With OurPlan, Weitzman team pilots new data tool for neighborhood democracy

OurPlan gives residents of West Philadelphia a voice in planning and preservation.

What types of buildings are critical to preserving a neighborhood’s sense of itself, and what sites are ripe for change? How can residents be more informed about changes in their neighborhood and better equipped to influence its future?

Aerial view of a city block of houses in West Philly.

Those are the driving questions behind OurPlan, a new web-based tool for neighborhood planning developed by a team of scholars at the Stuart Weitzman School of Design. The tool, which was launched this year, combines both education and data collection to help residents participate in important planning and zoning decisions that affect their neighborhoods. Currently, the tool focuses on Spruce Hill, a West Philly neighborhood adjacent to Penn’s campus that has seen sharp increases in home prices and other indicators of gentrification over the last few decades. Users can browse a map of their neighborhood that’s linked to publicly available data on things like home sale prices, age of homes, zoning designations, and permits for alteration, demolition, and new development.

The project began in a 2019 practicum in the Master of Urban Spatial Analytics program, which was founded and led by Ken Steif, who passed away in September. The team that developed the tool included Steif; assistant professor of city and regional planning Akira Drake Rodriguez; Sydney Goldstein, a 2018 Master of City Planning graduate who was working as a data scientist at Steif’s firm, Urban Spatial LLC; Kenton Russell; and Jarvis Innovations. The tool relies on data from OpenDataPhilly for information about the built environment of Spruce Hill. Steif always envisioned OurPlan expanding to other neighborhoods, Rodriguez says, which was part of why the team chose to rely only on public data.

“It is possible to scale this to other neighborhoods in Philadelphia and that’s what we’re trying to do,” Rodriguez says. “We really want this to live, so we’re trying to get outside interests to scale it up in the way that Ken would have wanted.”

The tool includes a survey that Spruce Hill residents can complete to register their preservation preferences for the neighborhood. Using images from Google Street View, Goldstein created a feature that allows users to browse a representative sample of building types in Spruce Hill and rate how strongly they’d prefer that type of building to be preserved. It’s information that should help Registered Community Organizations (RCOs) make decisions about zoning, planning, preservation and development that are more in line with neighbors’ goals, Goldstein says.

This story is by Jared Brey. Read more at Weitzman News.