Salt Lake City Uses ‘Empathy Exercise’ to Address Homelessness Topic

September 15, 2016 – OpenGov


Typically, when a city works on a land-use project, the focus is on—well, the land. But Salt Lake City has proven that’s not always the best approach.

Salt Lake City is trying to decide where to build a couple of homeless resource centers, and they’ve asked the community for input. However, instead of putting the focus solely on the location of these places, they’re framing the conversation in terms of the people these places will serve.

That’s because there’s a lot more than location to consider when it comes to building a homeless center—such as accessibility for the population it will serve, and its relationship to the surrounding neighborhood.

“It’s a delicate balancing act,” explains Civic Engagement and Innovations Manager Nole Walkingshaw. “We knew that if were to just to plop a map and say ‘place pins where you think things should be,’ it would be terribly difficult to be successful.”

So instead, staff created an online “empathy exercise,” which invites everyone to virtually meet some of the homeless people who could benefit from these new centers. Participants begin by clicking on a portrait, and then read that person’s bio so they can learn about some of the struggles they’re facing.

Later in the online exercise, participants are asked more pointed questions about design elements—but that initial empathy exercise sets an important tone of understanding.

“As they moved toward the actual physical site selection, we wanted people to have a better understanding of what the needs are, and what sort of criteria we have to consider when picking a location,” Nole says.