It’s really interesting to think about the effect that social media and technology have on planning. I live in a community of about 300 homes in a large Central Jersey suburb. My town rapidly increased in size in the 1990s; many of the new residents were couples with young children, which meant that as the 2000s approached the public school system was overwhelmed. Each of the town’s elementary schools expanded individually, but the town’s lone middle school was unable to expand to meet the new demand. Town officials decided to build a second middle school in the town, a plan that was well-received by most residents.
My community was especially excited about the middle school, because it was just a short 10-minute drive away using local roads. The old middle school was close to 20 minutes away, so this new plan decreased the amount of time and distance that each parent would have to drive to pick their child up from after-school activities. It also meant that kids would be closer, in a newer facility. With the development of a public school so close by, valuation of each of the houses in the community was driven upwards.
Part of this plan was to also pave an access road from within the development to the new middle school. To give some geographic context to this issue, the community was separated from the middle school by a crop of forest. The access road would begin at the middle school, and come out in the middle of the community. In the original plans, the access road was overlooked by most and dismissed as insignificant. But then a couple of community members caught wind of the issue, and began to understand the impact of this access road. To travel from our community to the middle school using this road would take just about 5 minutes by car. But there was no limitation on who could use this road, so the indirect impact was that traffic from outside of the community might be redirected into it. Local residents might also take advantage of the new road and use it get to the middle school faster. The idea of having increased traffic within the development was unpalatable to some. Additionally, this access road required significant deforestation and displacement of the natural flora and fauna that inhabited the forest.
The technological climate meant that online forums were on the rise; in the previous year, the community had enrolled collectively in an online forum called MeetTheNeighbors. Now, key community members utilized the forum to raise awareness about the negative direct and indirect impacts of paving the access road. Through this forum, they were able to reach the majority of the 300 homeowners in the community and circulate online petitions for signing. By strategically leveraging technology solutions available to them, these homeowners managed to rally enough support to halt development of the access road indefinitely. The forum and petitions made active involvement in the planning process accessible for community members with rigid schedules and conflicting time commitments. The forum gave voice to the members of this community, and by joining together in support of a common goal they managed to achieve tangible results in the town.