‘Engage Bellingham’ enables residents to plan city’s future online

City officials want to hear from young, social media-savvy residents through a new Web page that takes comments on Bellingham’s 20-year plan.

With questions such as, “What are you most concerned about as the city grows?” and “What can we do to create a more sustainable community?” the Web page engage.cob.org is meant to be a user-friendly way into the technical, 700-page comprehensive plan, which is undergoing an update. The city must complete the update by mid-2016.

Officials wanted residents to be able to contact the city in a way that was convenient for them, said Vanessa Blackburn, the city’s communications director. People can comment from their phones or computers, day or night.

“We really want to get a broad range of feedback from the community,” Blackburn said. “Similar sites to this have had thousands of people participating.”

To get that amount of participation, the city will need to draw people who don’t usually comment on planning documents.

“Increasingly, the demographics are younger folks who are much more inclined to use electronic means to engage rather than attending meetings or writing letters,” said Rick Sepler, the city’s planning director.

Engage Bellingham works like a social media platform. Once users sign in, they can answer two questions about what should or could happen in Bellingham over the next 20 years, and comment on or rate other people’s answers.

“Someone can put out an idea, and the community can build on that idea so it really does become a community conversation,” Blackburn said.

The site asks for the user’s birth year because city officials would like to know whether they’re reaching, for example, people 18 to 30, Sepler said. Users can sign in with a Facebook, LinkedIn or Google account, or create an account with their name and email address.

The page was developed by Kansas City-based MindMixer, a company used in similar ways by hundreds of municipalities. Neither the city nor the company will share users’ personal information, Sepler said.

“It’s solely for demographic information. Those lists don’t go anywhere,” he said.

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