Oakland Planning, data and engagement

There’s a frustrating but worthwhile read over at sf.streetsblog on the city’s decision to close down part of the Latham Sqaure pilot in downtown Oakland. The pilot was meant to last for six months and is being partly shelved after just six weeks. This is another sad example of bad use of data, closed decision making and poor engagement in our city.

Problem # 1:

Planning Director Rachel Flynn, when asked for data on Latham Square’s use, said, “We don’t know how to measure pedestrian and bicycle activity.”

This is 2013 and with the powers of Google at our fingertips (yes, despite the clunky computers in city hall they still can get on to the internets). There are two stupidly simple options should this have been something our city staff actually wanted to do- to understand the problem or the situation. We could have worked with local hackers to build simple, cheap sensors using Raspberry Pi devices and off the shelf sensors- read how here. Or we could have simply paid for a small pilot using the super clever MotionLoft system built in SF that is aimed at helping retail businesses understand pedestrian flow and patterns.

No data is not a situation that is acceptable in this century.  No data simply suggests we don’t care enough to gather it. It says that facts are not really what matter, it’s all about perception and personal opinion. No data cannot be adequately challenged or debated. Data are not everything, but no data are dangerous.

Problem #2:

When you hear an official say something like “we were kind of hearing the same thing over and over” you should be skeptical. Especially when you have people representing significantly sized local organizations stating that they have heard almost nothing but differing opinions to those proffered by city staff.  This problem breaks down into two sub-issues. Firstly, the type of engagement common in our planning dept and the city in general- a couple of town hall meetings which tend to attract squeaky wheels who are in opposition to most projects and are only scheduled to suit a small percentage of the community.  In person alone is not a sufficient form of engagement given how digital our community largely is.  Secondly, there is little opportunity to really test this statement- the meetings don’t have nicely recorded videos to replay the conversations and oppositions and the city is not maintaining an online discussion on the pros and cons of this project. We have no record of these complaints within easy reach.

So what?

It’s disappointing that in a city that desperately lacks any innovation or experimentation, we cancel one of the few creative place based projects so fast.  When the rationale to end the project is that it was "prompted by negative feedback… What we’ve heard from property owners and businesses is they need that access” for cars, it’s hard not to wonder if that is the best approach to civic decision making.

Almost no project or idea in Oakland goes without its critics- if we shut down every experiment to improve our city with no data to objectively measure the impact and if we continue to fail to leverage online communities for ideation and constructive feedback, we are doomed to remain a city under-invested in itself and its future.

If you love the current (well, former) plaza, you can sign the WOBO petition.

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