Communities can enhance local planning and zoning using the Internet

Advances in Internet technology and accessibility provide an excellent opportunity for land use officials to make planning and zoning information more available, and increase the number of citizens engaged in planning decisions.

Most Michigan communities use websites in some form to post planning and zoning information. But just how should local planning commissions use the Internet? What are the opportunities to more effectively use this technology to enhance planning?

Those questions were recently posed to Harry Burkholder, community planner, and Jim Muratzki, technology director, both with the Land Information Access Association in Traverse City, Mich. They were interviewed as part of the Planners Moments video series, 15-minute DVDs produced for northwest Michigan planning commissions.

Adults now use government websites very commonly.  A 2010 Pew Research Center survey indicated that 82 percent of adults access government websites to get information, and 31 percent use blogs, social networking sites, online video, email and text alerts to keep informed about government.

Because residents now expect governmental information to be available online, Burkholder and Muratzki recommend that at a minimum, planning commissions should post, in printable form, their master plan and zoning ordinance, zoning and future land use maps, staff and planning commission contact information, and a meeting schedule. County planning commissions have a special opportunity to aggregate that information into a one-stop shop for accessing planning information in their area.

There are many ways a planning commission can use the Internet in engaging ways, beyond just providing printable documents.  Some communities, for example, publish their plans on the web in a more intuitive way, so that users can easily explore the information and jump from topic to topic.  Others incorporate video clips to tell stories or explain a planning process.

The web and social media are excellent tools to increase the number of residents engaged in planning processes. Some Michigan communities use websites, Facebook, and Twitter to solicit comments and suggestions.  A Traverse City-area Corridors Study used crowd sourcing to identify and map issues and opportunities along the city’s corridors. Emerging technology could also facilitate virtual meetings to engage residents wherever they are, including the possibility of using cell phones to submit opinions in real time.

Burkholder and Muratzki caution that using the Internet to disseminate information and gain feedback is only one of many methods. These techniques don’t necessarily change the way people interact with government, rather they increase the number that participate. They also recommend that planning staff members be involved in decisions about using these tools, and that time is allocated for that function.  It is essential that web-based planning information is kept up to date.

Developing high-quality, useful governmental websites requires professional design assistance.  Costs for a new site are approximately $3,000 - $15,000 depending on complexity and features. Once the design is completed, today’s content management systems make it easy for non-technical staff to add and update information.

The Northwest Michigan Planners Moments video series is sponsored by Michigan State University Extension and the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments (NWMCOG). For more information about program, contact NWMCOG at 231-929-5000.

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