Planning in the Age of Participation — presentation at SCARP 2010 Student Symposium on Resilience

Last Friday, I had the chance to address a small group of planning students, faculty and (hopefully) others interested in planning about the use of digital media. (Slides embedded below.) A hat-tip to my friends working on ChangeCamp, who from whom I borrowed the idea of “the age of participation.”

I was delighted with the questions that my talk was able to generate. I drew on many of the previous conversations I’d had with my fellow planning student about my research interests to frame this talk, and I think that helped me draw my focus towards the concerns that planners have in mind.

So I focused more on the “why’s” of using digital and social media rather than the “what’s”, although I certainly tried my best to delve a little into the fun, neat apps and ideas that are out there — namely, CycleTracks, Open Data, and that classic, EveryBlock. In hindsight, this might have been a poor strategy for changing people’s preconceptions, but I think it worked out OK for what it was – my primary concern is coming off as a technological determinist, to be honest, because there are plenty of those to go around; and I feel like it’s important to emphasize that both the fears and the excitement are rooted in equally legitimate observations.

Two questions / comments come to mind and are memorable to me:

  • Ray Spaxman pointed out, as part of Nancy Pepper’s facilitated discussion of quality versus quantity in connections. I pointed out a few minutes later in my presentation that conversation is one of the things enabled by digital media – and that the outcome of the connection made, taken in aggregate, may have a different set of benefits than only high-quality connections. In some ways this is resembling the difference between bridging and bonding social capital. I’m also certainly not one to argue that we shouldn’t be aiming for quality connections, only that different benefits are available.
  • Tony Dorcey noted that interactions with the public are often of three types: public information, public consultation, and public engagement (likely reference to my slide on the tasks of planning). If memory serves, he pointed out that online tools have been looked at more for those first two, information and consultation, and the results are mixed on the engagement front. I’m in agreement with him on the mixed results, but I’d also add that the public is less interested in the planner’s goals or intentions for a particular stage. The important lesson with the social web is that conversations are always happening, whether planners or cities are holding them or not; whether they are centralized on an official site or stretching on for 100+ comments on someone’s unofficial blog post on only a vaguely related topic. As I stated, these conversations are opportunities for engagement, involvement or learning.
  • At the same time, I was also given the chance through Tony’s question to make a point that danah boyd forever lives in my heart for underscoring, time and again: these tools taken by themselves do not change power dynamics. (Municipal and government) planners are still, on the one hand, information curators and gatekeepers for decision-makers; and on the other, they may be either instruments of the state acting on citizens or partners in mitigating impacts.

What interests me is how the chips fall on relationships now. One of the reasons I’m such a big fan of Frances Bula, as I’ve mentioned, is that she’s got a Rolodex to die for, and she’s been building relationships and managing interests and perspectives long before it was popular. I think people in this capacity – to represent the legitimate interests and report the facts, in some ways, play a different role in a more broadly distributed reputation-centric and collaborative environment. I find some of what she said really fascinating – that she’d never go out of her way to burn someone in her writing, and she’d give the people she wrote about warning if she could tell people would get upset at something a person had stated and which she would quote. that’s the kind of forthright integrity that I hope underpins the move towards accountability and transparency, through things like the open data movement.

I wasn’t able to give a lot of air-time to resilience — and to be honest, I don’t know a heck of a lot about it — but the idea of planning a city that’s responsive and flexible requires a nervous system, and this is the rudimentary start to establishing that, and it is one part — certainly not the only part — of giving our cities the quality of information to potentially be resilient.

(I am also writing a legal paper about transparency in public participation planning in a couple weeks, so I’ll get a lot more real on this soon enough, don’t you worry. ;)

Thanks again to PlanningPool for inviting me to speak, as well as my fellow students who all worked so hard to put this event on!

If you attended the talk by any chance, I’d love to get feedback on what worked for you and what didn’t about my presentation. Was there something you were expecting that you would have liked to have seen in it? Please leave a comment below, I’d be delighted to hear from you.

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  1. […] out the examples of neat web apps that show how things are not being done business as usual. At the SCARP Symposium I started with the big ideas and moved to the examples, and I got some feedback that this may have […]

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