Engaging with citizens in the post-pandemic world

Urbanists and city planners will have to remodel existing practices to consult with citizens on new urban plans
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My last thinkpiece “ Post-coronavirus: what next for urbanism and placemaking? ”considered the economic, social and environmental implications for cities in the immediate aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.

Over the next 3 blogs we will look in more depth at specific practical aspects in an era of social distancing.  This will include:-

  • how we can involve citizens in the co-development of urban ideas, plans and strategies
  • how urban governance could respond to the ‘new urban order’
  • how we might need to re-design the spaces in which we live, work and play

The first of these blogs will consider the first of these topics.

Re-modelling our ‘old’ practices into new methodologies

In the new ‘post-pandemic’ world urbanists and placemakers will more than ever need to engage, consult and collaborate with local communities when developing new or revised urban strategies, plans and services.  For urban areas hit hard by coronavirus, this communication and engagement process will be an essential tool for re-building trust, confidence and networks: this confidence needs to be re-built within and between communities, and with urban authorities & agencies.

Public design charette, Mexico

However, physical distancing will also need to be accommodated.  In some towns & cities this will be mandated, for example by local, regional or national laws and regulations, which may be applied universally for a fixed time period; or may be imposed / loosened / re-imposed in response to local spikes in infection rates.  Aside from the physical challenges, there may also be psychological barriers: in some neighbourhoods fear of infection may deter citizens from getting involved in initiatives with other people, where they don’t feel reassured of their physical safety.

The Royal Society for the Arts’ (RSA) recent article “Bridges To The Future summarises the the process we need to go through succinctly in this graphic:

So how do we urbanists resolve all of these different challenges?

Firstly, we can look to more recent examples of city-level responses sudden disruptive global change, from which we can draw valuable lessons.  The most recent, the 2008 global Economic Crisis, inspired a range of responses by cities across the world, some of which led to a fundamental change in the way urban stakeholders now behave.  I personally have documented some of the best city-level responses to this, for example Lisbon, which determined to make access to high quality public space more equable for all citizens and began its now widely-lauded participatory budgeting process Lisboa Participa; and Eindhoven, which completely transformed its entire economic base and commitment to citizen quality of life.

Secondly, urbanists already use a wide range of tools and techniques in developing and communicating urban development plans.  Some of those – such as design charrettes, role-plays, citizens’ juries and key elements of Planning For Real – may be very hard to deliver with required social distancing.  Others may be used but only with adapt

Use of Digital Technologies

The most obvious answer to the question of how to engage stakeholders in a time of social distancing is, of course, to use digitally-based tools, of which there are many kinds.

Several uni-directional online portals already exist which enable a static exchange of information with citizens.  These can relate to a specific area of activity: for example Planning Portal (UK) provides anyone with information on urban planning and building control policies, applications and consents, and allows comments on live planning applications to be uploaded.  Other uni-directional online portals can collate information from multiple sources for a specific purpose: for example international urbanism consultant’s Schulze+Grassove have developed MobilityPal, which uses a combination of GPS tracking, social media-tracking and ethnographic surveying to study movement and mobility patterns in a specific geographic areas.

There are also a number of customisable platforms which allow urban stakeholders to develop a greater two-way dialogue on whatever subject they wish – for example Social Pinpoint, Commonplace, EngagementHQ).  Some of these platforms can be used to supplement existing single-purpose portals (eg. Planning Portal in the UK).

However with all of the above there is a still a sense that information is being provided in one direction, from the stakeholder to the community.  How can we make citizens feel like this is a collaborative process?

One way is to make use of existing freely-available digital resources, especially those which are Geographic Information Systems (GIS).  Platforms like Google Maps can be used as a basis for community-source mapping-based.  One example of which I have first-hand knowledge is Community Landmark Mapping: this is where participants are encouraged to identify what they feel to be the key landmarks in their neighbourhood, and to ‘pin’ their thoughts and memories of that landmark on the digital map.  This is a great tool to help understand how a community sees itself, how it has developed its specific identity and the places that people most value & cherish; it’s also valuable material to contribute towards a dynamic local history archive.  And because the map and associated materials has been created by the community itself, it will embue a sense of ownership and is more likely to engage them longer-term.  This is why it is a particularly useful tool to use as a starting point in a local development process.

However we urbanists need to proceed with care, as digital tools have advantages and disadvantages.  For example:-

  • They are quick to use and can be more cost-effective… BUT they exclude those without cost-effective access to digital technology
  • They encourage greater participation by removing physical access barriers (distance, availability, transport availability, disability, etc)… BUT it excludes those who do not have the knowledge & skills to use digital technologies, or have limited literacy skills, which can disproportionately affect certain social segments
  • Free online tools enable relatively simple adaptation of engagement & consultation materials into other languages, to encourage a more inclusive participation… BUT these need to be manually checked by a human with proficiency in both the linguistic and cultural nuances of the language so as to ensure equivalence and clarity of two-way communication
  • By removing public scenarios they can encourage more detailed and direct feedback, especially from community members who are less confident or more distrustful… BUT that lack of face-to-face identification and accountability can also enable unfounded comments and even abuse, or dominance by a certain section of the community
  • It is cheaper and easier to sustain longer-term and to promote an ongoing dialogue… BUT it is cannot 100% replicate face-to-face community debate, and in particular dialogue which is consensus-building
  • It can be transparent and demonstrate that issues are being addressed in real-time… BUT only if the ‘owner’ of the technology can realistically invest the time & resource to do this longer-term

In summary, I would say that whilst digital technologies can be a useful aid to community engagement and participation, they cannot entirely replace the face-to-face public participation process and can inadvertently exclude certain sections of the community.  Community engagement and participation process should also be a two-way learning experience: care should be taken that digital tools aren’t presented – even if it may be inadvertently – as a one-way channel for urban stakeholders to obtain community consent.  They need to be a way for stakeholders to truly debate with, and build empathy with, the citizens to whom they have a responsibility.

Street-level Engagement

So long as there are no blanket home confinement rules, community engagement techniques that involve street-level interaction can be adapted with distancing, restrictions on participant numbers and use of face masks.  For example sharing and curating community knowledge through ‘walk & talks’ and more structured techniques such as Street Wisdom (for which I about to start formal training).  These techniques not only encourages sharing of knowledge, but can stimulate community-level dialogue, discussion and consensus – something which the coronavirus pandemic has significantly disrupted and in some cases halted completely.

Street-based consultation, Puebla, Mexico

Creation of External Community ‘Whiteboards’

Outdoor public engagement is not new and has been widely used in many cities, for example via mobile units in Christchurch after the devastating earthquake in 2011.  Every town and city has a range of publicly-owned buildings, almost all in locations that are well-used and easy to access by foot.  Many will have at least one external façade (eg. brick or stone walls, glazed large windows, etc) which is either partially- or fully blank.  Printed plans – images and text-based – can easily & quickly be put on display on these facades, where they can be viewed in the open air 24 hours a day 7 days a week – without creating concentrations of people, hence minimising community transmission risk.  Whiteboards, post-its, non-permanent wall/window markers, etc, can be stored & made freely-available to allow citizens to leave comments, adjustments, etc, to these urban development options.  Responses can be collated on a regular basis eg. on a certain day at a certain time – the nature of which can also be clearly displayed for all to see. 

Use of large windowed facades is ideal, as that allows the plans to be posted from the inside of the window, so they are protected from weather and other potential damage.  But if not simple lockable Perspex screens can be created to perform the same function.

This is not just restricted to public buildings.  Private buildings with large street-level frontages in locations of high pedestrian movements can also be used – for example shops or offices which are currently vacant. 

One of the advantages of this method of consultation is its transparency: respondents can literally see the feedback of their fellow citizens to the same proposals, and can even engage in a socially-distanced dialogue through responding to multiple comments.

Self-Guided Engagement

A number of ‘How To’ community guides to localised urban development plans have been developed in many countries over the past decade.  For example in England Locality have produced a range of resources & toolkits to support the development of Neighbourhood Plans, which became possible as a result of the 2011 Localism Act.  Renfrewshire Council’s “‘How-To’ Community Guide“ – developed jointly with Nick Wright Planning is a similar guide for local communities in the development of the new ‘Local Place Plans’ which will soon be introduced in Scotland.   In addition tools such as Place Standard allow all urban stakeholders to objective rate their views on a range of qualities of a place/space.

In addition there are organisations that dedicate themselves to facilitating collaborative public participation in design of our towns & cities, for example Place Standard (UK), AzuKo (Asia), CivicWise (Europe and Latin America).  Some focus on particular sections of society – for example GenerationPlace focus on developing methods and best practice for place-shaping engagement with the age 5-24 groups in formal education and informal education.

However these guides all assume that the development of these neighbourhood-scale plans will still require the overarching guidance of professionals.  The logical next step is the development of tools which self-guide communities in the development and consideration debate on urban development.   These tools could be developed to focus specifically of key segments of the community: for example by demographics (eg. for young children, teenagers, third-age/retired).  For maximum flexibility they could be developed and hosted digitally, but downloadable for use offline; video-guides would be another useful format that participants can use to help guide real-time in situ use.

Conclusion

Urbanists already have a good base ‘tool-kit’ to engaging with citizens.  The new post-pandemic world may require adaptation to some tools, and creativity and innovation in creating new tools.  There will undoubtedly be early ‘lessons learned’ emerging from the pandemic response to date, with reflection on what has worked; what hasn’t; and some initial thoughts as to why.  I would urge urban stakeholders to document and share this process as much as possible for the common global good.  Local Higher Education Institutions HEIs) such as universities and advanced academies and institutes – themselves key urban stakeholders – could be key in enabling best practice/lessons learned to be collated and evaluated, and can tap into their already extensive networks to disseminate this knowledge – because, after all, knowledge is power.