The annual list of the ten best planning, design, and development websites, representing some of the top online resources for news, information, and research on the built environment.
When Planetizen first began compiling lists of top websites in 2002, we included 50 websites on the list. Even with that many sites on the list, the collection offered very little of the variety and innovation available online in 2015.
In 2015, the Internet includes apps in addition to websites, enabled by additional layers of technology, like the Cloud, smartphones, and GPS. Websites today include sub-genres like crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, social media, and data viz, in addition to the traditional news and institutional sites. Meanwhile news and institutional sites can often be found using the technologies of crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, social media, and data viz. Excellence online in 2015 isn't always a radical new technology or tool—sometimes it's a well chosen blend of the many possibilities available.
After collecting nominations from readers and staff, the Planetizen editorial staff selected the "2015 Top Websites" list based on a common set of criteria, including content, design, and usability, choosing ten websites representing a variety of uses and focuses. We've listed the websites alphabetically, not in order of rank.
Not all systems for tracking development and planning are created equal, but they all have some catching up to do compared to the example set by Chicago Cityscape. For the uninitiated, the website offers access to open data on building permits—providing tangible evidence about how the neighborhoods of Chicago are changing. Chicago Cityscape relies on a simple design to present copious amounts of open data—from renovations to demolitions to violations and more. Searching a specific property also produces information on Census tracts, planning and zoning overlays, and neighborhood info. Much of the data available on the site requires a subscription to access, but a quick poke around the free version of the site is all it takes to see the tremendous power of open data to provide access to information about the development process.
City Commentary, the blog and news analysis feed on the City Observatory website has achieved something truly rare in the planning and urbanism media landscape: every single post is essential reading. Well argued and well researched—City Observatory has become one of Planetizen's most trusted sources for reasoned perspective on the news and ideas of contemporary times. The kinds of urbanists that could benefit from the knowledge shared on City Observatory: advocates, policy makers, journalists, students, and citizens. That's just about everyone, right?
Civic Crowdfunding Sites ioby and Neighborly
We stretched the rules a little on this one and acknowledged two websites—both examples of crowdfunding but each with a significantly different approach.
Neighborly provides access to public finance by connecting users to municipal bonds—that critical mechanism for capital investment that sums to a market of $3.7 trillion. The big idea: in choosing specific municipal bonds for investment, people also choose causes to support (like education or infrastructure).
By contrast, ioby works more the well known model found on Kickstarter—users present a project for fundraising and the public can decide a level of support for the project. Because projects are civic in nature, ioby has proven to have beneficial effects for local efforts of placemaking and community building. If you're looking for more on ioby and Neighborly, an article by Bloomberg Business highlights both.
Few technology companies are as essential to the practice and study of planning as Esri, makers of, among many other things, ArcGIS. Esri Story Maps offers a free, easy-to-use tool for creating effective, visual stories. By offering Story Maps with free access, Esri leverages its significant firepower in the world of mapping into the world of storytelling, creating a welcome and valuable addition to the toolbox of anyone who cares about places, the planet, or people. For an example of the power of the platform, check out the "Atlas for a Changing Planet," created by the Esri Story Maps team on the occasion of the United Nations Climate Summit. Bright, interactive, engaging, imaginative—the possibilities for Story Maps are as boundless as the world itself.
Built on the premise that communities need new types of resources for design, Greater Places provides "organized, visual examples, networked communities of peers and great ideas…" Think of Greater Places as a compendium of case studies, ranging in subject from plan making, resilience, equitable development, street design, water, and many more. While the Greater Places website is in itself a tremendous resource worthy of this list of best websites, Greater Places also deserves credit for creating a new level of conversation as one of the creators of Cards Against Urbanity and a forthcoming planning game.
Social Media Sites Pinterest and Instagram
It's impossible to stress the importance of thinking beyond the confines of an organization's official platform for the benefits of the Internet. Social media integration has a been a buzzword for a long time, especially for planners and designers faced with the daunting tasks of pitching projects to the public, but obviously some have done a better job of others of rising above the noise and clutter of the contemporary social media landscape. Two platforms in particular have shown a surprising knack for facilitating better planning and design understanding: Instagram and Pinterest.
Instagram is well acknowledged for its celebration of the visual delights of all kinds of environments—from rural to urban and international to domestic. The city of Mobile, Alabama took the platform a step further, using the app's geotagging function to create an initial database of blighted and vacant properties. In effect, Instagram provided a cheap and easy tool that made it much easier to take the initial tentative steps in a large planning effort.
The power of Pinterest is exemplified by Slow Ottawa's Pinterst page, which gathers and presents ideas about how to improve planning and design outcomes. Slow Ottawa's Pinterest board includes visual presentations of ideas for streets for everyone, street furniture, hydrology, and even planning failures. Pinterest is so well suited for organizations looking for an accessible, cheap, and sharable platform for ideas—it's a wonder we don't see more doing it.
For a "side project" by a group of 2013 Code for America fellows, Streetmix has managed to attract a lot of attention from Planetizen readers. Streetmix allows site visitors to "design, remix, and share" street ideas, by providing an interactive street diagram easily manipulated by dragging and dropping and pulling and removing. The menu includes car lanes, bike lanes, landscaping, bus lanes, bus shelters, and rail transit. Streetmix earns its place on this list for seamless functionality as well as broad appeal: it's easy to imagine the use of Streetmix as a tool for academic instruction, outreach, and advocacy (and we've already noticed Streetmix-created diagrams popping up all over the web), and also as a habit-forming and entertaining tool for seasoned urban designers.
Mainstream media outlets have noticed, as have we at Planetizen, how successful Charles Marohn has become at spreading the gospel of Strong Towns. Strong Towns is one of the few essential reads focused on planning, offering unwavering excellence in advocacy, reportage, and rhetoric. Not to mention that the annual #BlackFridayParking event is a model of online engagement. If you're looking for a gold standard of presenting and supporting ideas about how to improve the built environment: Strong Towns is it.
Climate Central created an interactive map to illustrate the catastrophic threat to coastal communities presented by sea level rise. Even oil companies agree that we will have to prepare for rising sea levels—this tool just shows you how difficult a challenge that represents. A quick tour around the United States using the Surging Seas interactive map is all it take to see that it will take a larger project than anything humans have imagined thus far to stem this tide. Surging Seas provides more than just a scare tactic, however, deriving its power from information instead of fear. The website provides several different tools for risk identification and reduction, additional layers of data, like population, income, and ethnicity, to create a holistic picture of the challenge, and, finally, a constant reminder that the coastal environment of the future will be a result of the choices we make now.
WALKscope is the rare example of crowd-sourced public engagement that actually works. WalkDenver and PlaceMatters created the platform to engage the public in gathering information about the pedestrian environment in Denver. The color-coded map that results from all this collaboration quickly and clearly identifies the gaps in the pedestrian network. Unlike many platforms with similar goals, WALKscope is well-trod: 6,717 sidewalk quality reports populate the map, along with 1,817 intersection quality reports, and 227 pedestrian counts. The information is visible at specific locations as well as in the aggregate for the city. Not that anyone needs another reason to visit the beautiful city of Denver—but using this app to contribute to this cause seems worth a trip.
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The History of Racial Zoning and Housing Discrimination in the US
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City of Grand Forks, North Dakota
HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research
Harvard GSD Executive Education
City of Laramie, Wyoming
Colorado Department of Local Affairs
Lassen County Planning and Building Services
This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.