Adrienne Leverette is a principal at Fat Pencil Studio.
We had the opportunity to participate in the Intertwine's Active Transportation Un-Forum yesterday. It was a great chance to catch up with our friends and colleagues in the active transportation community. The beautiful thing about the Un-forum format is that topics are addressed in discussions, instead of presentations. Many important discussions were held: from making the case for the benefits of active transportation in our region to contemplating the design of arterials with regard to social equity. We facilitated a conversation about how visualization can be used engage project stakeholders. By talking to a number of thoughtful people, we came away with a clarified understanding of our own process.
What is the difference between a “pretty picture” and a “visual thinking tool”? A pretty picture is fixed and controlled by its creators. When done well, it has the power to communicate a vision. A visual thinking tool describes a project through imagery that can be changed and studied by participants. When done well, this approach empowers an audience to collaborate in the design process.
In transportation projects, there often exists an expertise gap between representatives of a government agency and the people who are affected by the project. This gap creates an immediate and unnecessary antagonism because stakeholders feel disadvantaged when asked to understand and evaluate drawings that they have not been trained to read. But when project issues and options are presented in a clear, readily understood manner (using 3d modeling, diagrams, maps, data visualization, etc), the expertise gap is eliminated, and antagonism is neutralized. Once technocratic barriers are removed, stakeholders can confidently express their concerns and agency staff can readily address them. People feel heard. When power is shared in this way, the foundation is laid for productive conversation and meaningful engagement.
Who knows, everyone might even be smiling at the end.