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Web-based tool allows more citizens to comment on municipal plans on their own time

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July 05, 2012
Mapping process helps leaders visualize results
When it needed to plan future transit routes and stops in Washtenaw County, the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority (The Ride) increased participation and more successfully shared and evaluated people’s ideas using an innovative online community engagement tool, MiCommunity ReMarks from the planning firm of Carlisle/Wortman Associates.
MiCommunity ReMarks uses customized Google technology to let people drag and drop markers onto Web-based maps and add comments and photos to those markers. People attending eight planning sessions over two months used the tool in the sessions. Afterwards, anyone else could go onto the website at any time and add additional places and comments.  Over two months, the site collected 762 comments from hundreds of unique users.
“The MiCommunity ReMarks tool has been a great way for TheRide to gather community feedback quickly and systematically,” said Michael Benham, special assistant for strategic planning. “Because all of our services have a geographic component, the ability to plot comments has been extremely valuable – comments come to us ‘pre-sorted’ by location. It is also nice for those making the comments, because they can see what others have said about the areas they care about.
“Our board really liked it,” he said. “We bombard them with a lot of information. Here they could see, at a glance, on the screen, how many comments we got and where they came from.”
For planners, no plan can succeed without input from the people it affects, yet getting people involved is harder than ever, according to Ben Carlisle of Carlisle/Wortman. The 1995 book “Bowling Alone” by Robert D. Putnam describes the societal and cultural forces that have reduced social engagement over the last 60 years. As the digitally-connected millennials -- Generation Y –marry and start families, they become even more remote just when their opinions about neighborhoods, transportation and community services matter more.
“While younger people may not make time to come to a brainstorming session, we do know they want to express their opinions,” Carlisle said. “MiCommunity ReMarks lets them do it on their own time, using technology that is a part of their everyday lives.”
Carlisle said the tool will also make it easier for seniors, youth, and people with disabilities to participate in community conversations.
The City of Buffalo, NY used the Community Remarks product to develop a new zoning ordinance and, during the process, generated 650 comments a month and 250 Facebook Likes. The City of Rockford, Ill. used the technology to transcribe comments during a live meeting. That not only assured that all comments were registered but also allowed non-attendees to add their opinions immediately. Comments gathered online can be meshed with live comments to create a comprehensive picture of a community. Mapping and classifying topics on a map makes it easier for planners to address residents' opinions as well as preserve the things that are working in their plans.  
Carlisle/Wortman Associates provides a full range of community development services to local governments. This includes land use planning, department and zoning administration, development plan review, code enforcement, economic development, program and department management, grant writing and administration and energy conservation.  Carlisle/Wortman Associates serves only governmental agencies. Based in Ann Arbor, the 24-year-old company also has offices in Clarkston and Mt. Clemens, Mich.  Their web site can be accessed at
Sharlan Douglas, APR at Douglas Communications Group


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