How do developers get neighborhood buy-in during pandemic? CoUrbanize has new tools
Construction is largely at a standstill in Cambridge, Somerville and Boston due to the coronavirus outbreak. But coUrbanize, an online service industry uses to communicate with neighborhoods where there are projects going up, says it is rolling out tools today for the next phase – when work restarts but social distancing makes that communication more complicated.
The team at coUrbanize, which began in Kendall Square but is now based near Boston’s Financial District, said it was getting calls from planners and developers looking to emerge from what they called “the holding pattern the coronavirus shutdown has created.”
“The public process for planning and real estate development has been upended,” said Karin Brandt, the platform’s chief executive and founder. “We’re helping our customers navigate this new reality – in which public and in-person meetings and engagement cannot happen – by giving them tools to communicate more effectively, virtually.”
There are five tools coUrbanize planned to launch today that are likely to see use soon by residents of Cambridge, where the site has more than 20 active pages on everything from an Eversource substation and the Foundry community building to office space on Cambridgepark Drive and affordable housing in The Port.
The tools, as described by coUrbanize, enable long-distance meetings, including a function “to notify community members when virtual meetings start”; offer more, easier embedded video; let residents ask for a virtual one-on-one or small group meetings with a project team with a single click; and offer residents the chance to offer public comment by voice messages that get transcribed automatically into text and added to a project page, because “some community members don’t have access or a comfort level in using online technology.” The company has also given developers a way to add a section of their pages just for coronavirus-related project updates, assuming they will be more frequent and urgent than the usual pace of construction.
Planners and developers collaborated with coUrbanize in creating the tools, the company said.
There are also three new features just for the industry, including an online forum, virtual office hours with coUrbanize execs and advice from the company on “Community Engagement in the Age of Covid-19.”
The Cambridge Redevelopment Authority is just starting a public process that will use the new public tools, said Tom Evans, executive director of the agency.
“Community outreach can still happen even if traditional public meetings are canceled,” Evans said in a press release. “CoUrbanize will allow us to engage with the neighborhood and continue moving the project forward even during this unprecedented time.”