Blog Post

My presentation at THATCamp Columbus: Democratizing Urban Planning Practice

Two weeks ago, I was able to present at another regional version of THATCamp, the Technology and Humanities Camp unconference that originated at George Mason University.  Our version, THATCamp of Columbus, was graciously sponsored by the Ohio Humanities Council and the Center for Public History and Digital Humanities at Cleveland State University and hosted by Columbus State Community College.  

I presented on the promise of digital tools and crowdsourcing to democratize urban planning practice.  My full session proposal can be found here, but the basics are as follows. As a profession that has taken a 180 in recent decades and substantively valued public input on planning projects, the time is ripe to maximize that whenever possible. I have high hopes for the inclusion of digital tools for enhancing this relationship, but don't think that the profession has fully embraced their promise. Additionally, the modes of public input are in my experience inadequate; public commentary at planning commission and city council meetings, charrettes, and applying pressure via letters to the editor or other news media outlets aren't quite sufficient and will need to be expanded alongside the introduction of new tools for input to really get on the road to democratic public input. So I came to THATCamp to ask for the input of folks who have undertaken similar initiatives in the digital humanities. The presence of many public historians and community journalists was particularly useful.

Some of the feedback I received included the following:

  • * Aggregate data coming in from multiple sources in order that planners can have it readily on hand, whether it was spoken at a meeting, emailed, called in, etc. This requires some commitment of funding and time, but can be very worthwhile.
  • * Use a tool like Zotero to allow tagging of all input, including by the time it comes in (before project proposed, during initial proposal, after a first round of changes have been incorporated, etc.)
  • * Arm residents with the tools they need to author participation processes themselves if you want them to be as involved as possible. While this might require a great deal of training on the front end, it can pay out later.
  • * The need for many communities is for home-grown advocacy, rather than initiatives led by planners or developers, and a less planner-centric process may be most beneficial for neighborhoods. Also, multiple publics are at play, so opening commentary from the viewpoint of the planner is not automatically going to bring everyone to the table.
  • * As I've already experienced, be wary of the potential for demagogues, NIMBYs, and BANANAs ("Build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything") to take over the process and shout out other voices, and have a plan to minimize the disruption. This is particularly an issue where digital access privileges some over others.

I also learned about some great initiatives already underway in this area, including the Open Planning Project, PlanPhilly, and the Dayton MostMetro forums.

It's important to note, though, that planners are beginning to have these discussions. The American Planning Association's 2010 conference in New Orleans will feature sessions on social media in planning, free Web 2.0 applications for planning, and applying technology to transit planning. I'll be attending APA and will be sure to blog about my experiences here.  If you'd like to learn more about APA, click here.

I'm grateful to the many folks that provided useful comments, notably Erin Bell, Brooke Bryan, Jeremy Crawford, Justin Hons, Marjorie McClellan, Eli Pousson, and Heather Soyka. This area of my research has been enriched by attending THATCamp; thank you. This is still a work in progress so if you have comments, I welcome them here too!

Finally, for folks who are interested in attending a THATCamp, the next one will be held at Michigan State University in East Lansing, MI on March 20-21. Submissions are due February 10.

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2 comments

Also, Participatory Chinatown has a blog located here: http://www.participatorychinatown.org/

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Anonymous (not verified)

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