MISSION:  “Create a free online community education resource that gives clarity to land use regulations, directions to navigate through public planning processes, and assistance with individual site development challenges”   

In 2002, that seemed a novel concept in Tulsa. Some would say we haven’t made much progress over the past 14 years. I’d say we have increased awareness, become more receptive to openness at top levels of city government, and certainly leaped ahead in technology and the availability of skilled people to take advantage of it.

But despite that progress, in 2016, our available online services still linger in the 20th Century.

PlaniTulsa Workshop

Facilitator Shekoofah Khedhri talks to a group of Tulsa residents about ideas for Tulsa’s future during PLANiTULSA’s second citywide workshop on updating the comprehensive plan for the city, taken at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla., on September 23,2008. JAMES GIBBARD/Tulsa World

When the PLANitULSA project was launched, public enthusiasm soared. Thousands of Tulsans made their visions known over two years of unprecedented citizen engagement. In 2010, the City adopted our new Comprehensive Plan and we now have in place an exciting and progressive policy document to guide us toward the community we envision.

The openness and inclusive nature of the PLANitULSA process have been touted as perhaps the single best example of transparency and public participation in our history.

The Comprehensive Plan includes a set of guiding principles, one of which speaks directly to our planning process and includes two clear mandates:

  • City planning and decision-making is an inclusive and transparent process.
  • Development and zoning policies are easily understood, workable and result in predictable development.

Indisputably, openness over those two years played a large role in the success of the effort and the expectation is that such transparency will continue as our gold standard.

Our new Zoning Code was adopted in January of 2016 after more than two years of collaborative effort. It is vastly improved in content and format over the 46-year old former code and largely reflects the values in the Comp Plan. But, it is still presented in a static electronic document and isn’t integrated with other regulatory and process documents into a comprehensive, user-oriented resource.

Today, as in 2002, Tulsans, and anyone looking to understand all of our development regulations, still don’t have a modern, comprehensive resource that delivers robust information and a satisfying experience. The promise of open data delivery hasn’t yet been fulfilled. Nowhere on the web are people invited or welcomed to engage and learn about the regulations that directly affect their lives through the development of the city around them.

social_media_confusionStaffing the Board of Adjustment and TMAPC, I came face-to-face daily with people confronted with arcane development regulations, trying to navigate confusing processes. Most were barely aware these regulations existed, let alone how to interpret them.

They came to us with violation notices from code inspectors or notices of public hearings received in the mail. They didn’t speak the language. Our best attempts at guiding them through the system often left everyone frustrated.

Neighborhood groups usually only became aware of new projects proposed in their neighborhoods when the statutory 10-days notice arrived in their mailboxes – a mere 10 days before a public hearing in which a proposal that may change the character of their neighborhood would be considered for approval.

Often, a few active neighbors scrambled to squeeze in time among daily obligations to meet and discuss their options. Most of the time, none of them had sufficient understanding to develop cohesive, informed opinions to present to the public boards who would decide the case. Where were they to turn?

About six years into my nine-year stint at INCOG, I began writing about a concept I called LandRules. The vision went like this:

MISSION

Create a free online community education resource that gives clarity to land use regulations, directions to navigate through public planning processes, and assistance with individual site development challenges.

WHO

For local community members or visitors from across the U.S. researching Tulsa’s real estate development environment.

Municipal websites all over the country are accessed daily as the primary resource for information about development regulations and processes. Users include property owners, neighborhood groups, developers, real estate agents, brokers, property managers, appraisers, landscape architects, architects, engineers, planners, designers, building contractors, libraries, schools, bankers, lawyers, and others.

WHAT

Unbiased, politically neutral, self-service community resource for understanding Tulsa’s land development regulations and processes. Essential for anyone who wants to understand zoning, development regulations, and local processes in order to accomplish a personal or development project, understand the impact of development on the neighborhood and community, or participate in the public planning process.

Consists of usable, searchable, accessible zoning codes, subdivision regulations, and comprehensive plan information, along with various related documents of Urban Development, Real Estate, and Public Works departments. Includes interactive tools delivering education or assistance to understand and apply land use regulations and development processes. Has an ombudsman-like focus that helps level the field to improve accessibility to regulations and processes, creating a bridge to the tools, vocabulary and knowledge of land planning.

WHEN

Immediately. Tulsa’s current online resources provide mostly static, rudimentary documents that aren’t searchable, lack proper navigation and a professional aesthetic. They are not reliably updated and in some cases there are redundant conflicting versions.

Current and emerging web technologies make it possible to provide a much more reliable and convenient service to all customers on a wide range of platforms and make it much easier for documents to be updated. Compared with cities of all sizes across the country, our current service is barely average. Progressive, visible changes are needed to position Tulsa as a leader in providing access to development rules and processes.

WHERE

City of Tulsa and unincorporated Tulsa County should take the lead and create a model for neighboring cities to follow. System should be seamlessly integrated with existing City of Tulsa, Tulsa County, and INCOG websites.

WHY

Because Tulsans are demanding major improvements in openness and transparency of our land development and planning processes. Because our current offering of online resources is scattered in several locations without adequate cross-referencing and in several cases are redundant with different versions of the same ordinance. They are cumbersome to navigate, static and unsearchable. They are not always reliably updated.

Creating such a knowledge resource will empower the community by improving accessibility for anyone interested in the decisions that impact their surroundings. It will present a progressive and welcoming image to businesses looking at Tulsa as a place to build. It will improve the public’s perception of local government and promote inclusive dialog and access to timely information.

Web technology was already robust 14 years ago when I wrote that, and it has evolved a lot since. Our options to make our planning tools available today are limited only by imagination and willingness. But the concept I’m describing and the mandates set out in the Comprehensive Plan aren’t so much about exploiting technology, as they are about usability.

Designing for usability is about empathy.

Delivering public documents and processes in a way that keeps the user at the center remains a valid constant, no matter the technology available. There’s a high art to crafting even a simple paper instruction manual that is comprehensible, intuitive to navigate, and can be used to successfully accomplish a task. The thinking skills that lead to such a superior user experience are not being applied to this problem yet.

The public’s right to access public information is foundational in this country. The absence of truly usable tools in Tulsa has contributed to an underlying, simmering frustration toward the public bodies charged with making it available.

Recognizing this, in early 2009, Mayor Kathy Taylor assembled the Land Use Education and Communication Task Force with a clear mission to “review and recommend revamped processes for education and communication regarding city land use processes.” 

Her memo to the committee set out the following specific objectives:

1. Review our education and communication regarding land use processes.

2. Examine how cities with a more collaborative process communicate with citizens regarding land use.

3. Provide recommendations for implementing new procedures here in Tulsa. Make recommendations on how to establish communication and education that:

a. Allow citizens to understand land-use planning and regulations through education and/or tools for receiving assistance in interpreting technical information,

b. Provide specific methods and language to effectively communicate public participation rules,

c. Explore methods for informal collaborative problem solving prior to the formal public hearing process,

d. Provide a clear and transparent method for understanding the decision-making process and obtaining information regarding the decision,

e. Utilize a database which can allow both neighbors and developers to understand past precedents and the reasons for such decisions,

f. Explore a method for evaluating potential changes in processes or land-use ordinances with a goal towards collaborative and consistent decision making, and

g. Outline resources needed to implement the recommendation.

I attended the task force’s first meeting and it was immediately clear that the Mayor’s goals and the concept I’m describing were in direct alignment. I asked for an opportunity to discuss my ideas and on April 13, made this presentation:

After several months of meetings, with presentations from a dozen or so experts, the task force finished its work in June 2009. It offered its recommendations, divided into six categories: Training, Knowledge Management, Codes, General Recommendations, Legal Issues, and Inspections.

The final Land Use Task Force Recommendation includes “Research the potential development of… Interactive web applications, as proposed by Jim Beach (www.landrules.com).” Flattering to know they thought it worthy to be included, but this and most of the “action items” recommended were weakly stated and there’s no apparent way to quantify or measure results.

The Task Force did recommend extending their term for one additional year to receive and review reports required under their recommendations and to expand its focus to allow further recommendations on long-term issues. But since Mayor Taylor left office, it isn’t clear whether the task force ever met again, did any additional work, or what substantial progress has been made.

It’s easy to find professionals and laypeople throughout our community laboring under a vague frustration with Tulsa’s current online services. They may not know exactly why, but they know what they’re getting is less than what they’re looking for. They may not be able to articulate how they would make it better, but if they had a first-rate integrated resource that delivered sought-after information and a satisfying experience, the difference would be clear.

As Smart Growth Tulsa continues to impact our community in positive ways, I hope one of my contributions will be to continue to write about excellence in the community-centered online delivery of development regulations and processes. I’ll try to share examples of the great and not-so-great from around the country and hopefully, build an influential picture of how a first-rate community makes its services available.

The tag line that emerged while developing the concept of “LandRules” still seems like a worthy aspiration:

“Empowering the community. Creating accessible regulations. Building a bridge to the knowledge of land development planning.”

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