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New Tools for Visualizing a Changing City

As Seattle works to significantly and quickly boost affordable housing, it's finding better ways to engage residents in the process.

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As one of America's fastest-growing cities, Seattle is a hotbed for development. City officials estimate that they will see more than 95,000 new housing units by 2035 to account for the city's burgeoning population; new high-rises are already transforming its downtown. However, while economic growth generates opportunity for many, it also is intensifying a housing affordability crisis.

In any city, affordable housing policies present a variety of challenges. They affect skylines, traffic and local business. They inspire opposition from developers fearing stifled production of more profitable units and from residents concerned about unwelcome neighborhood changes. The policies' fine details prove difficult to convey using dated methods, threatening to leave affected residents in the dark.

In an effort to capitalize on population growth without compromising on inclusivity, Seattle planners have submitted a citywide Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) plan to the city council that would require developers to incorporate affordable options into new projects or pay into an affordable housing fund. It would be a major change to the status quo, calling for significant input from residents, developers and other affected parties.

For many years, attempts at public engagement consisted of paper zoning maps or online PDFs, which did little to create a visually immersive user experience. Now, however, modern tools are allowing Seattle to make complex mapping information more accessible and valuable. Seeing an opportunity to enhance residents' ability to interact with zoning plans, in 2016 officials worked with Esri, a geomapping vendor, to release an interactive draft zoning map.

The interactive map revolutionized Seattle's approach to public engagement. "We were coming to meetings with these huge four-foot-by-six-foot printouts, and you'd still need a magnifying glass to get all the information," says Sara Maxana, project manager of Seattle's Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, the initiative that has spearheaded development of the MHA. "It was very difficult for people to get the granular detail in anything that we could print and fit on a table."

But interactive mapping changed all that and sparked invigorated public exchange. In the months after the maps were rolled out, the city published multiple alternatives of the MHA plan. Informed by findings from the city's analysis of the impacts of growth on residential displacement and opportunity and values obtained from diverse residential focus groups, new rezoning plans incorporated broader, more pertinent analytics. Map drafts in turn displayed relevant community indicators, which included risk of displacement (informed by factors including race, income and housing cost burden), access to opportunity (based on factors such as employment, education and availability of local services), and proximity to key infrastructure.

Seattle officials prioritized MHA rezoning in areas with low displacement risk, higher access to opportunity, and nearby transit. The interactive maps allowed residents to navigate and review color-coded rezoning plans for each city neighborhood. Clicking on a given zone produced a pop-up window with information about that area's displacement risk and access to opportunity.

Interactive maps were not the only tool the city employed. The data maps were supplemented with an online survey tool giving residents an opportunity to express their agreement or disagreement with various aspects of the plans. Residents could explain their views and comment on other respondents' stances, forming a dialogue from which the city gathered crucial feedback.

MHA community events also incorporated the Microsoft HoloLens, a virtual reality device, to present Seattleites with highly detailed visualizations of potential developments in their neighborhoods. Maxana believes virtual reality helped alleviate fears about development, showing people that "change isn't as scary as they thought it would be." And in cases where changes were significant, the HoloLens provided an honest glimpse into the future, equipping residents with the information they needed to voice concerns to city planners.

With the decision-making process informed by enhanced public engagement, in March planning officials released a set of four detailed data maps outlining the final MHA proposal to the city council. Each of the maps serves a unique function, from explaining the rezoning benefits in a given community to allowing users to navigate proposals for a specific address. One map, for instance, identifies each neighborhood's new zoning plan (such as "mixed use"), what that would provide ("lively urban density near shops, jobs, services, and transit"), and how it would contribute to housing affordability ("creates affordable homes in dense, market-rate development"). The city has published all of the zoning drafts together, from first to final preferred alternative, so users can follow the planning process.

Of the 50,000 new homes Seattle aims to generate by 2025, the goal is for 20,000 to be rent- or income-restricted -- a significant addition given its normal rate of 800 or fewer new affordable units per year. The city council will vote on the proposal in the fall. But whatever happens, the city will have pioneered effective way to draw the public into a complex process. "We've learned a lot along the way about creative and equitable engagement," says Maxana.

Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and director of Data-Smart City Solutions at the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University. He can be reached at
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