According to Randall Arendt, a renowned planner and fellow of the Royal Institute of Town Planners, the effective planner must have four basic skills: observing, recording, communicating, and self-educating. Given the essential nature of urban planning, it's assumed that most of these skills play out in the real world: streets, buildings, parks, and the like. Unfortunately, many planning jobs keep planners cooped up in offices staring at desktop monitors. Smartphones, however, can reverse this trend, allowing planners to do much of the work they do on computer – researching, analyzing data, and even sketching – in the field, where, ideally, they ought to be.
While even planners can get distracted by Angry Birds and Pandora, we can now choose from a host of mainstream and industry-specific apps that can help uphold Arendt's time-honored principles. For example, on the job with Los Angeles County Parks & Recreation, I can use mapping and data analysis apps to evaluate and determine the suitability of potential new sites for parks while out in the field. Smartphones and apps also come in handy in meetings when I need to quickly research and answer questions about our parks, such as how many residents are within a half-mile of a certain park or which schools are within walking distance of the park.
For planners who haven't yet spent much time in the App Store, here are a few of the most useful apps, many of which are smartphone versions of software and websites with which many planners are already familiar.
While it is not possible to do full blown GIS work on a smartphone, this app allows you to: find and share maps from ArcGIS Online (ESRI's online GIS); use tools to search, identify, measure, and query; and collect, edit, and update GIS features and attributes.
Business Analyst Online (BAO)
BAO allows you to get key demographic and market data about any location in the U.S. It is a great tool for planners who need to evaluate an area on-site. Users can get up-to-date facts about the people at a location, e.g. age, income, education, home ownership, lifestyle, spending habits; compare one address against another or against the county, state or U.S.; and share facts about a location with others. Additional features are available for subscribers.
Cyburbia is the internet's oldest social networking site for urban planners and others interested in shaping the built environment. The Cyburbia Forums message board allows you to discuss and possibly find solutions to the issues facing your communities, share your knowledge, and enjoy conversation and camaraderie with other planners, architects, students, and other like-minded people.
Everyone should be familiar with Google Earth by now. This app offers the same global satellite and aerial imagery available on the desktop version of Google Earth, including high-resolution imagery for over half of the world's population and a third of the world's land mass.
Planetizen is intended to be a one-stop source for urban planning news, commentary, interviews, event coverage, book reviews, announcements, jobs, consultant listings, and training. This free app allows you to browse Planetizen's daily news summaries, job listings, feature stories, and blog. (Disclosure: Planetizen's parent company manages CP&DR's website.)
Planetizen Courses provide online video courses related to the field of urban planning. With this app, you can learn tools like mapping, Photoshop, and SketchUp, and about topics like pedestrian planning and planning ethics. This app enables you to view sample chapters (usually the introduction) of urban planning courses available. Full courses can be viewed in the app when you subscribe on the Planetizen Courses website.
The idea of building a city from scratch is exciting, especially when compared to the incremental, piecemeal approach to planning most of us have grown accustomed to. With this app, you can build your dream city, test your ability to handle multifaceted scenarios, and guide your city through seasonal catastrophes. It just may sustain your passion in planning and may even help you gain some useful insights for real life city planning.
All of these apps are available on Apple's App Store and most can be found on Google's Android Market. Unfortunately, there are no CEQA or post-redevelopment apps yet. But one can always check out CP&DR's website on a smartphone for the latest news coverage on both topics.