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Q and A with Deb Ryan

by Mark Peres

August 7,2008

Deb Ryan, and her husband, Mike Panveno, are the creators of http://www.wikiplanning.org/, an online ‘virtual charrette’ for urban planning. Deb is Associate Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at UNC Charlotte, and principal at Ryan Harris, LLC, an urban planning firm. Prior to launching Wikiplanning, she served as the Director of the Charlotte Community Design Studio and the Urban Open Space Leadership Institute at UNC Charlotte, where she worked with elected leaders from over 25 municipalities in the Metrolina region helping them to formulate strategies to guide growth in their communities. She earned a Bachelor of Environmental Design in Landscape Architecture from North Carolina State University, and a Masters Degree in Landscape Architecture with an emphasis in Real Estate Development from Harvard University. After graduation, Deb worked in California for resort developers Landmark Land and the Pebble Beach Company. She returned to North Carolina to teach at UNC Charlotte.

What is Wikiplanning? What inspired it?

Wikiplanning is an online tool that collects public feedback about urban design projects that planners use to deliver a better product. It was inspired by comments I received from public officials who were frustrated with the public meeting process. They weren’t sure that what they were hearing from those attending is what their constituents wanted. They wanted input from a more diverse audience. So we came up with the idea of Wikiplanning to allow citizens to offer feedback about projects online.

Wikiplanning is owned by Ryan Harris, LLC - a privately-owned, for-profit company. Doesn’t having .org as part of the Wikiplanning website name suggest it is non-profit when in fact it is a for-profit concern?

Using .org was a fallback position. Wikiplanning.com was already taken. We weren’t aware of the implication that .org might suggest it was non-profit. That’s something we may attend to resolve any confusion.

Wikiplanning has received grant dollars from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and assistance from the ASC. Is that fair use of grant dollars and assistance given that Wikiplanning is a private, for-profit initiative?

The Knight Foundation grants monies to non-profit and private companies that are doing work serving the public interest. The Knight Foundation fund is made up of private dollars. We asked for the money to test Wikiplanning in the public sphere. Knight dollars helped pay for an email list, invitation post cards, and marketing. The ASC sent out information about Wikiplanning to its email list, and the ASC reviewed and added questions to our survey. Mike and I used our own personal money to develop Wikiplanning and build the site.

The site is named “Wikiplanning’, but doesn’t employ wiki technology (use of markup language allowing users to modify content). Where is the ‘wiki’ in the ‘wikiplanning’?

We haven’t gotten to that point. Our software doesn’t support it just yet. The site is currently made up of basic questionnaires and discussion boards that we pieced together that allow people to offer feedback about a project. In the short run, it’s about facilitating a conversation. In the long run, we imagine using wiki technology so that citizens can mark up maps just like in an in-person charrette. We see Wikiplanning as a portal site with dozens of projects that citizens can offer their thoughts about.

Isn’t Wikiplanning a marketing tool for Ryan Harris, LLC to sell additional services?

It’s up to the client to decide if they could benefit from the added value that Ryan Harris could provide. Ryan Harris offers a range of services, from designing queries and evaluating public input and raw data to doing urban planning and design work. Public participation is an expected component of the planning activities consultants are hired to do. Whether it is holding public meetings or mailing surveys, it is an expected service and one cities pay people like us to do. Wikiplanning is just another way of offering a service clients require within any planning process.

What concerns do you have for Wikiplanning going forward?

We have the same concerns that any small business has: funding, revenue, personnel, marketing, projects. We know we have a useful tool, but we have to go out and sell work and manage the company. We also wonder about ‘planning fatigue.’ Citizens are asked their thoughts about projects all the time, but it is often years before they see a project become reality – if the project is built at all. Making the connection between public participation in a virtual charrette process and the end-result of a project is one of our challenges. People participating in Wikiplanning need to know that their voice ultimately matters. Otherwise, they may not come back.

If you received a blank check to invest in Wikiplanning, how would you spend it?

Wow, well one idea is buying kiosks with interactive touch screens that we could put at project sites. Or even at festivals. We could get people off the street to offer their feedback to proposed designs.

What is success? Do you plan on selling Wikiplanning?

We haven’t thought that far ahead. Right now, we just want people to find it useful. We’d like to exceed expectations and make a profit. We get a thrill presenting it to people and having people like it. It’s exciting when people get the vision. There is a great opportunity for public agencies, municipalities and private firms who are looking for innovative and green solutions around public participation to use Wikiplanning. We invite people to come to the website and comment about our NoDa project. The password is “NoDa” to weigh in.

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