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Tips to Design for Public Engagement

In my previous post, Designing to Connect Communities, I explained why content visualization is useful for communicating complex ideas. Today, I want to share three basic tips of creating a good content design and some examples from Nspiregreen’s projects. These tips may be useful when designing a PowerPoint presentation, a poster, or any other document to communicate your ideas more effectively.

Consider the audience

When we do outreach in the District of Columbia and other cities, we expect to engage people from a variety of backgrounds, education levels, and even languages. Therefore, we know that we need to focus on using simple and non-technical terms, as well as graphics to explain complex transportation and environmental concepts. If, on the other hand, we are preparing an internal document for a client, we use more technical language while at the same time maintaining a visually appealing design.

Below are different versions of a poster we created for the Rock Creek East II Livability study.  Within the study area there are a large community of Amharic and Spanish speakers. We designed a poster in English, Spanish, and Amharic.

Figures 1- Considering the Audience

Use images instead of text

Images are a universal language that can facilitate communication (you can read more about this in my previous post). When we work with communities, we not only use simple, non-technical words to explain a concept, but we create diagrams, illustrations, graphs and figures that help the reader to better and faster understand the ideas we want them to understand. Our aim is to reduce the amount of words used to describe a process or other ideas.

When I am in the process of designing a poster, I take some time to get inspiration. I do this by searching for design ideas on Google or Pinterest, including how to create an appealing process diagram or illustration that could help summarize an idea. There are many online resources of free or low costs images, icons, and illustrations.

Here is an example of a board we created for a public meeting for the DC Stormwater Plan, where we reduced the text to the minimum, and we used icons and graphics to support a list of action items.

Figures 2 - Use images instead of text

Choose the colors carefully

There is a fine line between a nice design and a document that looks like a piñata. We carefully choose the colors we want to use for each project. Having too many colors can be distracting, making it difficult for readers to focus the attention on the content. A good rule of thumb is to use no more than 4 different colors, which might include black and white.

For instance, the Vision Zero Action Plan we worked on last year (here are some good insights we had: link to 2 blogs) contained 2 main colors: red, which is the District of Department of Transportation (DDOT)’s branding color (our client), and blue. The other 2 colors are white and black. If you need more color variations, as we did, using different shades of those colors work well. The following image is one of the pages of the Vision Action Plan, which summarize some statistical facts through graphics, using only the branding colors.

Figures 3 - Choose colors carefully

To create visually appealing documents, there is no need to be a professional graphic designer. As any other skill, it takes a bit of research, time, and practice. Following these tips might give you a good place to start. If you find these tips useful and you want to know more, stay tune as I keep as I keep posting more tips in our blog in the future.

Fabiana I. Paez has a background in Geography and Cartography. She is passionate about creating visual designs to communicate and engage people in social and environmental causes.

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The Intersection between Highways and Social Justice

As the result of well publicized documentation of police brutality against young African-Americans in the United States, social activists across the country have recently taken to major highways and interstates and blocked these roads in acts of non-violent civil disobedience to protest the treatment of their fellow citizens, bringing traffic to a standstill. Protesters in San Francisco, Atlanta, and St. Paul, MN, all used these roads that at one point erased the established communities that existing in the right-of-way long before the term “Interstate” was part of the national lexicon.

It can be argued that one of the single most destructive federal policy decisions that negatively impacted urban cities in the United States was the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. With the enactment of this legislation meant to expedite cross-country travel and commerce, federal transportation planners began to seek avenues and thoroughfares that bisected and subdivided the civics cores of numerous metropolitan cities as the controlled-access highways left indelible marks on the urban landscape.

The decision making process, in regards to where the Interstate System would travel through, acted as a catalyst for suburban growth and eventually facilitated “White Flight.” The alignments and right-of-ways of the interstate system were destructive in their action through the razing of city blocks and the erasure of neighborhoods from their physical location to accommodate the space needed to allow for multi-lane highways to snake through the urban fabric, as no attention was paid to local interests and the significant impact that the of construction the freeway caused.

This construction displaced residents, destroyed the physical form of neighborhoods, and scarred (both physically and psychically) our cities for decades to come. “The desire of the car owner to take his car wherever he went no matter what the social cost drove the interstate highway system, with all the force and lethal effect of a dagger, into the heart of the American City.” (Carl Solberg 1973)

As time progressed, new highways were constructed, as homes were razed and neighborhoods disappeared to create space for the highway’s footprint, residents began to band together to counteract the top-down planning efforts of government agencies and entities that were focused on giving the motor vehicle primacy in the urban transportation network. Thus began the era of the “Freeway Revolt.”

Examples of citizens revolting against the destructive force of highway alignments and right-of-ways:

Wallace, Idaho, (pop. 790) sought National Register of Historic Places recognition for the majority of its Downtown as a historic district. This classification resulted in the Federal Highway Administration to reroute its planned level-grade alignment of Interstate 90 through an elevated viaduct, because a large majority of the buildings in Downtown Wallace gained National Historic Place status, thus legally blocking any attempts to raze the community for the freeway.

Interstate 95 (I-95) runs the entire length of the East Coast of the United States, some 1920 miles, from Florida to Maine. It is the longest North-South Interstate in the United States. But when plans were announced to have the alignment of I-95 to bisect the Nation’s Capital, opposition to these plans began to foment. After significant opposition from all segments of Washington society with a rally cry of “White man’s roads through black men’s homes,” the plans to take I-95’s alignment through Washington were scrapped, and the alignment was routed around Interstate 495, the Capital Beltway, thus making I-95 non-contiguous as a result of public opposition.

In recognition of the negative impact that urban interstates have burdened cities with, policy shifts by municipal leaders across the globe began to acknowledge the positive impact that removal of freeways could have on their communities.

In Seoul, South Korea, then-Mayoral Candidate Lee Myung-bak ran on a platform to “daylight” the Cheonggyecheon is a 4-mile creek that had been covered to allow for the construction of a major arterial highway through the center of Seoul. The removal of the roadway created a tabula rasa for landscape designers to create a three-mile urban park that has increased local biodiversity and incited economic development.

In San Francisco, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake several damaged State Route 480, also known as the Embarcadero Freeway. The alignment ran along the Bay front of San Francisco, acting a visual barrier between the city and the waterfront. As a result of damaged sustained during the earthquake, plans by Caltrans to rebuild the freeway were met by opposition by city residents and officials. Then-Mayor Art Agnos staunchly supported the complete removal of the Embarcadero, eventually being ousted from power when his political coalition shifted allegiance, but twenty years later the Port of San Francisco honored him due to his unwaivering support of the Embarcadero demolition with a monument stated “This pedestrian pier commemorates the achievement of Mayor Agnos in leaving our city better and stronger than he found it.”

By facilitating the removal of highway infrastructure in the urban core, communities can become reconnected to waterfronts, parks, and other physical space that people were once cut off from, as the highways themselves created physical barriers to urban connectivity. In light of the results of removal of freeways and interstates from the urban core, there is an emerging amount of empirical evidence and real estate statistics that show improvements in property values of real estate near areas benefitting from the removal of highway alignments and road infrastructure. The long lasting effects of the highways across the United States will reverberate for years, but the forward-thinking policy views of bold leaders can seek to begin the process to reverse the negative impacts that freeways have caused in our urban communities.

The direct social action by modern day social activists in utilizing the Interstate as a tool of protest, in light of the historical inequities brought upon the communities where the right-of-way of the roads were located, almost brings full circle the conversation about the impact of highways have had on the social fabric of the urban cores of our major cities.

David Simon, MCP, is a Community Planner who has worked in diverse communities across the United States ranging from the Rust Belt to Appalachia,  from communities metropolitan to rural, with municipal planning agencies and non-profit neighborhood Community Development Corporations. Returning to the DC Metro area where he grew up, after 15 years working and going to school in the Midwest, he is impressed at the growth and development that the Region has accomplished. As the newest team member of Nspiregreen, he seeks to make an impact in the communities that our team works with, through proactive community engagement, while utilizing his passion for urban environments and community development.

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Sometimes Public Transportation is the Best Option

What’s the best way to get from Washington, DC to Baltimore, MD during the height of rush hour?

That is the question I asked myself when leaving work in Downtown DC recently, to go to an event that was held in Baltimore, MD, thirty-nine miles away. As our firm focuses on transportation planning and knowing how notorious rush hour traffic is in this area, I sought alternative modes of transportation to traverse the Washington-Baltimore Metropolitan region along Interstate 95, without being stuck in what Texas Tech Transportation Institute called in 2015, “the worst traffic in the Country.” In assessing the situation, using the regional rail network seemed to be the most prudent course of action, and getting from Union Station in Washington to Penn Station in Baltimore would mean traveling aboard Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s Metrorail line and the Maryland Area Regional Commuter (MARC) train.

The MARC train has three different service lines that run close to 100 trains a day covering the Washington-Baltimore region. Historically connected to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, the MARC systems runs on some of the oldest continuously operated passenger rail lines in the country.

Since most of our staff already commutes to our offices by WMATA Metrorail service, I was able to completely traverse the region without relying on automobiles. Taking the Orange Line from our offices at McPherson Square to the Metro Center WMATA Transit Hub, then transferring from the Orange Line to the Red Line, and then taking the Red Line to Washington’s Union Station, where staff was able to transfer to the MARC train system. Arriving at Union Station, I was able to purchase tickets on the MARC line to travel from Union Station to Baltimore’s Penn Station. After arriving at Baltimore’s Penn Station, I walked several blocks to the location of the event on East North Avenue at the Impact Hub. Not having to deal with traffic congestion on Interstate 95, as well as not having to pay for parking or gas, while also disembarking several blocks from the event’s location showed me that taking the MARC train was an accessible means of regional travel. But while the train trip was convenient for all the aforementioned reasons, it could have been faster in terms of travel time.

Currently, the United States falls behind many other developed nations, in terms of investment in a national and inter-regional High-Speed Rail network. Within the past 6 years, several states have rejected funding offers through the Federal Government’s High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program to assist in the development and construction of a High-Speed Rail network in their respective states. Currently, Amtrak offers Acela, a High-Speed train that runs between Washington, DC and Boston, MA, that is so successful it accounts for close to 25% of Amtrak’s revenue as of Fiscal Year 2012. While there are currently plans underway throughout the country to invest more resources into High-Speed rail in the United States, we as a country as still playing catch up with other developed countries who have invested in their respective rail networks, in terms of offering alternative transportation modalities for those who live a car-free lifestyle or who do not have the personal finances to own a private vehicle. Having a faster, more reliable intercity rail transportation network option to traverse our region would lessen our reliance on cars, which in turn reduces congestion, reduces carbon emissions, and limits the frustration of sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic. This would be a positive impact on our region, as well as the country as a whole.

If the opportunity presents itself in your future travel plans, please don’t eschew mass transit for a personal vehicle. Sure, you get to select your own music and travel in privacy, but the benefits of trading your private mode of transportation for mass transit outweigh the perceived negatives of not being able to drive directly to your destination.

David Simon, MCP, is a Community Planner who has worked in diverse communities across the country ranging from the Rust Belt to Appalachia, and from communities metropolitan to rural. Returning to the DC Metro area where he grew up, after 15 years working and going to school in the Midwest, he is impressed at the growth and development that the Metro area has accomplished. As the newest team member of Nspiregreen, he seeks to make an impact in the communities that our team works with, through proactive community engagement, while utilizing his passion for urban environments and community development.





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