How Can Planners Use the Web?

Robert Goodspeed's picture
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In the last few years, a set of interactive, web-based technologies has reinvented the web. Myspace, Meetup, Wikipedia, Youtube have become household words, and millions of people worldwide are surfing social networking websites, writing blogs, and collaborating online in new ways. These so-called "Web 2.0" technologies were the inspiration for TIME's person of the year: You. What the true impact of these technologies will be, we must conceded it is, as TIME says, "a massive social experiment."

Even the most hardened technology cynic will concede the technology is having indisputable impact on journalism and politics. Newspapers are re-imagining themselves as primarily web-based news organizations and political candidates raising millions from online donors and pouring resources into exploiting the technologies for votes.

To a large degree, the planning profession has soldiered along these past few years largely unaffected. While perhaps this is understandable for a profession dominated by academics and government officials, technology can be leveraged as powerful planning tools. Whether it is soliciting feedback on projects and plans, communicating timely and accurate information, or identifying urban problems, Web 2.0 technologies could play a central role in the planner's toolbox.

Here are three potential applications:

1. Seeking Input on Projects and Plans

The most logical application is using the web to complement any effort which requires public input. As a matter of course, all documents presented at meetings should be clearly presented online, and comments should be able to be sent online. New York City's PLANYC 2030 website asks visitors to post their ideas and vision for the city in an edited, organized manner. The city of Providence, Rhode Island has posted their Interim Comprehensive Plan to an interactive website, inviting citizens to provide feedback on specific elements.

2. Providing Information Regarding Specific Projects

Too many agency websites present project information as legalistic, hard-to-navigate project approval documents. While many agencies have online GIS systems enabling users to create complex customized local maps, the information sought by most citizens is at a much more elementary level. The City of Alexandria, Virginia combines their development viewer online GIS system with well-edited project pages to present clear, timely information about new projects to citizens, two reasons their site was selected as one of Planetizen's Top 10 planning websites in 2006. Customized online mapping need not be limited to jurisdictions with budgets for sophisticated, customized GIS applications, however. Tools like Google Map's API mean anyone can plot information on a map, a technique a student group I'm involved in has utilized to create a "development map" of the city of College Park, Maryland.

3. Engaging and Informing the Public

Planetizen contributor Ken Snyder has already suggested one way Web 2.0 technologies can be useful to planners: by making a greater amount of hyper-local information available. Given the highly localized nature of planning decisions, the ability of these technologies to bridge the last mile from traditional media's citywide scope to the block level is a tremendous boon. In every city in the country, a complex civic infrastructure of local blogs, email lists, and discussion forums has formed. Planners can and should utilize this terrane to take the pulse of the community, and promote their meetings and initiatives.

Beyond conducting research and outreach, the technologies can be used to better organize official websites. Planning agencies commonly produce a constant stream of official documents: meeting agendas, press releases, project approval documents, reports, and many more. Blog technology could be a useful tool to clearly post, organize, and archive material online. The Mongtomery County, Maryland Planning Board website is a good model of how this can be done: documents and audio are archived online and easily searchable, and the website even offers RSS feeds so citizens can track activity.

What About the Digital Divide?

While it is true that a significant segment of the population is not online, I don't believe it justifies neglecting attention to the internet. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 73% of adults use the web regularly, and 88% of people age 12-29. They note that important gaps remain: 73% of whites use the web versus 61% of African Americans, and older people with less education are less likely to use the internet. However, between 2000 and 2006 the percentage of American homes with a high speed internet connection increased from 5% and 42%, and is still rising. I believe better access to information online has a payoff beyond online users as better informed civic leaders transmit the information to their communities.

As a profession, planning is uniquely poised to benefit from new online technologies. Not only can they assist in the ongoing problem of educating and engaging the public, if used creatively online efforts could help build an engaged constituency for planning.

Know of other examples of creative work online? What uses should be added to my list?

Robert Goodspeed is a PhD student at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning.

Comments

Comments

Great post!

Hello Robert,

I've seen this process at work in many cities... Minneapolis uses mailing lists to serve bicycle constituents, Oakland employs a zero waste yahoo mailing list, the list goes on.

If cities want to compare notes with other cities they can reach out to others through SustainLane Government's knowledge database and peer directory as well.

http://sustainlane.us/

Good writeup of something I've been seeing but hadn't put to paper.

-Ken

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