HERE'S THE LATEST IN OUR NEW SERIES FEATURING PROFILES OF OUR MEMBERS. NOT ONLY ARE OUR MEMBERS AN ESSENTIAL PART OF SUPPORTING WHAT WE DO HERE AT STRONG TOWNS, BUT THEY ARE DOING INCREDIBLE THINGS IN THEIR COMMUNITIES. THIS IS A CHANCE TO HIGHLIGHT THEM AND THEIR EXCELLENT WORK!
I’m excited to share Lisa Nisenson’s story with our readers. Lisa, along with her colleague, Sarah Lewis, will be leading a webcast for us next week titled: Exploding Kittens for Cities? Hacking Games for Civic Engagement. This should be a fun one! I hope you can join us for it.
Lisa’s interest in urbanism began twenty years ago as a citizen activist fighting a Home Depot in Arlington, VA. “I got into this as a NIMBY!” she jokes. But, she’s quick to point out, she was not a standard reactionary NIMBY. Her and others she banded with were concerned about the land-use implications of siting a 13-acre big box store in the community. She took it upon herself to learn urban planning which led her to the work of Andres Duany and the Congress for New Urbanism.
She turned her newfound knowledge (and victory!) into a seven-year career at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in their sustainable Communities Division. Then, she moved with her husband moved to Florida and took a position with a local urban planning department. “Working in a community as an urban planner was a very good experience. I learned a lot”
It was during her time as a planner that Lisa got into Strong Towns. “I was dealing with a lot of people who felt ‘the wider the street, the better,’” she notes. “Having Chuck, a trained engineer who could communicate well and chip away at the preconceived notions, was incredibly helpful.”
After her stint in Florida, Lisa started writing a book on urban innovation, but realized it would be out of date before even being published. So, she started looking at online options, eventually co-founding a tech start-up devoted to urban and community design called Greater Places.
Lisa describes GreaterPlaces as a crowdsourced "How To" manual for cities and towns, connecting community advocates seeking solutions with planning professionals under one digital roof. It was named one of Planetizen's Top 10 planning sites for 2015.
Cards Against Urbanity
Cards Against Urbanity was launched in 2014 as a Kickstarter project. It garnered worldwide press and met funding goals within 3 days. The project was a collaboration between GreaterPlaces and DoTankDC. There is also a DIY version.
Like Apples to Apples & Cards Against Humanity, the game decks have question and answer cards. Players take turns judging a question round; he or she picks a card with a question about cities and neighborhoods. Players then try to appeal to the judge by throwing down answer cards from their hand.
Example question cards: "The Mayor got in trouble for crowdsourcing ______" and "Architects really need to think more about" Example answer cards include "screaming children," Not-so-smart growth," and "the poor door." The poor door is a reference to controversial separate entrances for subsidized apartments required in luxury buildings. “Our card game facilitates conversations on controversial topics.”
Soon after it’s launch, Lisa started getting reports that people were using it to teach urban planning. Even cities, planning firms and universities were using it. But, it made sense. After all, to understand why a card was funny, a person needed to learn the concept behind it.
“One of the big lessons we learned,” said Lisa, “is that the world didn’t need another best design kit, it needed something that helped end-users.”
Cards for Urbanity
This year, GreaterPlaces has been working on a series of city design method cards. The cards will form sets of methods directed to solving common design and governance challenges cities and towns face. They are taking an iterative approach to this project to figure out what will work best. They are currently focusing more attention on the digital side of things with plans for an app. Lisa said she could see this project becoming the Tinder of Urbanism. “We want to hook people up with solutions!”
In addition to card games, Lisa and the team at GreaterPlaces see a lot of potential for board games as an engagement tool. Recently, they mocked up Chutes and Ladders as a commuting game. “Your moves are dictated by policies that would normally be boring, but now they’re fun,” she explains. They have even incorporated elements of Vision Zero into the game design.
Other ideas they’re working on include a transit oriented development version of Trivial Pursuit. The idea is to provide a fun way to learn about the complexities surrounding TOD such as funding streams and regulatory frameworks.
Exploding Kittens is most backed kickstarter game ever. They want to use it for teaching facilitation. “Almost every game has strategies that fit with into daily life,” notes Lisa. They also require strategy which gets people thinking and there are lots of opportunities to tuck in humor to make it fun.
Engaging in such creative work requires an entrepreneurial mindset and not being afraid to fail. “You have to be willing to try things multiple times,” says Lisa.
While GreaterPlaces embraces technology, she cautions that it’s important to not just do tech for the sake of doing tech. It has to be about the user experience and gearing their projects toward learning.
One of Lisa’s big drivers is to empower citizens. “The smarter and more engaged citizens are, the better the results will be in our communities.” Ultimately, she hopes the tools she is building, whether they be high tech (apps) or low tech (board games) can build the skills and knowledge base of citizen experts.