How to enhance public participation in urban planning: a new toolbox

In what ways do digital tools contribute to citizen participation in the urban planning process? Researcher Ioannis Ioannou delved into the world of public participation for the SPRING Citizen Voice project, part of the Resilient Delta Initiative. In this interview, Ioannis explains his research process and his main findings

What did you set out to study and what is the importance of your research?
The objective was to develop a conceptual design for a digital participation platform. At the same time, we wanted to provide guidelines to enhance public participation in urban planning. I tried to find all the parts of the puzzle to understand what each stakeholder wants and combine them to create a toolbox of participation.

There are many different stakeholders -citizens, researchers, policymakers, and governmental bodies – each voice deserves to be heard. You can view public participation as a microphone in a big room. Microphones can empower a voice depending on your position. People close to the microphone can be amplified while those far away can be excluded. Other parameters also come into play, some people have louder voices others might have speaking disabilities. Technically speaking, if you want to achieve more participation, add more microphones.

How did you conduct this research?
We started with a series of workshops involving policymakers and experts to collect their input. In a later stage we did semi-structured interviews within specific fields. We combined all this data into software and developed a questionnaire that we distributed amongst citizens.

We synthesized all this input to understand each stakeholder’s view and created a conceptual design. What technical requirements and characteristics should the platform have? What are the motivational factors for each stakeholder?

What can the municipality and other parties do with your insights?
Digital participation tools have a lot of potential. They help overcome barriers to existing procedures. People living in the city do not need to go to the municipality to participate in city planning. If you can just open an app on your phone, participating in urban planning becomes accessible.

Citizens are the main users of public space; we need their local knowledge and take their views into account. If you cooperate with citizens in the project that a municipality is working on, you’ll not only have the support for the project itself but also for the policy and governing body in general. By taking feedback from citizens, governments, and other stakeholders, we can go one step further.

Do you believe moving forward this digital approach should replace traditional design methods and tools?
While digital tools provide additional ways to fully participate, they are not the only way. You need both existing procedures and digital public participation. Just as we have eBooks and paper books, they provide the same thing in different ways.

The responses to the questionnaire showed that citizens can have totally different opinions compared to other stakeholders. They care less about having digital maps or social media features in an app, they just want to be heard. Something that really stuck with me was something a researcher told me: “A simple survey is as sophisticated as a digital participation app.”

What should play a central role in follow-up research on the use of digital tools for public participation in urban planning?
When you are dealing with so many different groups it is important to understand what each person wants. Even with urban stakeholders, you sometimes see differences both internally and externally. For example, while citizens have replied to our questionnaire stating that open-source digital tools are not important to them, this does prove important to researchers and policymakers.

Follow-up research should focus on ways to further understand what each specific group wants. We can develop tailor-made solutions suitable for each stakeholder, and truly make public participation part of the toolbox.

Want to read more about Ioannis his research? Click here to read his master thesis “Urban Voices: Citizen Voice: An innovative Open-source Map-based tool for effective public participation”.