Posted June 13th 2012 at 6:01 pm by
in Stories from the Field

Game-Changing Engagement in Greater Des Moines

Game-Changing Engagement in Greater Des Moines

Planning the urban environment around us has the potential to improve our communities economically, socially, and environmentally. Yet the success of planning efforts is often contingent on the involvement of the local community. One constant challenge planners and urban designers face is how to build trust among diverse stakeholders.

Game-Changing Engagement in Greater Des MoinesAnother challenge is how to create an incentive for everyone to participate in the planning process, which takes an investment of time and mental energy spent thinking about not only short term needs, but also the long term goals of the community. These challenges are acute in The Tomorrow Plan, a two-year regional planning process for sustainable growth in Greater Des Moines, Iowa. An entire region—as opposed to a neighborhood or even a city—presents even greater diversity of stakeholders and fewer channels through which planners can reach them all.

The Tomorrow Plan is a regional planning effort coordinated by the Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). Funded by a grant from the federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities, the project aims to align economic, social, and environmental issues in order to guide investments and plan for the long-term health of the region. After assessing potential scenarios and gathering extensive public feedback, the team will make recommendations regarding land use, policy, and implementation. Sasaki, a Watertown-based planning and design firm, is the lead consultant for the project.

The planning team came up with three driving questions to inform their strategy for engaging with the vast Greater Des Moines constituency.

 1. Most planning tools consist of pre-made maps or research material. How can we design a fun interface that is all about the user, how planning impacts them, and what they want to see in the future?

2. Getting people engaged and excited about the planning process can be hard. Why don’t we design a tool that is playful, focused on education, and designed to elevate the discussion of ideas?

3. Crowdsourcing and participatory planning techniques are the next frontier for planning. What if we use the dynamic tool to directly feed users’ input into a brand-new scenario?


These questions inspired the team to create Design My DSM — a dynamic, web-based engagement tool through which local citizens see how different regional projects and policies might impact their interests and communicate their priorities for the future. The objective is to illuminate common prerogatives among stakeholders and to encourage people to think regionally before strategizing locally.

Game-Changing Engagement in Greater Des Moines

The Tomorrow Plan region encompasses over 480,000 people living in 17 different communities within 4 counties.  The 542 square mile study area includes urban, suburban, and rural areas.  Not surprisingly, residents and leaders have a huge range of circumstances and perspectives, and the process of planning on the regional scale has been challenging at times due to seemingly conflicting priorities. Our hope is that Design My DSM will have a positive impact on public discourse in Greater Des Moines and contribute to discussions about common interests where priorities do in fact align. The playful approach lowers the stakes, making it easy for people to explore how their personal preferences relate to regional benefits—and to begin to see overlapping interests.

The Design My DSM tool is live on the web for the next couple weeks as residents of Greater Des Moines learn about regional issues and register their priorities for the region. When all the responses have been collected, the project team will compile the data to create a crowd-sourced scenario for the region.  This “People’s Choice” scenario will be unveiled late this summer to help inform the region-wide discussion about how to create a more sustainable future for Greater Des Moines.

Check it out for yourself here. Just enter in your own zip code—don’t worry, your data won’t be included in the Iowa effort unless you live in the region.

Post by James Miner, Sarah Madden, and Hope Stege of Sasaki Associates.

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