With the rapid rate of development in North Texas, planners are focused on how to better engage with the public around new potential projects, how to get meaningful information from stakeholders, and how to maximize outreach throughout entire communities, while managing complex content creation and approval workflows.
Traditional project planning, alternatives analysis, and environmental review documents and processes can be highly technical and dense. To date, this process has mainly involved volumes of hard copies, maps, tables, and pdfs that can be daunting to cull through. They often rely on static and historical data that may not represent a community’s diversity. These approaches can fail to take advantage of new sources of data and common digital tools, resulting in final project formats that are time-intensive and difficult for community and agency stakeholders to navigate, let alone meaningfully participate and understand.
When sifting through hard copies of plans, members of the public and impacted stakeholder groups typically have to flip through thousands of pages of text and maps at a local library, even having to schedule reservations in advance more recently due to COVID restrictions. Under these circumstances, it becomes increasingly difficult to reach all relevant community stakeholders.
However, this is a critical step in the planning process, providing communities the ability to review and comment on project alternatives and potential impacts. Simplifying digital access and resources can change the trajectory for public and community engagement, making it more accessible to all involved. Digital planning, design, and engineering allow planners, decision-makers, and community members to quickly and more fully understand complex and interrelated development challenges while making it easier for different groups to work together throughout the entire process.
AECOM has experienced this firsthand and devised a solution to streamline the typical paper-based planning process called PlanEngage. The digital platform allows teams to create, edit and publish project information on a single interactive platform. This includes photos, visualizations, sound demonstrations, videos, project dashboards, models and narrative, all of which is easily shared through any device so stakeholders can view scaled and formatted content to fit their devices, including smartphones for those with limited broadband and PC accessibility, as well as options for third-party language translation and browser screen readers to help visually impaired users hear the content. In addition, the platform has built-in feedback capture and reporting, which supports communication consistency, enhanced collaboration, regulatory compliance, improved accessibility and social license.
In fact, AECOM’s interactive PlanEngage platform was used to develop the first fully digital interactive Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in the U.S. in December 2020 by the United States (US) Department of the Treasury, Bureau of Engraving and Printing and US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Baltimore District. This was followed in July 2021 by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) publishing the first interactive EIS on a transportation project in the U.S.
In the past, stakeholders with specific concerns or questions would have to wade through hundreds of pages of maps to see how their home, their park, their business may be impacted in the EIS reports, but in the digital realm, the entirety of the official planning document is interactive, with interactive maps associated with each section (air quality, water quality, etc.), allowing readers to zoom in and out of maps and click through layers of information, specific to that view. Now instead of reading hundreds of pages of a report, readers are able to search for their address to easily see their nearby impacts. This highly technical information is provided in an easily accessible and user-friendly format which is imperative when working to build more meaningful, equitable engagement with the community.
Another benefit of these agencies was the ability to eliminate guesswork for those evaluating the data and comments from stakeholders. Readers were able to comment on any specific part of the text, geographic area, or project alternative while reading the document so the practitioners evaluating the report weren’t left with questions such as – “what did this commenter really mean?”
Real-time comments also enable developers to track how and where project information is received by the public for their specific project. Using the more traditional method of communication and data analysis, you may only be able to discern the number of stakeholders who attended a public meeting or submitted a comment on the report, whereas now you would be able to document how many people are accessing the project website and where they are located using a fully interactive digital platform.
Incorporating digital access and resources into the planning process allows for improved community engagement for a variety of projects from EISs and planning studies to agency guidelines and reporting construction compliance. More transparent and equitable engagement starts with making improvements in user accessibility to project information for stakeholders, agencies, and the public, facilitating developers and projects that result in a better world.
Erin Lee is an associate vice president based in AECOM’s Dallas office.