Understanding the Implications of Technology-Enabled Urban Planning Participation for Practice

Lead Research Organisation: Newcastle University
Department Name: Architecture Planning and Landscape


The history of planning is a story of changing priorities and influences, with it constantly undergoing reform in its role, ideological stance and political preferences. Early approaches to planning ruled with a heavy hand, with 'all-knowing planners' applying art, and later science, to understanding and solving urban problems. This structure, however, could not accommodate the increasing questioning by the public of planners' decisions and the recognition by planners of the need for citizen input.

Current participation methods, however, are unsuitable and unwieldy for many people. It is widely accepted that citizens should have more say in shaping local areas, an agenda developed academically for over thirty years through communicative and collaborative planning theories. However, although the sentiments of enhanced planning participatory forms are often agreed upon, translation of the principles into established political and professional practices is much more difficult to achieve.

The bulk of planning participation methods are non-digital and tend to mirror offline methods despite widespread recognition over the last ten years of the opportunities for more citizens to become engaged in the planning system by embracing technology for meaningful participation. Digital systems for urban planning sit at the interface of human computer interaction (HCI) and democratic opportunities for citizen engagement, resting on issues concerning place, politics and communication.

In my doctoral research I assessed the degree to which new digital technologies can be designed and deployed to enhance citizen engagement within urban planning and identify ways to overcome some of the challenges with citizen engagement. Through designing, deploying and evaluating speculative digital technologies, the research explored the role of technology in facilitating enhanced citizen participation in planning.

The research has already been impactful. ChangeExplorer (a technology developed during my PhD) was implemented and researched as part of central government's 'Future of Statutory Notices Pilot' to understand how site notices could be improved. A paper describing the project is currently the second most downloaded paper in Environment and Planning B: Urban Analytics and City Science (with over eight-thousand downloads). The work was also recognised in two Connected Places Catapult 'Future of Planning' reports. A second technology, JigsAudio was noted by Nesta and deployed in a number of impactful projects across the region and internationally.

Further work is needed to consolidate the vital conceptual development of this work, and to reinforce the impact of my work to date. This will be done through four intersecting aims:

- Build on my track-record of high-quality publications in the social sciences to consolidate my doctoral research through publications: the first brings together the conceptual arguments across my research case studies; with the second reporting on the wider issues that planners experience with new technologies for engagement.
- Using my current networks of practising planning professionals, such as my links to the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA), and other professional organisations, develop key pathways to impact through targeted engagement with professional audiences.
- Disseminate the results at national and international conferences to bolster the impact of my doctoral research and widen my practitioner and researcher networks.
- Cement my transition towards an independent researcher by developing an application for ESRC's New Investigator Grant towards the end of the fellowship.


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