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CoUrbanize wants to bring the conversation about urban planning and real estate development online

Posted by Scott Kirsner  May 16, 2013 08:30 AM

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If something new is being built in your neighborhood, the chances are pretty good that you don't get sufficient information about how it will affect you — or a chance to voice your opinion about it. Unless, that is, you have enough time on your hands to attend community meetings and hearings regularly.

A new startup out of the TechStars Boston accelerator, CoUrbanize, is trying to tackle that problem, and this week the company is announcing its first partnership, with the bike rental network Hubway. Co-founder Karin Brandt, right, an MIT-educated city planner, says that other partnerships with commercial real estate developers could be announced as soon as next week, when this latest crop of TechStars Boston startups present to investors.

CoUrbanize's web-based software allows developers to "explain their projects, and the impacts they can have on the surrounding areas, like shadows and traffic and parking," Brandt says. "They can also get feedback from passive proponents" — who may not have the same opinions as people attending hearings and community meetings. "We're trying to reduce the barriers to involvement for people." The software allows developers to publish a timeline of meetings; detail a project's upside, like job creation, new retail stores, or tax revenue; and invite comments in an online forum, with posters using their real names rather than pseudonyms. The interesting balancing act here, of course, will be ensuring that CoUrbanize's sites feel like a neutral forum, rather than anything controlled by developers, cities, or residents.

But Brandt says that the company sees its "sweet spot" as helping developers and governments communicate issues that are hard to understand and visualize, and notifying people about what's happening in a way that's more sophisticated than going door-to-door with printed flyers." CoUrbanize aspires to help residents voice their opinions, but also to help developers stop misinformation from being circulated — which can often happen in anonymous forums.

With Hubway, Brandt says CoUrbanize will help the bike-sharing network "get feedback about future stations, and where they should be located" as it expands in neighborhoods like Charlestown, Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, and the Innovation District in South Boston. Her co-founders are Daniel Weismann and David Quinn.

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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