Urban Planning and the Public Participation Process

Scaling technology to the local network

Written by Sarah Bassett

Public participation has been an essential component in the urban planning process and is changing rapidly due to the affordable influx of new media and digital technologies. New media has become a pervasive element in interactions between the public and planning officials, and therefore should be approached thoughtfully, particularly in regards to the potential of technologies in encouraging or discouraging the democratization of planning outcomes. Even though new media can bolster positive outcomes for communities, new and emerging technology, if improperly managed, has the ability to perpetuate gaps in community representation and power imbalances.

The matrix (below) provides a cross-analysis of four new media systems, including Android and iOS apps, html based crowdsourcing, social media, and augmented reality games. Broadly, these digital interactions provide the opportunity to assist government and planning departments with current and dynamic monitoring. The information can be uploaded or utilized to change complaints into constructive action for planners, where the technologies themselves can provide the structure for citizens to engage. Crowdsourcing and social software, in particular, offer forms of online community building through “virtual grassroots outreach.” This gives people the option to communicate with the technology while also being able to respond and be pressed to interact with others.


In order for a scaling of these technologies, institutional frameworks and capacity need to be addressed in order for the success of alternative approaches to participation and public data-input utilized in a specific locality. Designing Chicago (see matrix, above) serves as one example of how technology can be scaled to the local network. The group is “creating a mobile app for navigating public transit” and is using social media (Facebook, Twitter, blogging), crowdsourcing (Kickstarter), public forums, and visioning sessions to develop its intended final product (an app). The project directly works with Chicago’s government and private transportation departments. The result is a transparent, community-driven process that has had successful public engagement (long-term) while also involving a diverse range of stakeholder groups.

For these technologies to meet the potential as useful tools in the planning process, utilizing multiple strategies for engagement results in successful, triangulated approaches to democratizing the planning process (e.g., preferably a mono-directional, localized strategy). Ideally, methods such as social media would initially engage citizens, using two-way conversations to gain input. Crowdsourcing would be used in combination with social media to match funding engagement. App usage would allow for long-term input and data collection (as one example), while augmented reality would help to visualize process and final ideas. The necessity of using multiple if not all of these new media strategies provides a combined approach that meets multi-directional and multi-scalar strategies in addressing how technologies can be scaled to the local network.

The shift in use of new media is one way that can, and in some small ways, currently does, challenge and address actions of roles and responsibilities. Online platforms cannot be the only approach, as there must remain offline interactions. This physical interaction in the public process cannot be discounted or replaced, but technology is a powerful tool in providing exchanges of information and ideas through quick and direct interest gathering and engagement. Approaches that truly incorporate both methods will bring in a wider audience, including those left behind by technological translatability (e.g., generation or education gaps). Participation in the planning process is an essential tool to increase information sharing and constituent support of development proposals. Planners need this input in order to make informed, responsive decisions within and for these frameworks. Through the utilization of new media, new ways of approaching how planners engage with the public is conceivable.

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