Technology and Planning: A Good Partnership

By Jeremy Németh, PhD

This post presents a project just completed by students in the professional Master of Urban and Regional Planning (MURP) program at UC Denver. Our aim as faculty is to provide graduates the skills, knowledge and expertise to become not only good planners, but leaders in the profession. Our approach is twofold: we introduce students to the newest planning theories and methods, and we have students work on real projects with real impact on real Metro area communities.

This fall, I introduced a four-week module in my 60-student introductory Planning Methods I course. The question motivating the module was how recent advances in open source data, mobile technologies, internet-based platforms, and user-generated mapping and visualization softwares affect everyday planning tasks like data collection and analysis and public consultation and participation. Local practitioners at the forefront of this technological revolution presented their work each week to students, and it was easy to find candidates: the Denver-Boulder area is the epicenter of such activity.

Working with the Public Realm Committee of the Downtown Denver Partnership, we asked students to identify eight streetscape elements on designated “Priority Streets” in Downtown Denver. These streets were laid out in the Pedestrian Priority Zone (PPZ) document produced as a follow-up to the Downtown Area Plan. By adding photos to each element, public agencies and the Partnership, this mapping exercise would add a 3-D dimension to the PPZ document. This exercise resulted in a baseline inventory for future pedestrian planning efforts in the district.

Teams of students collected data using 3G Smartphones (iPhones, Androids), traditional GPS receivers, paper maps and GPS-enabled digital cameras and evaluated each method on a set of criteria. They found that Smartphones worked best for this quick collection and analysis effort for three reasons1:

  • Efficiency: Full-time 3G web access enables immediate upload of data as they are collected. Although 95% of students had no prior experience, they learned the protocol and collected 2200+ data points in an afternoon or two,
  • Accuracy: In high-density city centers, where traditional GPS devices fail to function due to limited satellite access, Smartphones do not need overhead clearance since they geolocate by bouncing signals off cell towers.
  • Multifunctionality: Smartphones are telephones, making it easier to communicate with fellow group or technical team members.

Former MURP student Michael Hinke of Decision Support Resources built a fantastic interactive website (http://denverurbaninventory.org) that presents the results of the students’ data collection efforts and provides links to collected databases. Visitors can download shapefiles and kml  files too; the goal is to disseminate the data as widely as possible, because we all benefit from a better understanding of our city.

1 This is a topic about which I have written in the past, as I have worked on a similar Smartphone data collection/analysis effort in New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

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Jeremy Németh, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Planning and Design and the Director of the Master of Urban Design (MUD) program at the University of Colorado Denver, where his teaching and research focus on the design, management and politics of public space.

By | 2011-02-06T08:36:07+00:00 February 6, 2011|Categories: Technology, Urban Design|1 Comment

One Comment

  1. dave February 6, 2011 at 10:32 am

    this is great. i have been working on an iphone app for bike commuters in denver and the city’s public GIS data has been invaluable. they have a complete inventory of bike racks, trails, etc. it would be great if there were a central repository where people could add their own data.

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