The Time for a Comprehensive Plan for Second Life is Now!?

Today I read a great article about digital citizenship, Digital Citizenship and the Forward Edge Transference, written by Mike Langlois, LICSW. In his post, Langlois discusses many similarities between online and offline behavior. This was interesting to me because as a local government employee, I've also recognized many similarities between offline communities and online spaces. But my focus usually tends to be more on how the community functions as a whole. Langlois is in the psychotherapy and social work fields, so his perspective seems to be more targeted at the individual and interpersonal level. But both of our observations meet at the same very important point in all this – people are viewing, approaching, and behaving in these online spaces as though they are in an actual place. They rely on and feel loyalty and obligation to the digital space where they hang out, and this sense of responsibility extends to the people there with whom they interact.

The significance of these observations to offline and online governance should not be underestimated. It will eventually have major impacts as digital populations increase. One example is the current sign of unrest among the population of the virtual world of Second Life. If this were occurring in an offline community, the solution would be to develop a comprehensive plan. And if we acknowlege that people in a digital space are behaving as they would in an offline space, there is no reason to believe we should not apply this same solution to Second Life. If we do not, past experience in the offline world has proven we risk diminishing the success of our community.

While a comprehensive plan is not a cure-all, the practice of going through it and the final document can go a long way in helping move a community forward. These plans are viewed by professionals to be so important that grants are commonly offered to help fund their development. Unfortunately at this time, grant providers have not yet come to the same awareness as some of us that digitial spaces also need these plans. So moving forward on a plan for a virtual community would have to be self-funded or be developed through volunteer efforts. 

Another challenge in developing a comprehensive plan for a virtual space like Second Life is that there are no models to follow. But due to the similarities between online and offline spaces, I believe it would not be too difficult to modify a typical plan to meet the needs of a virtual one. Because I feel so strongly about this, I went ahead and developed a proposal for implementing the comprehensive planning process in Second Life. And I went so far as to have it peer reviewed by an experienced planner. Then feeling confident it offered a well-thought out approach and reasonable solution, I emailed it to Rod Humble. Of course, in the back of my mind, I didn't really expect a response and never received one. I just don't think a private company wants to believe they have anything in common with government. And many private managers or CEOs probably aren't very familiar with how local government actually works and why.

The problem with Linden Lab not choosing to at least consider this solution is that in an offline space, I don't think development of a comprehensive plan is usually undertaken without the "city" being involved. So I am not sure if it would be possible or worthwhile to attempt this without the involvement of Linden Lab. But I do believe this type of exercise and plan would help  address many of the current concerns in that particular virtual world. And I think some group needs to provide the lead that many online communities might eventually have to follow. So I decided to post the proposal here and ask if anyone in the Second Life community sees value in this or believes it would be worth the time and effort or even a discussion or if it is even possible to implement on our own. If not, I suppose it will eventually be another online company that in the future forges this path.

Second Life Comprehensive Plan Proposal 2012


What is Government’s Role in Community Events?

Once again I've been intrigued by the similarities between online and offline communities with the topic this time focusing on the handling of community events. And I wonder how much the "real" and "virtual" communities can learn from each other. If you work for a city, your experience is probably very similar to mine – you regularly assist your employer in some capacity in hosting either annual or special events and reviewing and approving community events hosted by others. Usually events held on private property need only meet ordinances and laws, and there is no formal notification or approval process involving the city. However, events held on public property are covered by rules and usually require city approval.  In order to provide this approval, some cities only require notification and perhaps a certificate of insurance while others ask for all or some of the following: application form, fee, maps, insurance, agreements, and assistance.

Community events on public property

Where I currently work, all departments are involved in handling event applications for something that will be held on public property because all of us have a potential to be impacted in some way. Although there are some events requiring no city services, most of the time some level of police or fire oversight or protection is needed. For larger events, public works provides barricades, water, garbage pickup, or electricity. The entire process for us is managed by our economic development department, and we do not charge a fee for our support services. The city itself rarely hosts an event all by itself – we do have a few official "city events," but these are usually managed by our local chamber of commerce – not by city staff. We just don't have the employees or funds to support the planning and management of major events. Instead we tend to focus our efforts on activities that promote local businesses. One example is our "Fall in Love with Downtown Geneva" – a month-long contest held in February that involves asking people to register at local businesses to win prizes. Each week our city council picks from the entries and announces the winners at the council meeting. 

LaSalle Fest Celebrations

Celebrations aren't always fun and games

My event-handling experience with my last employer, the city of LaSalle, was much different. During my time there we really didn't receive many requests from others to host activities on public property. 

The city itself hosted one main, official city event each year and had been doing so since about the mid 1970s in various forms and locations. But during most of my 16 years working for the city, the 4-day event was held each August in the city's main park. From what I remember, each year, this event ended up creating a major disruption to that facility and the surrounding neighborhood. The celebration also took an enormous amount of time to plan, set up, manage, and host. Fortunately for our city, the main planning and management of the actual event was handled by volunteers. But even so, it still required a lot of support from our city staff. For that whole week leading up to the celebration and for several days after we really could work on nothing else because we had to get the park ready for the activities and clean up afterwards. And even though so many people put in long hours and hard work, citizens regularly complained about the celebration. Eventually the complaints got so bad that for the last year of my time there, the elected officials decided to no longer host the event. And from what I could tell, the neighboring communities seemed to have similar experiences.

Events in a virtual community

Second Life's 8th Birthday Celebration

So because of my background in local government, I've been very interested in observing how Linden Lab, the owner of the virtual world of Second Life, has been handling their community events. The activities taking place in this environment offer experiences similar to those we find in our offline lives with the exception of having a physical presence. However, there are a few benefits available not normally offered in an offline activity – because everyone has a profile that can be anonymously accessed, it's easy to check someone out before approaching them. Also, because of the chat and other communication tools, it's easy to have a real conversation even while attending an event with music – unlike what is possible in an offline venue with music. Another of the many benefits I have found related to events in Second Life is the ability for organizers and hosts of these events to register and advertise events held on private lands. This is helpful because if you are sitting around your virtual place wondering what there is to do, you can just click open the search and see what events are taking place. You can even set an event to notify you before it is starting if you are logged in. (Although I wish there was a mobile app for this so I could get notifications on my iphone.) The registration setup is very easy and quick – I sometimes wonder if this is a service cities could model for their own communities. You can check out Second Life's event listing here:

In addition to the offering of tools to support private events, Linden Lab has chosen at times to host their own events. Most, like the celebration hosted by my last employer, relied on significant participation by volunteers for assistance with organization and management. And like what happened where I used to work, this year Linden Lab seems to have made a decision to pull back and not host formal events. In particular the company recently announced they will no longer provide the public space and hosting of their annual birthday celebration. Instead they are asking people to use their private event notification system to let people know about privately-hosted events held to celebrate Second Life's birthday. I am not sure why they made this decision, but as you can imagine there have been mixed reactions from the community. Some are upset and believe Linden Lab should be more involved in the community and show their support by hosting these types of events while others believe it is better to leave celebrations and events to the community itself. What is fascinating is that this is exactly the back and forth we hear from citizens in our offline communities.

Lessons learned

The take away from this is what most of us in government have come to realize: there will always be some people who want their "government" more involved while others want it to back off and let the private sector lead. So where is the balance? What is government's role in community events? My philosophy with local government has evolved to where I believe each agency needs to deliver the services expected and requested by their community as long as their members are willing to fund those services and if the law allows the government to provide those services. The difficulty is in determining just what should be provided because not every community will choose the same services and there are so many conflicting opinions. For offline communities, this decision is usually made by councils who regularly consider requests and vote on policies and ordinances to meet service requests. And if a community is well run, those officials make their decisions based on feedback from members of the community so their decisions reflect the will of the people.

But what is an owner or creator or manager of a virtual community to do? To be successful, they can take a page from the city management book and follow the same process a city would and create a comprehensive plan for the community. This plan, developed with input from the community, provides the guidance needed for community development and management and decision-making. The recent commotion about event hosting is only one more sign that this virtual community has reached a point every city eventually faces if there is no plan for the community's future. And any community developer will tell you that failure to plan the future is planning to fail – even in a virtual community.




A Day in the Life of a Civil Engineer – Day 62

Day 62

Bus Rapid Transit

Today a few of our staff attended a meeting at Sherman Hospital in Elgin. The county arranged for the meeting to discuss bus rapid transit (BRT) along the Randall road corridor. It was a well attended discussion that lasted for most of the morning. A representative began the presentations by highlighting information about the new hospital. They have a 15-acre geothermal lake for heating/cooling that has saved them $1 million in operating costs annually. (You can read more cool facts about the lake here

Next Kane county board chairman Karen McConnaughay summarized the county's work and vision for Randall road. Then Josh Ellis from the Metropolitan Planning Council  shared with us his organization's work with studying bus rapid transit in Chicago. Earlier this year they released the report:  Bus Rapid Transit: Chicago's New Route to Opportunity . His explanation of how they identified potential corridors was interesting and made sense. 

Next up was the consultant who has been studying the implementation of bus rapid transit along Randall road – a long transportation corridor that links many of the larger communities in Kane County. It's interesting to me as someone who just moved back into the area a few years ago to listen to these studies and recommendations, remember what the corridor used to look like 30 years ago, then hear the background story of how Randall road developed. Many, many years ago when I lived and worked for the city of Aurora, I used to occasionally drive along Randall road to visit parks and the fairground. So I remember the rural character of the road that existed before development broke loose out here. Having left the area about 1985, I never saw how the road expanded to a four-lane urban section with major big-box stores replicated along it from Aurora to Elgin. But I've been told there was great effort put into making sure the corridor was streamlined for the movement of cars to the point of designing out pedestrian access. These past efforts seemed to have worked – the road moves a tremendous number of cars on a daily basis. However, it most definitely is not conducive to moving peds/bikes. And unfortunately, all those stores and amenities are huge attractions for the large population living on the other side – particularly teens who can't drive (I know from personal experience with my own children). Over the last few years, attempts have been made to bring the pedestrian back into the mix by adding sidewalks and a bus route with stops. But the pedestrian infrastructure has a long way to go, and that doesn't help with navigating the long distances between shopping centers. So, to summarize, the current trend is to "undo" the "success" of initial, car-centric development efforts in the corridor.

After hearing from the county's consultant, we broke into groups to further discuss the feasibility of implementing BRT in the corridor. Everyone seemed to conclude that yes, it could work, but… I think the "but" shows the success of BRT will be dependent on the market, the understanding and acceptance by the city governments and the public, the funding, and the specific characteristics of each area along the corridor. One key change that will have to occur is for the corridor to change from a sprawling retail center to an area of high density, mixed-use developments. This is because BRTs are dependent on the presence of a large population in need of transit. So the question is, do people want this part of their community to transition to a densely populated area with a mix of other uses in order to improve movement of pedestrians along the corridor? It's hard to say.

Finally, the morning ended with planners from PACE demonstrating the current challenges of navigating the current bus system along Randall road. The problems include a lack of shelters, sidewalks, and navigation aids. Fortunately there are plans to install shelters and sidewalks next year so this will greatly improve the experience.

Overall, readers of my blog can probably figure out what was on my mind the whole time – PRTs! or personal rapid transit. With the cost of BRTs at $2.5 to $24 million per mile, it definitely should be cost effective to instead implement a PRT system, and it would be less intrusive to the corridor. There are other benefits over a BRT such as not having to wait for a bus or learn a schedule and not having to tolerate a packed bus with no where to sit or place bags, and I am not so sure a PRT would require the change to high density. But of course, this is what is so frustrating about being in the US – most people here want to hang onto old technology while other countries are already implementing newer and better solutions that we refuse to even acknowledge. What makes it even more frustrating in this situation is that we were not talking about putting in a BRT system today – this is our county's vision for 2040! By that time, every other country in the world will have a PRT system, and we'll just be cutting the ribbon on a new BRT system. Oh well, I embedded a video showing the new PRT system at Heathrow. Maybe by 2040, I'll be retired and can move to a place like England!


Downtown Plan

After lunch we had another meeting to finish reviewing our downtown plan. There are a lot of changes we've made to the draft so the consultant will have a lot of work to revise it. Of course, the focus of our department is more on the transportation sections, but it's still interesting to listen and learn about the zoning and economic development side of it all.

APWA Meeting

At the end of the day I met with a few members of our local chapter of APWA. We have all volunteered to help out at a workshop that APWA will host on November 10th to teach team building and problem solving skills. It was a good and fun discussion, and everyone came up with great ideas to integrate into the day. If you are in the Chicago area and are interested in attending, the link to the information is here: Team Building and Problem Solving Skills

One side discussion that came up at our meeting was the lack of engineers in the US compared to other countries. Although we didn’t get into a lot of theories of why this is, I have to wonder if it does have something to do with what I mentioned in the BRT paragraphs above – the US is behind other countries in investigating and implementing new technology. I realize this is not in every industry, and from what I can tell, our military is impressively cutting edge. But these pockets of innovation don’t get transferred to the lives of the general public.

One suggestion I had made at the BRT meeting was to take the discussion into the schools – after all if they are talking about something for the year 2040, it’s the people in school now who may well be weighing in on the fate of Randall road. Better to have them aware of it and thinking about it now. And maybe it might get some interested in pursuing a career in transportation. But few seem interested in doing this or in seeing the benefits of involving schools in what we do. So we end up with kids in school who see adults implementing the same old solutions, avoiding innovation, and leaving them out of the discussion. Why in the world would they be interested in engineering! However, I realize there’s also the chance that places like China have more engineers because they are making kids study engineering. My co-worker is from there, and she said she had no choice what to study or where to work – that was all decided for her by the government.

On a lighter note, I did discover one of the other volunteers also plays World of Warcraft which also started a whole other side conversation!


Creating an Impressive Planning Commission Document

One of the many benefits I have working for my current employer is the opportunity to work with other staff members who excel in their profession. And even though they impress me on a daily basis, this week I was totally blown away by the awesome job our city planner did on his report to the planning commission for the hearing held this Thursday. So I wanted to share it here with everyone as an example of how a standard, sometimes perceived as perhaps "boring" document, can be transformed into an attractive, easy to read, engaging, and helpful document. Our city planner said that now he has the template in place, creating each document is not that much more work than setting up one in the old format. 

In this particular packet, there were two applications: one for a change in the uses allowed in a zoning district and another from the city itself asking for a zoning change and a special use for a specific property. I like how the beginning of each application has a summary of who the applicant is, the location and owners of the property, the request, and the recommendation. And I think our planner has done a great job with the layout using text and images to explain the background, request, and recommendation. It's a great example of how with just a little bit more work, creativity, willingness to change traditional formats, and attention to detail, we can change even the most common government documents into more attractive and understandable reports.


Geneva Planning Commission Packet 09-8-11