Can digital sharing platforms help improve your neighbourhood?
by Francesca Perry
Over in the US, a new project called Textizen is presenting an accessible and contemporary method for citizen participation. Posters in Philadelphia ask yes or no questions related to urban planning issues and decisions, to which people respond via text. The feedback apparently does go to City Hall and has an impact on planning policy. It’s an interesting and quick way to get people thinking and involved in their cities, especially in an age where most shy away from or have little time for more traditional methods of civic engagement like workshops and forums. However, the process of multiple independent voices takes away the critical value of great community engagement, which is discussion, compromise and reaching conclusions together. That’s not to say Textizen should be undermined as a survey method, which it’s clearly effective at, just that to government, public participation in urban planning should always be more than ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers.
There is an interesting piece from Engaging Cities where other technologies for civic participation are discussed, including Neighborland, which seems to move more into the realm of empowering communities and individuals to make a positive impact and effect change in their area: it aims to be a creative and enjoyable way to get people thinking about their cities and their neighbourhoods, giving inspiration and help that fosters collaborative development. The public shares ideas about how to make their cities better, then the proposed projects or changes gather support, and discussion follows which leads to action. It seems that, from their ‘accomplishments’ page, things have been achieved through the process, albeit potentially few and far between. But civic engagement in urban planning is difficult: I know first-hand the systems in place that make it unfeasible for grassroots demands to take priority. It also goes without saying that giving a voice to the community does not mean the community will agree on a way forward.
But the most important thing is to maximise these opportunities, facilitate these discussions so that just sometimes they might break through, develop and effect positive change. It’s easy for communities to become cynical about their role in such processes but it is always better to have the public involved than not at all. We might not be able to turn every office complex into a park, but the interstitial opportunities – and sometimes the big ones – are there to be seized.
Our own homegrown organisation The Civic Crowd aims for a similar process to Neighborland: suggest a change, gather support, act – though the great thing about this digital platform is that it maps its content, so you can see immediately what is happening near to you, what you can get involved in and what your neighbours are fighting for.
It’s plain to see that these are processes that don’t purely exist within urban development, but in politics too. Perhaps the ‘Occupy’ movement made many realise that it is possible to garner support and act to make positive change across multiple realms. Whether the change happens or not is still in the hands of complex systems of varying fairness. But in this case, to show we care for our city, that we think about how to improve our urban lives and make our voice heard, using the helping hand of technology, makes the future of urban living a little more hopeful.