Planning by Doing: How small, citizen-powered projects inform large planning decisions

Author Gehl

Drawing on learnings from the Better Market Street project in San Francisco, this Gehl resource provides practical advice about how to effectively engage local communities in decisions about public spaces. It covers key questions to ask at the outset of projects, ways to structure action-orientated projects, and a project evaluation protocol. It is useful for anybody wanting to enact more effective citizen participation in place-related projects.

Date added 25 March 2021
Last updated 25 March 2021

Drawing on learnings from the Better Market Street project in San Francisco, this Gehl resource provides practical advice about how to effectively engage local communities in decisions about places. It puts forwards what is termed an ‘Action-Orientated Planning’ approach, which involves embedding community feedback into the process of transforming places, using pilot projects as community engagement tools and to attain knowledge about what intervention can best meet a community need, and fostering a culture of possibility.

The guide first explains the differences between traditional planning and action-orientated planning, identifying five key features of the latter as involving: one-to-one experience at the human scale; ideas generated by the public; iterative feedback loops of learning; multiple perspectives used to solve problems; and rapid testing of solutions via prototypes.

Next, Gehl explains the Measure-Test-Refine methodology underpinning this approach to planning, alongside case study examples, whereby interim solutions and prototypes are introduced and tested at low risk, with feedback from the community sought throughout, to then inform more permanent solutions to place problems. Three key steps in this iterative feedback loop are then introduced, alongside question-based checklists, as summarised below:

1. Defining the scope and empowering change

  • What problem needs solving and for whom?
  • What has been successful or not in the past?
  • What is feasible in terms of time and resources?
  • Does the project support a diverse range of stakeholders?
  • Does the project support a long-term strategy?

2. Setting goals: People-first success criteria

  • Did the project enhance lingering and walking?
  • Did the perception of place improve?
  • Were communities engaged in the process?
  • Did the prototype encourage social interaction between a mix of people?
  • How successful was it in building skills and capacity of stakeholders?

3. Evaluation: Eye-level project evaluation

  • Evaluation to take place before, during, and after the prototyping process.
  • Good to evaluate success of an initiative through multiple perspectives.
  • Project impact can be measured through a range of methods, including desktop research, social media analysis, surveys, observational analysis, photo documentation, and interviews.

The guide concludes by presenting a series of real-life case studies at a range of different spatial and temporal scales, where an Action-Orientated Planning approach has been put into practice, including: worldwide use of Parklets and Open Streets initiatives; Times Square, New York; Village Ephemere, Montreal; The Porch, Philadelphia; and Prototyping Festival, San Francisco.

For more information about the Better Market Street project, please see this related High Streets Task Force resource