Community engagement is vital to improve growth in cities and urban areas. It is an under-used tool that could help democratise property booms. Here is a round-up of new trends in the field.
Urban Planning writer Yvonne Rydin complained, urban planners have a habit of seeing the ‘community’ of a homogenous group; what is good for one community may not be good for another that hadn’t even been considered in a master plan.
Take the oft-celebrated drive to create ‘shared spaces’ to improve road safety and congestion. Poynton’s roundabouts were initially heralded as a successful solution for a pedestrian friendly marketplace battling with heavy congestion.
However, the scheme has been criticised for posing new issues to cyclists, who are now trapped in between cars thanks to the narrower roads in the run up to the roundabouts, and blind people, whose guide dogs are unprepared for such spaces.
What tools should planners look to in order to get fresh perspectives on new developments? There are a range of tools and frameworks out there and each serve different advantages.
Place Standard Tool
Currently being widely used in Scotland is the Place Standard tool. Funded by NHS Scotland and the Scottish Government, the Place Standard tool has been providing a basic framework to measure public perceptions on an area since its launch in late 2015.
The tool has proven useful by both third sector, public and private groups as a way of measuring public perceptions. PAS (Planning Aid Scotland) has done a lot of work with the tool, particularly for youth engagement, owing to its adaptability to lesson plans. The tool even now has been made into an app.
But its upsides can produce downsides. While it is effective in describing a place in a range of sizes, this can limit its ability to get to specifics. Furthermore, the tool can be limited by the quality of the practitioner, which can lead to a lack of consistency in its findings.
The tools main benefits are that it can measure quantitively the priorities of a community, yet it often relies on coming to communities rather than communities coming to them. Furthermore, there is concern by the lack of direction for what comes next, especially if used as part of a land use consultancy project.
Charles R. Wolfe suggested the use of an ‘urban diary’ to improve the level of community interaction with city planning. He expands on this in his book Seeing the Better City but the gist appears to be to encourage participants to create photo diaries of their cities. This encourages personal detailed accounts citizens’ favourite places in a city.
This project sounds entertaining, and is similar to preservation-focussed practices in Cultural Planning and the other engagement project Wolfe himself cites such as ‘Community Character in a Box’ in Austin, TX. But the clear issues are the time, cost and finding committed participants.
Much of community engagement is about encouraging those completely disengaged with the process; my reservation to this comes simply from how much hard work it is for an individual to do compared to other tools. But more crucially is the problems that could arise from researchers themselves interpreting the data. How can a planner understand which urban diary is more representative or vital than another?
Fix My Street
The people at My Society are excellent at finding crowdsourced solutions to local problems. Fix My Street is immensely useful at channel the Great British tradition, of complaining about everything, into a valuable engagement tool.
What’s sad is how if you go through the what actually gets discussed here: mostly about bins and potholes. Where other community engagement tools inspire, Fix My Street succeeds at being a widely adopted port-of-call anyone annoyed about their neighbours parking or the bins not being taken out. It’s possible that with the right guidance/marketing, Fix My Street could well have been a great place for a mass charrette. Maybe time can change that.
While in its current form AR seems better suited for property developers showing rather than collaborating with the public, the last few years have seen several advances in the technology. Research at Heriot-Watt is but one example (but see Skywand and Palimpset for others). In development since 2015, UrbanPlanAR allows users to view buildings as they will look when built in 3D through their Smart Phones or Smart Pads. The applications for this are remarkable as this could lead greater buy in for developers but also more informed feedback from stakeholders. As it grows, one could imagine some stakeholders even making counter-proposals, as knowledge of 3D modelling grows amongst the general population.
The main immediate concern would be to ensure this technology is used as a community engagement tool rather than a ‘showroom piece’ for property developers. Time will tell.
The resources above are useful for different times and contexts. To ensure consensual developments, planners and community leaders need to utilise these tools and others to engage a community both with their future and to protect its built heritage.
One concern, I haven’t yet flagged up is the mobility of many modern communities. With student, immigrant and economic newcomers to a city who can often live in unsecure accommodation, reaching these urban dwellers can be a hard task. But crucially a task worth doing.