What image comes to mind when you think of a public consultation? Perhaps residents protesting a change in their backyard? Heated, chaotic debates that end in arguments? Local governments around the world are beginning to explore new ways to run public consultations, inviting residents to participate in the lifecycle of neighbourhood planning projects so that they are engaged at every step of the way. At the Turing, we have been working with Bristol City Council (BCC) to build a pioneering digital tool that is giving residents a unique way of influencing the design of their streets.
The tool is part of BCC’s East Bristol Liveable Neighbourhood project, which is engaging with residents in the Barton Hill, Redfield and St George areas of the city to design streets that are quieter, safer, healthier and more visually appealing. Possible changes up for discussion include introducing pedestrian crossings; protected cycle tracks; small, traffic-free ‘pocket parks’; one-way streets; cycle parking; and even street art. As with other neighbourhood redesign schemes, the changes can offer many advantages for the community, but they can also have drawbacks for certain groups. For example, more protected space for walking, wheeling and cycling may reduce road space for vehicles.
This means that evaluating the potential impact of new street designs requires the expertise of not just traffic engineers and city planners, but also the local residents, who are best placed to understand how the space is used for living, commuting, shopping and general enjoyment. To capture Bristol residents’ needs, BCC launched a process with three phases: co-discover, co-develop, and co-design. First, they collected feedback through online citizen engagement platform Commonplace, and paper surveys, on residents’ current experiences of their neighbourhood, aggregated on a digital map. Second, they invited a diverse group of residents to attend virtual and in-person sessions to learn about the different street design options, and propose ideas based on their priorities. To reach people who may not typically attend public consultations, such as those new to the UK or who don’t speak English as their first language, BCC worked directly with volunteers (‘community champions’) in ethnic minority communities. Third, BCC will now analyse these resident designs and work with traffic engineers to propose two schemes to pilot in East Bristol in 2023.
The BCC team was initially unsure how best to approach the resident co-develop phase. As BCC project manager Sam Kirby puts it, “how do you make transportation planning accessible for the general public?” How could BCC empower residents to design informed schemes that consider not just their own street, but the entire neighbourhood? These holistic schemes would not only create better results in the long run, but have a better chance of receiving funding.
The BCC team found a solution in A/B Street, a project led by Turing Research Associate Dustin Carlino. This interactive web tool allows anyone to visualise how small street changes, such as redirecting car traffic from certain residential streets, will affect the route options of cyclists, pedestrians and drivers. In other words, it provides a shared canvas for residents, planners and policy makers to suggest, discuss and evaluate street designs. With a similar look and feel to other mapping apps, A/B Street can make creating a street design as easy as planning a route on Google Maps. Beyond usability, the tool’s map-based interface also helps BCC to answer questions that it has struggled to answer in the past, such as “where will traffic divert if we make a change on this street?”.
One of the most important aspects of A/B Street is its status as an open software project. This means that BCC planners don’t have to spend thousands of pounds on proprietary modelling and design tools, and also allows any member of the public to access the tool (and source code) for free. This commitment to openness goes far beyond open access, though: throughout the development of A/B Street, Carlino has openly documented the tool’s progress and invited hundreds of people from around the world to use and contribute to the project. As these collaborations progress, users like BCC are able to request new features, co-developing the tool for months before it is deployed with residents. BCC’s feedback has led to a tool that will benefit other city councils interested in launching similar initiatives.
Today, the A/B Street team is working with planners and residents on street-design projects in places as varied as Islington, Taipei and Seattle. Through this collaboration with Bristol City Council, the Turing team has created a tool that embeds public participation in street design practice and accelerates the impact of open planning tools across the UK and beyond.
Top image: Matthias Schulz / Shutterstock