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This South Street urban planning project will combine open data with community voices

With grant funding from the Knight Foundation, Edit the City! will make local residents and business owners part of the planning process.

Theatre of Living Arts says: "Yo Philly, wash your hands." (Photo by Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman)

This editorial article is a part of Civic Tech Month of's editorial calendar.

Three researchers are joining forces for Edit the City!, a new urban planning project that will combine open data and insights from community members with a goal to create a more inclusive urban planning experience.

Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman of THINK.urban, Marisa Denker of Connect The Dots and Stephen Larrick of Stae were awarded one of seven grants from the Knight Foundation to work on their project. Edit the City! joins urban planning simulator SIM-PHL as one of three data-focused concepts in Philadelphia to receive the grant funding.

Edit the City! seeks to include small business owners and residents in the vision planning process for the South Street Headhouse District, a nonprofit that facilitates “physical improvements, marketing and promotional initiatives designed to enhance the image and visibility of the business community” within the historic South Philly neighborhood. The initiative will solicit recommendations for changes from the public and result in an open data set of district needs and project ideas. Some of those ideas will also be piloted as “tactical interventions” addressing pedestrianization, COVID-19 safety and anti-racist solidarity, per a press release.

The Edit the City! open data portal will live on the Stae platform and include a landing and overview page, map, and set of visualizations, plus a page for filterable access to the raw data via API or direct download, Larrick told The project will officially launch this fall.

Johnston-Zimmerman is an applied urban anthropologist whose work focuses on human behavior in public space and the relationship between behavior and design. (She was also a 2019 honoree of BBC’s 100 Women list, ranking her alongside climate change activist Greta Thunberg.) Making sure local residents had access to the Edit the City! team was a top priority to her and her two colleagues.

“We wanted to make the engagement incredibly easy no matter where you were coming from,” she said, “whether you were used to using digital tools or walking by on the street. We were about to pop up in a vacant storefront we had a lease for, and allow people to walk in and see what people were saying and let them give their input. Unfortunately, the pandemic but a wrench in that plan, but the Knight Foundation appreciated our approach and output and we were able to adapt.”

While the IRL component is paused for now, the team is brainstorming new ways to engage the public outdoors and in socially distant ways.

South Street artwork advocating for COVID-19 safety. (Photo by Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman)

Denker majored in urban studies at the University of Pennsylvania before completing a Fulbright scholarship in Dublin. With Connect The Dots, she currently works to help build better cities and neighborhoods through inclusive stakeholder engagement.

“Through this project, we will build on our experience while co-creating innovative methods of engaging voices in an inclusive manner and shifting power to those that live, work and play in South Street,” she said. “By having this collaborative process, it could bridge some divides as well.”

As Stae’s city success lead, Larrick has almost a decade of experience as an urban planner and open government advocate, and has worked closely with open data over his career. He explained that creating balance between residents’ local knowledge and official data is a central premise of the Edit the City! and the work it hopes to do. He likened Edit the City! to a Google document where people could collaborate and see changes in real time.

“The title Edit the City! comes from the idea that like how a Google doc tracks changes, you have a data set in edit mode and someone accidentally changes it,” he said. “Sometimes in planning those things are accepted and sometimes they are not. So how can we build that trust? That’s one of the things data can help with, but only if people see themselves in that data. My role is to make sure the software component works in taking feedback and making it into accessible data.”

A South Street business’ message supporting COVID-19 safety. (Photo by Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman)

As a current resident of the Headhouse District, Johnston-Zimmerman hopes that the qualitative information of residents’ life experiences can mesh with the more technical open data. She cites Fabric Row’s history as a Jewish trade section combining with the modernity of African American designer Monica Monique’s Oxymoron Fashion House as an example of South Street’s rich culture.

“What I liked about this neighborhood moving here is the diversity of the businesses,” she said. “I love the mashup of new versus old. It’s this interesting thought process about moving forward.”

The Edit the City! team has plans to scale its work beyond its initial grant and the South Street Headhouse District. Larrick said the platform will publish an API so that its results can be plugged back into a data portal or used with the city’s overall data map. Residents will be able to use the data as a resource and it will be safely backed up into a larger system.

Michael Butler is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.
Companies: Knight Foundation
Series: Civic Tech Month 2020

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