Engaging People in the Early Phases of the Planning Process

Public participation has become a buzzword in urban planning projects around the globe. Despite the trendiness, many challenges remain in achieving transparent processes and acceptable outcomes. A noticeable pitfalls is that participants are involved in improving their cities far too late in the process. Residents are annoyed to hear of coming changes in their neighborhood when the nearly-ready plan proposals are laid out in a public event. Participation organized too late in the process causes serious damage; it creates mistrust and frustration. At worst, the discord can grow to resistance that postpones the implementation of the planning process for years or even decades.

What can then be done?

Easily one ends up thinking, “let’s just try to support the participation efforts already in the very early phases of the process.” Unfortunately, the case is not quite that simple. In most cases, it is difficult to think of ways of implementing participation during the very early steps of the process, as in the initiation phase there is rarely a very clear picture of the coming changes in the environment that could then easily be discussed with the public.

Research has shown that PPGIS tools (public participation GIS) offer a relevant option for tackling public engagement during the early steps. In the projects which planners have implemented independently, they have utilized PPGIS tools such as Maptionnaire the most during the initiation phase of the project. Here we have some glimpses into how PPGIS tools can help when the project looks more like a mess than anything really well thought out, and hence the experts are uncertain to have anything published just yet.

Before going into this discussion, we should evaluate what characterizes the initiation phase. During the early steps, the idea appears on planner’s table. The idea can materialize from different sources, such as the city’s strategic work, decision makers, its planning organization itself, other city departments, public agencies, or even from one single resident. The contextual analysis and problem definition take place during the initiation phase, leading to the conceptualization of problems, proposals, and demands that are later transformed into plans and programs. This phase describes the “actual” beginning of the planning process, where the preliminary clarification of the context, the definition of the participants, the choice of the level of participation, and the preliminary selection of the tools are made.

PPGIS tools & Action points

From the participatory planning perspective, the initiation phase demands at least two action points: informing the public and various other actors, and gathering of comprehensive background data. This step is crucial because it formulates the foundations for the whole collaboration. More established public participation means that the involvement cannot be viewed as a one-directional flow of information towards the residents, but instead, it must be viewed as a phase in which participants should become inclusively bound to the process.

Finally, there is the question of how PPGIS can support participation in the early steps of the process. PPGIS tools such as Maptionnaire enable residents to act as information producers while also giving them the opportunity to react and communicate with the understanding received from other respondents. By reaching out to the public in a comprehensive way, the pluralistic and versatile experiential landscape is illuminated. At best, the controversial views and opinions are brought to light and the planners’ understanding of the local situation is improved. In addition to gathering the data online, public involvement needs to be supported by face-to-face collaboration and communication to validate and supplement the data gathered. This also creates cohesion between the various actors and the experts. The face-to-face events should be turned into settings that are more functional where co-working and collaboration truly take place.

Early Engagement

Finally, remember to be curious and open to learning more about your city!

Banner picture by Brook Cagle