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Enhancing Neighborhood Livability
Enhancing Neighborhood Livability

In the video game SimCity, players have control over the development of imaginary cities. In reality, taking part in city planning and development requires citizens participate in the process by voting, attending council meetings, joining neighborhood associations, and so on.

At PSU, researchers and cartographers including the Institute for Sustainable Solutions’ (ISS) Dr. Rebecca McLain are introducing a novel way to participate in the process of planning the city’s future. As a part of the Institute’s Sustainable Neighborhoods Initiative, Dr. McLain is taking the SimCity-like approach of asking community members where on a map of their neighborhood they believe improvements to infrastructure and other city services are needed.

Two innovative community-based participatory mapping (CBPM) pilot projects led by Dr. McLain aim to demonstrate the advantages of using CBPM as a tool for increasing community involvement in planning and development, particularly in underrepresented populations. As well as facilitating civic participation, the projects will exhibit how CBPM can support the city’s social and environmental policy objectives and provide public officials a blueprint of how to implement CBPM in neighborhoods citywide. Both projects are funded by ISS and are part of the Portland Climate Action Collaborative between the Institute and the city’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.

“We’re seeing increased interest in and need for CBPM in Portland,” Dr. McLain said. “PSU has the resources and expertise to meet that need.”

One of the two projects is taking place in Northeast Portland’s Cully Neighborhood. There, Living Cully, a community organization, had identified barriers to safe access to parks for pedestrians and cyclists. To safely navigate around those barriers, the community wanted to develop a “way-finding” system of street signs marking safe routes for people walking or biking.

The project began when students in a community-based GIS course taught by Associate Professor Vivek Shandas created a “virtual tour” of the neighborhood on Google Earth to provide community members a sense of where barriers existed in relation to parks and greenspaces. Keven Donohue, a graduate student on Dr. McLain’s team, created table-sized maps of the neighborhood that were later used during a workshop designed to help residents locate the best locations to test the efficacy of way-finding signs.

“At the local level,” Dr. McLain said, “the Cully mapping project turned data provided by Living Cully and the community at large into maps residents are using to bring positive changes to their neighborhood by advocating for improvements to Cully’s bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. The project also showed that the needs of the Cully community are in line with the city’s plan to reduce carbon emissions by encouraging residents to take more trips by foot and bicycle.”

To help the city implement similar CBPM projects in the future, Dr. McLain’s team is using the knowledge they gained while working with Living Cully to develop a “how to” manual they will present to officials.

The second pilot project is located in East Portland’s Lents Neighborhood. There a community organization called Livable Lents is asking residents what they like about their neighborhood and what they think would make Lents a better place to live.

Again, students from Dr. Shandas’ GIS course were involved. Graduate students Adam Burnell and Katie Selin, who have joined Dr. McLain’s team, incorporated a Google Map component into Livable Lents’ survey, which added more layers of information to results collected online. Survey respondents can now pinpoint locations they enjoy within their neighborhood as well as those they think need improvements on a map Livable Lents can use as they lobby for the community.

“The data Livable Lents collects is a reflection of the community’s priorities,” Dr. McLain said. “When you map those priorities you can see the neighborhood from their perspective. You can see that a road needs improvement here. That it’s hard to access a park there. And that there is no place to buy healthy food within walking distance of these streets. When you layer that with census data you get a more complete understanding of the community and the issues important to it.”

Dr. McLain’s team worked with the community group to refine survey questions, improving the quality of data collected. They enlisted language experts at PSU to translate the survey into Russian, Vietnamese, and Spanish to increase community participation. The team is also assisting in efforts to expand Livable Lents’ civic and community partnerships and communicate local priorities to city bureaus as well.

It’s not quite the simulated city planning players of SimCity experience, but CBPM does provide communities a map on which to locate their ideas about how to improve quality of life in their neighborhoods. As a tool available to the city, CBPM can help officials identify specific needs within communities, many of which may align with environmental and social policies that aim to increase the livability of every neighborhood throughout the city.