Champion City Part 9: This Old Dog Learned New Tricks!

This is a guest post by Ralph DiBart, the longstanding Executive Director of the New Rochelle Downtown Business Improvement District reflecting on his experience with the Mayors’ Challenge. Established in 2000, the BID is a non-profit association of over 800 business and property owners whose primary goal is economic development, new business and new investment. As part of its mission, the BID is also devoted to assuring clean and safe streets, adequate parking and exciting downtown activities and events. The BID is one of the three key partners in New Rochelle’s 2018 Mayors’ Challenge.

This old dog learned new tricks. As a trained city planner, and now the Executive Director of the New Rochelle Business Improvement District, I have focused on building community for more decades than I’d like to admit here.Over the years, I have found that public engagement and participation is important to good projects and good communities.

But effective public engagement isn’t always easy. Here’s what I have observed through experience:

  1. Many members of the public shy away from sharing their thoughts in large forums such as public hearings, especially now that many are televised.
  2. In a more intimate setting, people will openly discuss their opinions regarding plans and programs with me; however, meeting one-on-one and with small groups to discuss can be labor intensive.
  3. It’s hard for most people to imagine physical buildings and spaces. This has been universal, extending even to those who are known for their visual acuity, for example artists I have worked with in developing artist communities.

I became resigned to the belief that, although important, public engagement would always be time consuming and as a result, limited by necessity.

Well this old dog learned some new tricks during New Rochelle’s Bloomberg Champion City project exploring how and immersive technology could encourage and expand quality community engagement. I am one of the least technology-versed people around. I don’t even have a Facebook page, and I’ll admit it: I have frequently thought of technology as something that “isolates” people from community. But in the process of our project, I have learned that virtual reality, augmented reality and 360 video technologies can be useful tool (and easy to use!) to further people’s ability to visualize projects, share opinions in accessible and personal forums, and allow neighbors to work together in new and creative ways.

This became especially evident during our public engagement on Saturday, June 16th at the BID Downtown New Rochelle Grand Market where people were given an opportunity to test various technologies to visualize, plan and comment on projects. The enthusiasm displayed by the public and the number of people who were able to participate in a short period showed technology offers great promise to advance community planning. I was also amazed that the appeal and ability to use this technology for the purpose of visualizing and commenting spanned very sector and age group of our wonderfully diverse community.

The one, the only, Ralph DiBart!!! (With teammates, Amelia Winger-Bearskin of IDEA New Rochelle, and Jenn Furioli, Project Manager for New Rochelle’s Mayors’ Challenge.)

The New Rochelle Downtown BID has a strong history of collaborating with the City of New Rochelle on projects of importance to our downtown and community. I’m thrilled the BID is a key partner in this project. As our New Rochelle Mayors’ Challenge initiative has progressed, I’ve become increasingly excited about the potential to use immersive technology to bring people together and plan better communities. I look forward to work in developing the tools and methods to use them that will hopefully occur over the coming months to allow more people to participate in more cities in learning about and sharing in planning their communities.