Coastal charm goes electronic game style for community planning

CLEAR LAKE – A tabletop game of sorts could soon be a leading decision-making tool for city and county governments along the Texas coast, watershed experts believe.
And toying with data in a game-like fashion may help save lives and the economy of millions who make their homes along the Gulf of Mexico, according to Dr. John Jacob, Texas AgriLife Extension Service specialist and director of the Texas Coastal Watershed Program.

 Coastal charm goes electronic game style for community planning

Steven Mikulencak, left, and Dr. John Jacob play with scenarios on a “We Table” they created to help community planners and local residents make decisions about development and its impact on water and climate change. The project, called Coastal CHARM, which stands for Community Health And Resource Management and also captures what residents feel about their area, is part of a Texas AgriLife Extension Service and Texas Sea Grant. (Texas AgriLife Extension Service photo by Kathleen Phillips)

With coastal populations expected to grow by millions in the next couple of decades and the threat of hurricanes ever present, he said, wireless technology heretofore used mostly in the entertainment industry has been coupled with geographic database software, a laptop and a projector to help community planners visualize the best areas for people and the environment to co-exist.

The “game” is called Coastal CHARM, Jacob said, both because it stands for Community Health And Resource Management and because it captures what residents feel about their area.

“One of the things people say they are most concerned about is keeping coastal charm in community development,” said Jacob, who holds a joint appointment as Texas Sea Grant coastal specialist. “And, this connects two very important issues —  community health and resource management. What a community looks like — how vibrant it is, how resilient it is — and the natural areas that we live in and are part of are inextricably tied together.”

Hovering over a common table and armed with a light pen, several teams of coastal community planners and local residents recently “played” with various scenarios that they could, in fact, be faced with in coming years, such as 410,000 additional people living in the western Galveston Bay area with a category 3, 4 or 5 hurricane approaching.

The table, called a “We Table” by Jacob and project co-leader Steven Mikulencak, is covered with butcher paper onto which an interactive map is projected. The light pen operates like a computer mouse to let participants “draw,” click and select from various categories of land-use choices. The results of those choices quickly calculate and display the impact the region could expect from such decisions.

Instead of crowding a couple of people around a laptop to look at geographic information system data, Mikulencak noted, eight or more can circle a table and see the scenarios unfold on the interactive tabletop map.

“One of the challenges was to figure out how to do this so the public isn’t freaked out by the technology, which can be very intimidating. One of our principles was to put all of the technology off to the side so the people are working directly with the other participants and directly with the data on the table,” Mikulencak said. “We don’t want them working with the laptop. We don’t want them working with the projector, the tripod, the setup, any of that. The things that are familiar to everyone are a table surface and a hand-held pen. It doesn’t get any easier than that.”

In addition to configuring the technical equipment, the duo worked with professionals from the commercial software company Community Viz and adapted a coastal community atlas devised by Dr. Sam Brody, director of the Center for Texas Beaches and Shores at Texas A&M University at Galveston.

“We put a very public interface on it so people could easily play with it and easily see things like storm surge and wetlands and such,” Jacob said. “Basically what we are trying to do is put the tools of sustainability into the hands of our citizens. We don’t make their choices for them, but we want to make their choices as transparent as possible. With this program, they can see that if you do X, then A will happen.”

For example, Jacob said, people might use CHARM to consider the implications of a 50,000-person subdivision in various locations of a region.

“And if it is constructed to a certain code (to withstand hurricanes), how much more would that cost?  How much more resilient would that be?” he questioned. “And if a subdivision was made in a certain pattern, how much would that contribute to runoff pollution? Or what if an open subdivision proposed for a certain area has septic systems? What would that do to the water?

“It really is an eye-opening experience,” Jacob said. “It allows citizens to at least see what goes into these decisions and how these things might impact them. This allows people to do some things in the participatory democracy mode.”

With several people interacting at the We Table, Mikulencak said, people can “have a pretty thoughtful discussion with a lot of data to back that up, and they can test ideas.”

He also said citizens bring “values to the table” that may not have been considered in scientific research.

“Scientists have a lot of answers for us. There are a lot of relationships in the environment. One impact has an amazing ripple effect,” he said. “But scientists also do not necessarily know what matters to a particular community which is really why you need the citizen voice to not necessarily balance but to compliment the science.”

Mikulencak said a common criticism of models and modeling is “you put the variables you want in there and you got the answers that you kind of wanted.

“But the thing with this tool is that the assumptions can all be modified by the participants at the table during the exercise,” he said. “So if you make assumptions about what you ‘paint’ on the map — assumptions about household family size, cost of home construction, auto dependency or transit-readiness, for example — we can put that on the map, and the participants can adjust it like a volume slider on a computer. And then one can see instantly how an adjustment changes a scenario for the community.”

The team hopes to recreate CHARM for several Texas coastal communities from Brownsville to Beaumont. They also said it could be adapted for any community that wants to make the best decisions on future development.

The project was funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Sea Grant Office to consider ways to deal with coastal water issues and climate change.

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