Get involved! Participation is vital (and fun)

When thinking about participatory planning, Janelle Chan (LF ‘16) recommends “starting with a basic knowledge” of problems, threats, and opportunities in your community. In a conversation over coffee, Janelle and I discussed the importance of community and culture and what actions are necessary to transform urban communities in the 21st century. Janelle is the acting executive director at Asian Community Development Corporation and a community advocate with experience in participatory urban planning. She directly manages the Participatory Chinatown project and all other community planning work, including the youth leadership development program A-VOYCE.

Participatory Chinatown is a 3-D immersive game designed to be part of the master planning process for Boston's Chinatown. Users of the game are locals, ranging in age and English language proficiency, and each person assumes the role of one of 15 avatars (electronic characters), which is a technique used by role-playing games to allow interaction between virtual representations of humans and their computer generated, real-life-emulating surroundings. The big idea here is that through an immersive virtual environment, residents gain a sense of membership in planning change in their community by inserting their values or priorities (finding a job, housing or place to socialize) into the game through an avatar. Because of Janelle's breadth of experience, I wanted to learn more from her about methods to increase involvement–especially by using video game simulation for planning–and apply lessons from Chinatown to other neighborhoods.

As I think about neighborhood vibes in Boston, immediately Chinatown comes to mind: community elders huddled around games of mahjong, sounds of laughter and collegial banter beneath the landmark gate at the intersection of Beach Street and Surface Artery. Through the gate is a resilient neighborhood adjusting to transit oriented development. In a place that relies heavily on getting everyone involved, Janelle’s Participatory Chinatown project responds with ingenuity to the inevitable change brought by urban economic development because “Chinatown has always been a place that changes.”

When dealing with these disruptive transformations, “try something new, and get people involved who are not typically involved,” explained Janelle; who gets involved is just as important as how you get people involved. Getting multiple generations (and their values) in the same room is difficult and often must occur without community leaders taking a Community Organizing 101 course. Of course, bridging the gap in communication (language, technology and design intent) is not a challenge unique to Chinatown. On the question of these types of challenges, Janelle says, the youth in the community are “a bridge to those whom we have not been able to accommodate for whatever reason. They bring in their families to the planning process.”

Working families in Chinatown benefit from active youth participation because English translation is important, and valuing youth as vital citizens breaks from cultural hierarchies. It seems the process of creating the video game was a type of language that empowered youth from the beginning. In fact, young people interviewed residents and gathered data to develop the personalities of the virtual residents. In all aspects of the game, the youth influence is palpable, because those who participated took pictures of building facades, which were then overlaid with 3D models and massing. Janelle says that Participatory Chinatown empowered youth to set an example for all citizens to “learn more about their neighborhood,” and “start seeing things from a planner's point of view.”

In the context of community engagement methods, participatory planning is a nearly century old concept, pioneered by Patrick Geddes in the early 20th Century. His work was based on the fundamental principle of place, work and people being closely related. He saw social processes as key to improving urban planning because sociology is the science of the natural environment with humankind. Just as important then as it is now is providing information to communities, which eases fears of gentrification and other concerns stemming from economic development. Because participatory planning is a highly sensitive process, it is important to establish reflexive working sessions.

Stepping back from my training as an architect and urban designer, I realize that renderings and other imagery are useful to educate locals on the breadth of opportunities for change. On the other hand, the display of information triggers skepticism in some residents, oftentimes to the untrained eye. Therefore, relying on an advocate or someone to lead the process of distilling information on behalf the general population is crucial. Recognizing this, Janelle says the Participatory Chinatown project creates “things specific to our community, informed by local leaders, local experts and residents who work here and play here,” and the video game served as an “aggregation of all of those values, which lead to rich conversations.”

Participatory Chinatown, with its avatars and active role-playing exercises, achieved effective communication among participants and noticeably brought out more empathy in planning meetings. Muzzy Lane provided the software platform for the project, made stronger in collaboration with Eric Gordon, assistant professor and founding director of the Engagement Game Lab at Emerson College. The Engagement Game Lab previously incorporated video game simulations in the development of Allston-Brighton in conjunction with the Office of Urban Mechanics. My previous studies indicated that there is value in gaming technology when modeling building information, and my conversation with Janelle confirmed the effectiveness of gaming technology as an immersion tool. However, tailoring technology meant for entertainment to the urban planning process is challenging. Emphasis on accuracy, authenticity, and relatability in a simulated environment is necessary because this method of participatory planning is transformational. In general, changing the way people think about their own neighborhoods through video games must reflect how people are currently interacting with each other.

Janelle encourages community-based planning participants to take time before and during the planning process to understand social processes. I asked her if particular attention to Chinese culture, and the specificity of social processes therein was necessary in Participatory Chinatown. “Not necessarily,” she says. “It is important to understand interpersonal exchange.” These interpersonal exchanges in the game “help people be a little more empathetic, instead of assuming what another person is thinking before the meeting happens,” Janelle explains. Whether in town hall meetings or design charrettes, interpersonal exchange governs the productivity of the planning process. In this case, technology was used to break down communication barriers and tailor the experience of the planning process to the concerns of the constituents.

“The thing about Chinatown,” Janelle said, “is that whatever is in the game has to be around an issue that is pertinent, relevant, and timely to that community.” Not unique to Chinatown are sentiments of citizens being ignored, especially when attempting to lend their voices to developers. Oftentimes when community members feel that they do not matter, they do not participate. When participation declines, one of the biggest barriers to many communities is paying for someone to advocate on their behalf, thus communities without access to financial resources remain vulnerable to the negative effects of development, like displacement and lack of affordability.

Overall, in my search to find out whether engaging communities through technology can propel other neighborhoods forward, I gained insight through Participatory Chinatown about the importance of embracing community spirit, fueled by collaboration and built through empathy. Putting thoughts into action is difficult. The sentiment that people love their homes collides with the inevitability of change. Socially responsible change requires that “at a certain point, you must act,” and the next generation of city builders, thinkers, and doers must deftly engage everyone in the planning process in their own neighborhoods.

Photo of Chinatown Gate courtesy of Paifang via Wikipedia
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