How Urban Systems used one simple tool to transform public engagement
Urban Systems, a western Canada-based professional services firm, helps community members engage with infrastructure projects using beautiful narrative maps that are easy to make. During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Urban Systems used stories like these to enable community participation at a distance. Now, Urban Systems’ Communications & Engagement team is using its story-building skills to enhance the in-person experience and help even more community members get involved.
Urban Systems is a professional services firm in western Canada with over 600 members. It provides engineering and planning services to clients in the public and private sectors. Using an interdisciplinary approach, they help build communities that are safe, sustainable and prosperous for clients, including First Nations, school boards, large and small municipalities, provincial governments and land developers.
To help engage community members in the projects that affect them, Urban Systems’ project leads call on their in-house Communications & Engagement team. But during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when lockdowns shut down normal planning activities like public information centres, the Communications & Engagement team had to pivot quickly to accessible online formats. One of the key formats they used was the ArcGIS StoryMaps story.
Now that those early days of the pandemic are behind us, Urban Systems has continued to use StoryMaps as a cost-effective way of building out polished project sites quickly. It turns out you really can have it all—if you have ArcGIS StoryMaps in your toolbox.
An emergency pivot becomes an elegant solution
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Urban Systems led many of their public engagement activities in the form of in-person meetings and pop-ups. The Communications and Engagement team had already been looking for web-based tools to support in-person activities, largely to increase these activities’ reach.
For example, members of the public who are unable to attend evening meetings at fixed times—such as working parents—might still be able to use an online tool to comment on a planned infrastructure project. Finding something that could both work easily for lots of people, and effectively communicate projects that can get complex, was a big priority.
When they looked at the available tools, Urban Systems found that ArcGIS StoryMaps was already part of their existing ArcGIS Online subscription. In fact, some of their staff members had been experimenting with it even before pandemic lockdowns were put into place. This allowed them to pivot quickly once lockdowns started.
In this pressure cooker of an environment, the Communications & Engagement team rapidly learned that StoryMaps was a great way to connect members of the project to complex infrastructure projects. First of all, StoryMaps stories are beautiful. They’re visually compelling and can be kept minimalistic for ease of reading, or they can be packed with multimedia components to keep users engaged. The scrolling format, which allows users to move fluidly through a linear narrative, is well-suited to public engagement, which often requires planners and communications professionals to justify a project and ask for feedback.
Not only that, but StoryMaps is easy to use. The Communications & Engagement team members have been able to quickly build StoryMaps stories without a single line of code. A team member at Urban Systems can slot together components in StoryMaps, insert existing content, and have a beautiful, accessible, visually compelling story that took very little time to make.
To find out more about how exactly the Communications & Engagement team made the pivot to using StoryMaps for public engagement, I asked one of their team members to talk about a specific project where this had to happen. Urban Systems’ Alex Miller spoke to me about the Highway 1 Widening Project, based in British Columbia. Keep reading to learn more (and see some great visuals from the story itself!).
Project Highlight: Highway 1 Widening Project
Alex Miller has been a community engagement consultant at Urban Systems for the past three years. Though she graduated with a combined degree in business and geography, she nevertheless comes to ArcGIS StoryMaps as a layperson. “GIS was my least favourite class in university,” she says, which just goes to show how accessible the platform really is.
The Highway 1 Widening Project is one part of a larger highway infrastructure upgrade for British Columbia’s Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure. It’s a complex upgrade that involves replacing underpasses, upgrading an interchange and adding new cycling facilities, as well as widening the highway and installing high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes in some areas. Starting in mid-2020, Urban Systems undertook a public engagement process as part of the larger project. This coincided with the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when lockdowns stopped in-person public meetings from going ahead as normal.
Highway 1 is a high-volume corridor used by commuters, the trucking industry and other forms of transportation. It also crosses several streams and creeks that residents care about enormously. Urban Systems needed a way to showcase the many proposed changes to this section of Highway 1 in a way that left no detail unexamined, but still engaged people and invited them to comment.
Because of the way it uses scrolling to take readers along a linear narrative, ArcGIS StoryMaps allowed the Highway 1 project to be displayed as one continuous vertical map. Using this scrolling feature, Alex and the Urban Systems team have been able to display the entire project area overlaid with detailed information about the proposed upgrades.
To help address the concerns of Urban Systems’ many potential audiences, each key area of the project gets its own section within the story. There are separate sections for the Glover Road Crossing, the CP Rail Crossing, local cycling networks and so on. Each section discusses the key issues and proposed improvements associated with that area and shows an interactive bird’s-eye view. So if, for example, you were a daily commuter and regular user of this busy corridor, you could easily find out where the new HOV lanes would be, then use the Swipe feature to get more detail.
The Swipe feature, says Alex, is especially good for infrastructure because it can be hard to communicate upgrades like this in a way that’s easy to understand. This way, she can illustrate big changes with a single graphic.
All of this project information is presented with instructions for users as well as interactive elements like live Q&As and embedded surveys, which have been critical for collecting feedback. In fact, through the surveys they embedded into the Highway 1 story, Urban Systems received around 500 responses from members of the public, which Alex counts as a success. Part of that success, she says, comes from the fact that because of StoryMaps, readers don’t have to navigate a complicated site with different pop-ups and pages. It’s all integrated into one distraction-free space. All a reader has to do is scroll through the story from start to finish, and they won’t miss anything.
The versatility of StoryMaps has been one of its most surprising aspects, says Alex. There’s a lot of room for creativity, and it’s very easy to use as a creator. On top of that, the finished product ends up looking more polished than the straightforward assembly process would have you believe.
“StoryMaps is really enabling people in the Communications & Engagement space to adapt to the changing times,” says Alex. “As things are becoming more digital and on demand, as we’re focusing more on accessibility and a diversity of tools to communicate, this platform has helped us meet those needs.”
Want to get more inspiration for creative ways of using ArcGIS StoryMaps? Stay tuned—this is only part 1 in a three-part blog post series about Urban Systems. For now, you can read about how others are using ArcGIS StoryMaps.