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jackson ward electronic community project

politics, participation and the Internet Richmond, VA

By: William George P aul

Ph.D. Student – Environmental Design and Planning Program
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University





Glossary of terms:

See www.lar.arch.vt.edu/program/JWEC/GLOSSARY.HTML

"The Internet and web will never replace the community meeting or face-to-face interactions -- these meetings where people get to know and understand each other are invaluable. What technology can provide for planners, legislators, and citizens, is a new way to engage discussion about urban planning issues, and to visualize alternative land use decisions. The Jackson Ward Electronic Gallery is an example of how innovative and forward-thinking planners are using technology to provide detailed information and images to help us all better understand the built community and the impact of city form on the quality of our lives."

Chris Steins, President - Urban Insight, Los Angeles, CA (from JWEC Project)



Web sites, community networks and intranets, and listservs and are now common online tools for academic research. But what is needed are e-tools and processes that connect the techno-elite with the urban and rural residential communities. Our mission is to understand how local residents, service providers and policy makers can fuse traditional planning tools and processes with the high tech. This past summer I designed and managed the Jackson Ward Electronic Community (JWEC) in Richmond, Virginia for the Virginia Tech Community Design Assistance Center and The Virginia Innovative Training and Leadership Foundation, the local client. The purpose of the project was to expand the awareness of the key issues and needs related to the Jackson Ward community by placing information about the ward on the Internet and inviting community input. Other objectives included:

Promote an egalitarian method for citizen participation in the planning process via Internet tools and processes, coupled with other traditional planning tools.

Construct image libraries, databases and processes that accurately depict the neighborhood and test our ability to format, collect and distribute information on the Internet.

Help to coordinate, challenge and unify citizens and community groups in Jackson Ward, enabling them to effectively coordinate their work with City of Richmond efforts.


Overview of Final Project Web Site

Because the site is available online, only a summary sketch will be offered here. Primary links include:

(1) introduction and invitation

(2) technology helping people – includes links to technology grant applications

(3) community profile – historic and land sue planning data

(4) neighborhood partners – interviews with high-level stakeholders;

(5) chat and discussion archive – threaded / self-archiving forum software

(6) join forces to make a plan – asking for visions for a master plan

(7) glossary of project terms

(8) key web resources.

politics of participation: a snap shot of jackson ward

Jackson Ward’s recent history is a story of scarce city resources and broken promises, competition and disassociation among the neighborhood organizations there, and today threats from three or more major development projects that encircle this historic district. According to the city, North Jackson Ward is now a separate neighborhood to the north, a victim of a recent highway project that cut the area in two. Jackson Ward has high unemployment and low to moderate education levels among residents. While some say that money and pride are there to save the Ward, others point-out the slow but steady destruction that absentee landlords are inflicting on the neighborhood housing stock and the lethargy that comes with the many large land owners who are waiting to cash in on the rising land prices. Thus the foundation for the JWEC Project was problematic. Very few had their home computers and public access sites were limited. This continues to be a case of a few residents visioning and seeking political and financial support. The community as a whole was never polled. In sum: the "community good" of Jackson Ward was (and still is) in the hands of a very few people.

"… Planners and Designers are increasingly using the Internet to communicate ideas. Tools are available which enable the design process to be carried out regardless of geography. Multi user collaborative virtual environments are being developed where planners, architects and designers can log on anywhere in the world and share in a CAD based design scenario. These tools provide a glimpse of the future of the planning system, a digital planning system."

Andy Smith, Editor - Online Planning, UK (from JWEC Project)

critiquing the electronic community tool kit

Given the proprietary nature of the actual community, the JWEC Project started out to design and implement a sustainable community network without a server or a listserv! This "user by user" strategy was prompted as much by a lack of funding as to a lack of connected users. The web site tool kit was to be backed my training later on as student and residents "got up to speed" and joined the effort as trainers.

Most of the tools in the kit are asynchronous (not real time) in nature. We often combined traditional design and data gathering processes for Internet access. A low tech / budget strategy! They are listed and critiqued below:

[1] JWEC web site – the web site went through many iterations throughout the project. As a file, it may be too large to load quickly.

[2] e-mail - the primary electronic tool of the JWEC.

[3] online registrations – few were received. Again, e-mail was used to register for the project.

[4] Virtual Tour - A total of 54 images are displayed in the gallery. The virtual tour of the Ward was one of the most discussed features of the summer project. Feedback boils down to the subject matter depicted and the juxtaposition of images in the series. Some would prefer less "negative" images while others liked the balance shown.

[5] The aerial photograph – This could have been more clearly illustrated with locations of specific buildings and streets.

[6] glossary of project terms – It is uncertain how much participants utilized this feature. It does contain sub-links to actual documents in the project archive and to the Internet.

[7] key web resources - The resource collection includes both local and international sites. These links could have been more accessible by grouping them under sub-headings.

[8] Interviews from jwec series – visions for jw from interviews- Given the range of public and private players involved in the interview process, many common themes emerged over the summer, including the universal desire to see a master plan developed for the Ward. Four interviews were selected for this report.

[7] Chat and Discussion Archive (CDA) Tool and scripts - Three subjects were evaluated online with a variety of participants from the neighborhood, city and professional ranks. For example, please see Topic #3 from in Chat and Discussion Archives (CDA) concerning the project (attached). The CDA is simple to set-up and use and should be considered a big success.

[8] IT Lesson Plan for Trainers + public relations strategy (pdf) - Because VITAL did not have a chance to test this tool with their board or trainers, a thorough assessment of its usefulness is not available. The PR outline contains a "value-added" strategy that centers all public relations efforts for the JWEC on the Internet. Future PR efforts by VITAL, however, will need to include lots of verbal communications (via personal contacts, radio and television) and the printed word (especially flyers, church newsletters, and in newspapers. Please see the pdf Archives: http://www.lar.arch.vt.edu/program/JWEC/PDFARCH.HTML


"…Your best bet is to make (the Web) a social thing. Have the block watches interact, sharing alerts, reports, thoughts, etc. Reserve a couple of hours every late afternoon for kids' study sessions; they can swap questions and answers, brainstorm, etc. See if you can get some adults to volunteer to add value as reference sources, etc.-- maybe partner with schools or libraries, parent groups, etc. Offer lots and lots of training. If you invest in the hardware and software without first investing heavily in the bioware, you wind up with an expensive, underutilized infrastructure…."

Al Boss, Community Development Society (from JWEC Project)

In a large way, CDAC and VITAL built the electronic community but few received an invitation to come and join in the work. The local groups need to assist the neighborhood with training and access for the JWEC to be successful. Much remains to be done in the area of democratic participation and design programs and tools. Another objective was only slightly realized—that of unifying citizens and community groups in Jackson Ward.

While the list of working principles is commendable, the reality is that unless a community process is open, inclusive and trusting, no level of rhetoric will have an impact. AT CDAC, It is our hope that an open, inclusive and trusting process will fully develop in Jackson Ward so that the community can evolve a grassroots community master plan and take the important steps in its implementation. The summer work in Jackson Ward revealed the importance of both working in the neighborhood and through the Internet. Out of 1,500 residents, we received ten online registrations- - and many were outsiders. In Jackson Ward, computers are scarce. We would have communicated more effectively with multiple, face-to-face meetings at the "block club" level and through flyers and park socials.

Infighting between Ward organizations and personal business agendas continue to strangle this historically black neighborhood. Major capital building projects now encircle Jackson Ward and threaten to pave and gentrify it within 2-4 years. Tension remains high between folks wanting to save historic resources and those driving new money and infrastructure. The blending of traditional / network participation tools and processes for community building and design projects has not yet begun in earnest. CDAC Online is a fine template but without adequate funding form the college, and projects applicable for this scheme, this fertile arena will be exploited elsewhere. Clearly, any future partnership needs to be fully defined and contracted to the best of the director and project manager’s ability. If politics and self-interest interfere with assisting the community in question, then we have failed before "go!" Two or more technology companies, Proxicom and DataBeam, sought to test their products in this program but could not find a place in the collaboration. More training in this area is needed to capture research dollars for both internal tests and project support.

A university consortium has been formed to work on planning and design studio projects but will not take part in the master planning due to funding problems and the grey political climate between the City of Richmond and the Ward’s organizations and citizens. A potential partnership for creating additional access labs and training is possible through the Urban League’s new national Urban Technology Program. Through word of mouth over the summer, many residents asked us about the pending computer training program under construction.

For additional resources concerning this traditional – electronic arena for planning and design, please see the electronic charrette (ec) web site at <www.lar.arch.vt.edu/program/CDT/ARMORYEC.HTML>. The ec is an electronic "workshop" process for the Internet that is testing how traditional tools and processes can be applied online. The other resource is a book, due out in December High Technology and Low Income Communities Prospects for the Positive Use of Advanced Information Technology (Editors: D. A. Schon, B. Sanyal and William Mitchell. MIT Press. 1998. ISBN 0-262-69199X). It is a collection of papers surrounding how academics, business, government, community activists and their inner city neighborhoods can connect low income residents with training and community networks. One key arena in this tomb is the role of the government intervention -- and how the private sector can partner-up.

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