Democratizing Urban Planning Practice

January 5, 2010 by

For years, practicing planners have been seeking substantive input from urban residents on their plans for new roads, rail systems, housing developments, and shopping centers. Having abandoned a “build now, ask questions later” mode of practice, we now seek input from affected residents because the result is a better city.  The primary modes of citizen input include public comment periods at government meetings (e.g., planning commissions and city councils), and charrettes, where planners present mockups of the proposed changes and solicit feedback.  However, these fall far short of what we might call “democratic planning” because they do not reach all or even most people affected by the proposals and often fail to offer a realistic vision of what will be built.  To address these shortcomings,  planners need to look outside of our profession for better models, working from inspiration in technology and the humanities to build realistic, democratic, participatory plans that everyone can see and to which all can contribute.

Planners have tried promising experiments to move beyond the typical models for citizen input.  Participatory Chinatown, a project of Hub2, uses 3-D visualization to model potential changes to the built environment of Boston’s Chinatown, inviting residents to immerse themselves more fully in the future form of their neighborhood and provide comments on what they see.  For folks not conversant in Second Life or computers in general, local teenagers serve as guides to the technology.  Betaville, an open-source platform for partcipatory urban planning where users can submit their own designs for remaking city spaces, is another.   These tools have the potential to blow open the planning process and make it radically participatory, even democratic.

I am seeking ideas you can contribute to the practice of planning for substantive citizen input.  When a resident steps before his or her city council to speak about a development, the time is minimal and the council may or may not be attentive; when a charrette is held in a neighborhood about to undergo physical changes, planners usually fail to consider neighborhood context.  We usually begin with the assumption that anyone who wants to will speak their mind through these avenues; with demagogues taking up much of the allotted time and the inability of some folks to attend these events, it is unlikely that everyone who wants to comment actually does, or even that those who do are fully informed of what is changing.

Therefore, I propose that “substantive citizen input” depends upon 1) information about what is to change that is as complete and comprehensive as possible, including well-developed plans from planners and developers, 2) a decentralized process that does not necessarily depend on getting to City Hall or the community center at a certain time and day in order to provide input, and 3) someone on the other end that listens to and incorporates public feedback into the given plan.  In my experience, #3 depends on the planner(s) involved to take their role seriously and value public input.  However, I think we can enhance #1 and #2 through new tools and processes, like those described above.  These will then pave the way for democratic, participatory planning.

Why am I presenting this to you, an audience of digital humanists, when I work in the very social science-y field of urban planning?  The field of planning does not incorporate participation by many people very well into practice, even though it is necessary and valuable.  Because we strive to use our knowledge in the service of society, we must do better.  I am here to mine the knowledge of digital humanists—an interdisciplinary group innovating with technology and studying people at the same time—to find useful additions to the planner’s toolbox.

5 Responses to Democratizing Urban Planning Practice

  1. Erin Bell on January 5, 2010 at 5:43 pm

    This reminds me a bit of the current discussion about city management and the mobile applications that have been launched around the country as vehicles for citizen feedback – mostly to log and geolocate complaints/requests for maintenance. (e.g. ). I can (almost) conceive of similar tools that would address citizen concerns and collect input/feedback. I imagine that one of the reasons planners are often unable/unwilling to consider citizen voices might have to do with the manner in which they receive that information: an array of emails, phone calls, letters, and voices at private meetings and public forums. Not being a planner/developer myself, i am making a bit of a jump in assuming that after a while these scattered and conflicting voices might begin to sound like a mob. These communications each still hold their own value and we wouldn’t want to discard them wholesale but perhaps some kind of centralized system for collecting/logging/analyzing feedback might filter that information into something more easily digested and more productive.

    Having a background in Library and Information Science, I now wonder if anyone has done an information needs profile on urban planners (or similarly positioned professionals)? How do they communicate and gather information? Speaking of libraries, I believe the Kelvin Smith Library at CWRU is very active in Second Life, going so far as recreating the entire campus in SL (or, so I’m told). I don’t have any SL experience but I wonder if “visiting” their campus to see how they (do or do not) present new buildings and construction/renovation projects might be revealing?

    Anyway, just a bunch of thoughts that came to mind. Hope I can catch your session!

  2. jonerthon on January 5, 2010 at 10:43 pm


    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I would think (this is all hypothetical as I haven’t yet worked in the field) that you are correct about the flood of information that could come in when we open the gates, but I would think that is manageable. The bigger issue in my mind is participation; in the cities where we work, not everyone has his/her own cell phone, or internet access at home, so the real challenge is to get as many folks as possible contributing like the Gov 2.0 article.

    I am not familiar with any such information needs profile for planners, but I’ll ask around! And I’m going to check out the CWRU Second Life lead; thanks for pointing it out.

  3. Marjorie McLellan on January 11, 2010 at 9:02 pm

    There is a lot of potential in the link between social media and new approaches to visualizing data and the democratization (certainly a concern of humanities) of policy and planning. Quality of access may be a hurdle for fuller participation. It seems like citizens would need to be able to author as well as to comment on approaches. This may require hardware and local workshops in digital storytelling, mapping, and other tools. I look forward to discussing these ideas with you.

  4. jonerthon on January 14, 2010 at 5:37 pm

    Thanks, Marjorie. I’m finding as I talk to more folks that you’re right: there’s quite a bit ahead of us in reaching a more democratic planning process. The plus side of that, of course, is that we can involve experts in storytelling, e.g., in the process for the first time and enrich our practice in addition to the plan that results.

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