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Social Media to the Rescue
New online tools are changing how residents of Tuscaloosa, Ala., are planning to rebuild their tornado-stricken city.
By Mike Singer
Andy Grace, a documentary filmmaker who teaches at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, lives two blocks from the path of the deadly April 27 tornado that sliced through his city, killing 46 and destroying nearly 5,000 homes. His home was spared.
Following the storm, Grace and hundreds of his fellow citizens in the town of 83,000 went online to the social media website Tuscaloosa Forward to share their ideas and visions for rebuilding. In less than six weeks, more than 4,000 visitors provided more than 300 ideas in over 8,600 separate site visits. Grace, a leader of the local community garden and produce nonprofit Druid City Garden Project, suggested an urban farm. Other residents suggested increasing biking and walking trails, adopting clean-energy solutions, and repurposing existing buildings. Citizens commented on and rated dozens of similar suggestions, creating a level of public involvement and dialogue that far exceeded what would have been possible through traditional town hall meetings alone.
“There’s something very harried about disasters—you need to talk to lots of people quickly due to trauma and displacement,” says Stephen Hardy, director of planning at BNIM, the architecture firm commissioned to develop a post-tornado rebuilding proposal for Tuscaloosa in only six weeks. “I know of no other mechanism than this new online technology that lets you get so much wide participation in so short a period of time.”
Increasing input and lowering barriers
Online input into Tuscaloosa Forward is grouped by key themes, including housing, neighborhoods, economic development, infrastructure, and sustainability. Big ideas that have gained critical mass include the development of a greenway that runs throughout the city along the path of the storm, affordable and mixed-income housing within connected and preserved neighborhoods, and new village centers with more walking and bike trails.
Design concepts endorsed by the online community gave BNIM, the Kansas City–based AIA 2011 Architecture Firm Award recipient, enough confidence to include them in its master plan. All the online commentary appears as a 600-page appendix to the master plan presented on Aug. 30 to the Tuscaloosa City Council, which unanimously adopted it at its Sept. 7 meeting. The city is now working with the community on detailed plans for the public infrastructure identified in the plan.
“With online participation, we not only captured ideas and organized them around themes, we actually used the online words of city residents to help write the plan,” Hardy says. “And the thing that most surprised me was how the online tools actually improved attendance at the in-person community meetings.”
MindMixer, a 17-month old company based in Omaha, Neb., developed the technology behind the Tuscaloosa website. It now has 40 similar projects nationally, including online town hall meetings for disaster recovery efforts in tornado-ravaged Joplin, Mo. MindMixer’s goal? To increase the amount of community input in the civic-planning process and decrease the costs and barriers to incorporating those ideas. One of those obstacles are the assumptions about who is and who isn’t a social media user. “The perception is we get a lot of 20-to-30 year-olds, yet the demographic across all 40 sites we have developed shows an average age of 49,” says Nick Bowden, cofounder and CEO of MindMixer. “Participants across all the sites we have developed have ranged from 14 to 97.”
Where broadband Internet isn’t readily available, MindMixer offers call-in options as a way to allow all residents to participate. When calling or logging in online, participants provide a level of personal information (age, e-mail, zip code, gender) that ensures authenticity and allows for meaningful aggregated data sorts. Google Translator is now used in new MindMixer sites as a way to accommodate more non-English speakers.
“I held some concerns in a rural state like Alabama, with many older residents, that people wouldn’t go online unless you already participated in social media,” says Grace, a six-year resident of Tuscaloosa. “But the wide amount of participation showed how interested people are in improving the community.”
Own the debate
But while online media can help form and unite communities, they can also create rifts. After an outpouring of positive public empowerment at the beginning of Tuscaloosa’s planning process, tensions have risen. Key business and property owners have spoken out against the proposed plan in recent city council meetings. Some have claimed that plans for sustainable development will come at the cost of private property rights.
For some, time spent dreaming up nontraditional redevelopment plans online is an excuse for more delays and continued loss of business. “People do not understand what the city's direction is,” says Tuscaloosa developer Stan Pate, who owns multiple buildings within the tornado-affected zone. “Dreams are free, but we're sitting out there watching time pass, and it's costing us money.”
This classic tension between rebuilding after a disaster as quickly and simply as possible, and using the opportunity to envision a better and stronger (and possibly very different) community, isn’t lessened by social media tools. However, social media does force this natural conflict to play out much more transparently, allowing more people on each side to take ownership of the debate. In urban planning, where disassociation with one’s built environment is an unparalleled killer of communities on par with any natural disaster, community ownership of whatever is rebuilt is a raw necessity.
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