Nearly all the projects I work on – from municipal strategic plans to Class Environmental Assessments for major infrastructure projects – involve public participation. Planners and governments know very well that public involvement is a key element to the success of any planning endeavor.
In every municipality in Canada, citizens are given the opportunity to voice their opinions about projects, policies and plans that play such an important role in shaping our lived experiences in the communities we call home. No matter where you are, from St. John’s to Vancouver, you can attend a public meeting or public hearing and speak your mind in the presence of public servants and elected officials.
Beyond public meetings there are a number of other public consultation methods such as citizen’s panels, visioning, focus groups, and notification, distribution and solicitation of comments. But let’s face it, not all of these methods achieve genuine participation in planning decisions, nor do they represent a broad spectrum of the public.
As planners therefore, we must be innovative in the way we involve the public and ensure that we deploy meaningful engagement processes representative of the diversity of our communities.
Most recently, some organizations have been using the internet, namely Web 2.0 applications, in practical and innovative ways to engage citizens. The term Web 2.0 distinguishes websites where users participate in developing applications and/or provide information from the one-way, traditional internet (Web 1.0) where websites simply provide information.
Here are two examples of how Web 2.0 is being used to develop policies and plans:
- Give a Minute Chicago: This CEOs for Cities outreach initiative asks residents of Chicago to take a moment to share their ideas about what would make them walk, bike or take transit more often. People submit their ideas online or by using their cell phone. The ideas are shared in an imaginative way – displayed on the ‘Give a Minute’ website. The idea is that the input will be analyzed and provided to local officials for consideration when crafting new policies. The concept has already been expanded to Memphis, New York and San Jose.
- BikePed Wiki Website: The Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) is the largest metropolitan planning organization in the U.S. SCAG launched a Wiki website to allow users to be part of a collaborative planning process by directly editing and commenting on the Regional Transportation Plan. A wiki is a website that allows users to create and edit a number of interlined web pages.
Organizations are increasingly turning to Web 2.0 (You Tube, Flickr, Twitter, Facebook, Blogs, Google Docs) to engage the public on important urban issues. While these applications indeed encourage public participation, they have limitations. For instance, some participants may lack the skills required to interact with the web while others may not have access to a computer or internet service.
Nevertheless, Web 2.0 applications allow planners to gather relevant information with greater efficiency and to orchestrate discussions among a large number of stakeholders. It also breaks down barriers between stakeholders and planners by crowdsourcing ideas and promoting a bottom-up, rather than a top-down approach.
Andrzej Schreyer , R.P.P. is a senior land use and environmental planner with Hardy Stevenson and Associates and a member of the Ontario Professional Planners Institute and the Canadian Institute of Planners. His experience includes developing and implementing public participation and communications plans, managing social impact assessments and land use studies in support of infrastructure projects and preparing community-based strategic plans.