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Asian CDC Launches Participatory Chinatown as a New Community Tool

May 17th, 2010 by Pete Kane

Earlier this month, Asian Community Development Corporation (ACDC) and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) showcased a groundbreaking tool for civic engagement. Developing a very realistic 3D environment mimicking Chinatown in Boston, Participatory Chinatown gives community members opportunities to learn about the possibilities and tradeoffs the neighborhood may face in the coming years. MACDC member ACDC, in collaboration with MAPC, has provided its community with a new way to learn about their neighborhood while at the same time interact with a possible future for that area. Provided in both English and Cantonese, the program has been crafted to meet the needs of the local residents. Youth from the neighborhood volunteer at the events as well to help other residents learn how to use the 3D space and feel more comfortable.

ACDC and MAPC have hosted a number of interactive sessions for the public. I attended their event on May 5th which was focused on educating practitioners about the tool. Broken down into two sessions, we are able to see Chinatown in two different lights. The first session focuses on playing a fully-storied character in order to achieve the character's desired goal. Each character is looking to fulfill a need within one of three categories: work, housing, social. My character, Hong Yee, was a recent immigrant with a family looking for suitable, low-income housing. By playing the character within the 3D world of the current Chinatown, you as the player are provided a view into what Chinatown is like today. Where can you find a job, where are the different types of housing located, what locations provide adequate social interaction? Through interactions both with hotspots in the world as well as with other characters, I was given hints as to where to find housing and what that type of housing could provide my family. At the end of this session, the player is asked to evaluate the options they have been presented and choose the three best options for their character. Which three jobs do you feel your character can be successful at, what housing options provide you with your needs, where can you socialize and thereby grow within your community? These choices come with tradeoffs, providing the user a view into the issues facing those currently living and working in Chinatown. There is also the chance you may end up with none of your choices - a direct reflection on the current needs of the area. As my character had a fixed budget and needed at least two bedrooms, my options were slim. In the end, I did not find housing as the wait list for my choices were too long.

The second session allows the user to examine some potential development scenarios. The three scenarios - housing-oriented, jobs-oriented, and mixed-use - were developed by MAPC and ACDC for the area of Chinatown south of the Turnpike. Participants are presented with a number of topics that deal with planning and development such as business, open space, parking and identity. Based on the three topics you feel are most important to consider when redeveloping this area, you are presented with one of the three scenarios. I selected “walkability,” “connectivity,” and “identity” as the most important factors which resulted in the mixed-use future scenario. As a user, you are invited to enter a 3D world again - this time it is the scenario that was selected. You then walk around the world to see what a future for the area might look like under this type of development. While walking around, you are asked to provide comments related to the earlier topic areas as well as to provide other comments. These comments are viewable by everyone and will be utilized in the visioning process for the Chinatown master plan.

The Participatory Chinatown team traveled to Washington, D.C., in May as part of National Lab Day to showcase the potential of this tool to senior White House Staff. This meeting will help to bring this virtual concept to the national stage, showcasing the possibility to many other community development organizations as a means to engage their communities. It will be exciting to see what information, concerns and ideas come out of this new innovation that MACDC's member ACDC has developed.

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