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    imageMagical Urbanism, a website about urbanization, design and social change, is maintained by Mike Ernst. I'm an urban planner and designer based in New York City. I graduated from the Masters of City Planning program at UC Berkeley.

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    Participatory Planning in the Digital City

    An Urbanizing Planet

    Urban planning as a profession works to address the challenges cities face as they undergo rapid change. Working on multiple scales, planners seek to create communities that are economically viable, inclusive and sustainable.

    Yet planners have had a conflicted history with the communities they’re purported to serve. Planners too often have taken on the role of experts; planning and urban design have been viewed as technical, elitist pursuits, with set rules that could be applied universally, regardless of local context or history.

    Highways are a prime example of planning decisions that have negatively impacted the neighborhoods they most directly impact.
    (Image Source)

    The often disastrous results of projects that were given ‘expert’ sign-off have led to a general consensus that local knowledge is essential and invaluable in making successful planning decisions. Too, local knowledge is starkly different from technical expertise: it is situated and contextual; as social scientists Marian Barnes and Chris Skelcher say, local knowledge encompasses “meanings, values and beliefs as well as cognition.”

    Public participation is vital to creating successful projects.
    (Image Source)

    The Need for Inclusive Planning

    Given this understanding, planners have had to rework the decision-making process, to be more inclusive and democratic. Participatory planning aims to give people a say in the decisions that may affect them and to ensure that interventions are appropriate to the needs and preferences of those they are intended to benefit. Barnes and Skelcher note that a participatory process seeks to have citizens move from being ‘targets’ of policies to becoming deliberative partners in generating the knowledge necessary for decision-making. Too, planners shift from being technical experts to facilitators of a deliberative process.

    Input cards from the opening of the new J. Max Bond Center on Design for the Just City at the The Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture.

    The Digital City

    Technological innovations allow for new and diverse forms of participation. Particularly exciting are applications that permit new ways of collecting data, gathering feedback, and democratizing decision-making. Improved information technology means that data can flow more freely than ever before. Instead of information only flowing “down” from decision-makers, data can move “horizontally”: to interested neighborhood organizations, entrepreneurs, and citizens. Location-based technology – where citizens can provide real-time feedback – is an emerging field with great potential for participatory planning.

    The increasing prevalence of smart phones has exciting
    implications for participatory decision-making.

    (Image Source)

    Although technology allows decision-makers to have access to more information than ever before, the digital divide is still an on-going problem… Planners should be aware of who has access to technology.

    Dialogue: Innovation and Outreach

    With these themes in mind, join GreenspaceNYC and Magical Urbanism author Mike Ernst for an discussion on participatory urban planning in New York City on Wednesday, May 9, 2012. Click here to RSVP and for further details.

    We have an excellent panel made up of planners, designers and activists who are doing innovative work in participatory planning. Join us for a discussion both of emerging trends in community planning, especially around digital technologies, and how they can be effectively integrated with traditional organizing and outreach efforts.


    • Paula Z. Segal and Eric Brelsford of 596 Acres, a public education project actively mapping city-owned, vacant land in Brooklyn;
    • Frank Hebbert, who leads the Civic Works team at OpenPlans, which explores how technology, planning, citizens, and government come together;
    • Kaja Kühl, an urban designer, planner and founder of youarethecity, a research, design and planning practice interested in creating dialogue about the urban environment; and
    • Brendan Crain, Communications Manager for the Project for Public Spaces, where he works to promote Placemaking strategies that directly engage citizens in the shaping of their public spaces.

    Please join us!


    For further reading, check out this paper (0.7 MB PDF) by Marian Barnes and Chris Skelcher.

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