Preserve the Foothills? Increase affordable public parking? Legalize marijuana? Those are just a few of the ideas Salt Lake City citizens have already posted to a new online forum created by the city to engage Salt Lakers and get them to design their own city.
Recently, Salt Lake City government has been working to get more feedback from citizens. Its Open City Hall forum has provided a place for residents to post comments about city proposals ranging from a mobile food truck ordinance to improving city golf courses. Now city planners want to allow citizens to set the agenda with their new User Voice Forum.
“[Open City Hall] has been really nice about giving citizens opportunities to participate,” says Nole Walkingshaw, a supervisor with the Salt Lake Planning Division. “But what it doesn’t necessarily do really well is have a conversation.”
Whereas Open City Hall gives users the chance to comment on proposals set by the city, the new forum allows users to offer their own ideas on how to improve the city and have a conversation with city planners about what kinds of projects they would like to see happen. Users can also vote in favor of ideas posted by other users.
While the site was only recently unveiled, the forum is already collecting posts. One post suggests that the city allow more space for graffiti and street art, that it considers an art contest that would allow artists to paint utility boxes, among other ideas. “Why not encourage art and expression so when you take a walk there is something to see besides advertisements?” writes Raphael Cordray. Her idea garnered 37 votes from other users.
Another idea that suggested that the city in-fill big-box store parking lots got 20 votes, while another that simply states “Legalize marijuana” got 24 votes. But Walkingshaw says some very unique ideas are already trickling in, like one post suggesting the Utah Transit Authority offer a family-friendly fare, instead of charging children six years of age and older the same as adults. While Walkingshaw says that issue might be out of the city’s jurisdiction, it also offers the city an opportunity to interface with that resident whenever future issues arise that might involve bus-service decisions.
“We can start mining the comments so that when we see someone making a lot of comments about the Jordan River or something, we can shoot them a note and say, ‘Hey, we’re looking at changing rules about the Jordan River,’” Walkingshaw says. “That way, we can start directing people to policy.”
The new forum is expected to become part of a new Web portal Walkingshaw says is still under development that would also provide a landing page where citizens can follow the progress of all of the city’s current projects. But it's the user forum he hopes will get citizens more engaged in the public process. He says currently the city reaches out to more 2,000 residents through its e-mail list but “we only get about a 1 percent return on that notification process.”
With the new forum designed to appeal to the social-media literate, Walkingshaw says ideas somewhat outside of the scope of Salt Lake City government, like the family-friendly UTA fares proposal, could gain votes and popularity enough that maybe city leaders might feel they have to lobby the transportation authority about it.
The “Legalize” residents may, however, be waiting a long time for Mayor Ralph Becker to start lobbying Congress on their behalf.