Newton signs solicit zoning feedback by text message

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One of the signs placed throughout Newton asking for feedback related to zoning​As it overhauls its aging zoning ordinance, Newton is soliciting feedback by placing 15 signs around the city asking questions that can be answered by texting a phone number on each sign.
The signs, placed at locations such as bus stops, include questions like, “Have you seen any new buildings you like in Newton or elsewhere?,” “Waban is a small village that’s big on character – how can we preserve what’s special yet allow for moderate growth?,” and “Is live-work housing or home businesses something you’d like to see in your neighborhood?”
Each sign has a unique phone number. Answers texted to that number are then posted on the city’s zoning overhaul website and pinned on a map where the sign is located, alongside other comments and feedback left on the map by community members.
Lily Canan Reynolds, community engagement manager with the city’s Planning Department, said that Newton officials are always seeking more diversity in public participation, and meeting times and locations don’t always fit busy schedules, particularly for young families, despite the efforts to make them as convenient as possible.
“Asking people to come from 6:30 to 8 on a Wednesday night and you’ve got kids, and soccer, and homework, or your own personal things going on, it’s just not likely you’ll get that type of participation,” she said. “This program is really great because it’s on-the-go. It doesn’t necessarily target young people, but that’s a group we see less participation from at our meetings.”
Newton does not have a singular downtown, but 13 different village centers, with various feels and aesthetics. Questions like the one about Waban allow a level of specific feedback from people who live, work and visit in that village.
“There’s a lot of different history and development patterns,” Canan Reynolds said. “That’s one of the other goals, is to be sensitive and responsive to the different kinds of building patterns in different neighborhoods across the city, rather than zones that treat them all the same.”
The signs and Newton’s website are built on the coUrbanize community engagement platform. Jonathan Lee, marketing and community engagement manager at the Boston-based company, said the phone numbers for the signs are rented for $1 a month.
Each time someone sends a text to the number, it interacts with the coUrbanize platform code to pin the comment on the map and list it in the comments section of the website.
“As the project comes to an end and the project team needs a digest of the comments, we prepare that and send that to them,” Lee said. “We’re actually working on better ways to sort that, grouping by topic, etc., but they can already be grouped by which sign people are responding to.”