a robust overall strategy to democratize the planning process and dialogue with citizenry in a meaningful way, the website was a critical component for public process, complementing traditional analog exercises that engaged hundreds of citizens during in-person meetings. The site proved an invaluable resource in understanding how urban resources were being utilized or neglected, and in identifying the concerns and aspirations of the community.
EnvisionColumbus.org was designed to serve as a communication tool for soliciting input – both measured and emotional – from as many community members as possible. Utilized in concert with on-site, analog engagement exercises – including twelve focus groups, eight steering committee meetings, and four community meetings attended by hundreds of citizens each – the website provided a consistent venue where citizens could participate in the planning process and make their voices heard. As the process progressed, the site served as a platform for dialogue between citizens and planners. Regularly updated with new information, EnvisionColumbus.org offered all community members a role in the decision-making process.
The site aided the planning team in actively listening to how the people of Columbus are using their downtown, their aspirations for its future, and the challenges faced in the context of the downtown core. Promoted through a range of social media platforms, the site provided an opportunity to engage diverse citizenry, especially younger populations that are often under-represented in traditional planning processes. The range of participants using the site's online survey and interactive forum varied widely in age, however the planning team ultimately found that citizens' desires and concerns for their city overlapped even across generations – that the needs and wants of eighteen- to thirty-year-olds coincided with the more senior populations, bringing them into an alignment of interests heretofore not anticipated by City officials.
The planning team understood that the voices of citizens were vital to a successful process, and EnvisionColumbus.org was designed with the aim of ensuring a final plan that would be both beloved by and reflective of the community. To that end, the team built a site that is not only robust with information and opportunities for feedback, but that presents those elements through a beautiful, easy-to-navigate interface that users could access at their convenience throughout the planning process. Balancing compelling visual language and thoughtful explorations for dialogue, EnvisionColumbus.org allowed the planning team to gather qualitative and quantitative information that was essential in shaping the final plan.
Engaging users graphically and verbally, the homepage of the site orients the user to the study area, displaying a map of the City's downtown core, and initially soliciting users by simply clicking on a survey button. The color scheme utilized in the site's design was informed by the project branding grounded in the design history of Columbus and the legacy of Alexander Girard. The graphic identity of EnvisionColumbus.org also draws on imagery of the City's iconic architectural landmarks, all of which are familiar to citizenry, connecting users to Columbus's rich history even as they help shape its future.
The survey created for EnvisionColumbus.org was constructed to gather input from citizens with the understanding that users have limited time and attention spans. The survey collected pertinent and focused data to help the planning team identify how Downtown Columbus is currently utilized, and how it can evolve to better serve its citizens. The survey posed a total of fifteen questions; more than 2,000 citizens responded, spending an average time of a just over fifteen minutes on the exercise with a 100% completion rate. The design team deemed it essential that the website function seamlessly on a variety of hand-held devices, recognizing that nearly 80% of Americans own a smartphone. Statistical feedback demonstrated that approximately 25% of responses to the EnvisionColumbus.org survey were completed through a smartphone device, leveraging citizen participation in providing insight and feedback.
Among the opportunities to engage offered by EnvisionColumbus.org was a forum that asked citizens to write a "love letter" or "break-up note" to Downtown Columbus, including things they love about where they lived, or how it must improve to better serve them. Users could also "like" and therefore elevate each other's letters and notes, providing a higher level understanding of trends in community thinking. In addition to the "like" button, there was also an option to "share" on social media using the hashtag #envisioncolumbus. The amplification through social media assisted in sharing and hearing feedback in unique ways. The combined approach in gathering quantitative and qualitative information ultimately provided data that was both wide-reaching and deep.
The online platform was also an important conduit for sharing the progression of the Strategic Development Plan, allowing citizens to continue to engage and follow developments throughout the process. At the end of the planning process, EnvisionColumbus.org became the home of the final plan, available to be downloaded and accessed by all. Interactive before/after imagery and rendered perspectives not only engage users but also help citizens to visualize specific proposed interventions identified as catalysts for economic and social stimulation. As the final plan proposes multi-scalar strategies, EnvisionColumbus.org continues to be an important communication tool, offering a venue for ongoing sharing and alignment among the community around realizable concepts and future implementation.
Though EnvisionColumbus.org was itself a mechanism for collecting community input during the planning process, it was also an important tool for generating engagement in traditional analog exercises as well. On nearly every page of the website, there was an invitation to engage in person. From the project's kickoff to the final presentation of the plan, an interactive timeline shared when and where citizens could attend public meetings and be involved. In this way, EnvisionColumbus.org aimed not only to engage users virtually but to invite and activate them to take part in the rich range of opportunities to shape their City. As the project reached its conclusion, it was not uncommon for participants representing minority populations to approach the design team to acknowledge the diverse representation of constituency present – a direct result of this public outreach mechanism and previously under-realized in past efforts.
EnvisionColumbus.org created an avenue for long-term engagement, aligning the community throughout the planning process and offering a vision and venue for continued dialogue as the City looks toward implementation. The combined approach of digital and analog interactions in the planning process allowed the design team to reach a wide range of citizens, representing a diversity of generations and communities, including many who may have not participated otherwise. Taking advantage of modern modes of communication while maintaining a humanist approach, EnvisionColumbus.org represents an essential tool to the planning process, ultimately shaping a final plan that is both beloved by and reflective of its citizenry.