Communicative Planning for the Digital Age

As the social media landscape widens, planners are faced with new opportunities and challenges when communicating with stakeholders and community members.

More than ever, planners need to inform and educate people about urban issues. Somehow we need to get across to residents and various stakeholders the importance of the planning processes which will ultimately impact their lives. Our recent work incorporating social media in planning processes shows us that an informed and deeply involved population will tend to have a much more positive impression of a project, making new media an essential building block for public support. The key to this communicative process lies in actually reaching people, breaking through the flood of information with which we bombard ourselves on a daily basis.

For good or bad, we are increasingly learning and communicating through visual and audio mechanisms.  Until quite recently, the primary way that people learned about any given planning project was to have happened to see a notice of public meeting in a newspaper  and then to have gone to a live information session. Even then, it was essential to pore over extensive and often complex documents in order to gain a full understanding of the issues. The simple truth is that because of this, many people simply did not engage with the process. Luckily, in recent years, the rise of internet use has provided planners with many powerful tools – as well as new challenges that must be faced.

This new ability to directly reach people through digital communication has fundamentally changed the way planners are doing their jobs. There have never been more ways to reach people and inform them about projects that affect their lives. Powerful analytic software has put complex information at our finger tips. Improved graphic design and 3D rendering have vastly improved presentation materials. Through social media, we can now go beyond media releases and actually start hearing directly from people whose voices might have otherwise been marginalized. And in truth, we have only begun to scratch the surface of what the internet can do to improve the planning process.

The next major shift in planning will come from increased online collaboration. The ability to have multiple stakeholders contributing to a single document carries fascinating possibilities. For public consultation, imagine a shared map for a specific project area on which any citizens can comment, or a public forum in which people can speak directly to each other and vote on each other’s ideas. Established services such as Google Maps and Reddit could be powerful tools in future projects. For planners themselves, the ability to coordinate various consultants and city staff through shared documents, schedules and even video conferencing represents an opportunity to sidestep our usual geographic limitations and open new potential markets.

When properly implemented, the internet represents the greatest addition to the planner’s toolbox in many years. The power of this medium far surpasses the one-way communications of print, radio and television by allowing for interactivity with people that is essential to the planning process. While the potential benefits for planners are vast, the challenge that we must now embrace is how to best incorporate these new technologies into the planning process. This shift will require a certain creativity, foresight and passion for change. Luckily, planners are no strangers to these traits and so it seems that this transition will be embraced and will support various forward thinking projects around the world.

Noah Brotman is an Urban Planner at Hardy Stevenson Associates Limited and the newest member of our team. Noah completed his Master of Environmental Studies and Urban Planning at York University. While there, he focused on planning policy development, urban design, renewable energy implementation and community involvement in the planning process. Noah has extensive experience in video production as well as experience in analyzing the impacts of large-scale infrastructure projects on local communities.

About Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited

Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited (HSAL) is a multidisciplinary strategic planning and public affairs consultancy, focused on environmental and land use planning, stakeholder relations (including communications, facilitation, public consultation and engagement), socio-economic impact assessment, communications, engineering and related services. We have the expertise to predict and decipher technical and public policy issues, and significant experience mitigating them, building consensus and attaining even the most complex approvals. For more information, visit
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