Getting started with community engagement has become much easier with the advent of digital tools and social media — you can choose the required set-up and spread the news to get enough respondents.
But in most cases, the engagement stops here — planners and city administrators are left with many opinions received from residents. What’s more, this data is extremely difficult to systematize and analyze. Invaluable as such, these opinions don’t yet constitute structured knowledge that determines impactful community engagement.
Planning is an evidence-based practice, and to make an impact, residents’ opinions should constitute evidence — that is organized data-based knowledge about a specific place. This data should be easy to analyze, visualize, and implement in the plan. How can planners produce this place-based knowledge with the help of citizens?
This article summarizes a study by Valtteri Nurminen on Finnish urban planners and their experiences in shifting from opinion-sharing to place-based knowledge creation by using a Public Participation GIS (PPGIS)-based platform Maptionnaire.
These findings challenge a common view that participation often fails to have a concrete impact on the planning outcome. Let’s examine what’s behind the success of these cases where public input resulted in tangible changes in cities.
Valtteri Nurminen wrote this article based on the research done for his MA thesis “The influence of participatory mapping on urban planning” defended at Aalto University. The first article of this series explores six planning cases — from master plans to detailed plans — where community engagement has a direct influence on planning decisions. The second article presents three solutions for better integrating the results of public participation in urban planning.
Recognize Residents as Experts in Their Living Environment
First of all, planners who succeeded in implementing participation results were convinced that citizen engagement is vital for the project’s success. Planners recognized that residents are the number one experts in their own living environment and were genuinely interested in their knowledge.
Here are the main reasons why planners need residents’ feedback:
- Collecting specific local knowledge
- Collecting experience-based knowledge, such as habits and mobility preferences
- Deeper familiarization with the area
- Mapping out different ideas
- Mapping out the needs for development
- Exploring opinions and gauging support for various innovations
- Collecting knowledge from diverse groups of participants, not just from the loudest ones
Many of the planners shared that they received a lot of completely new knowledge from residents. For example, in one planning project, residents pointed out a new area for development that planners didn’t consider at all — “Oh wow, people actually hang out there and like the place!” This area was taken into account later in the planning process.
Interestingly, half of the planning cases Valtteri investigated did not legally require a participation process. Community consultations were arranged voluntarily by project leaders who cherished local insights. And this appreciation for local expertise and genuine interest in learning from residents is one of the success factors in the analyzed projects.
Examples of Influential Citizen Engagement
The city of Helsinki needs to improve its walkability in the city center. To get valuable data on current mobility preferences, planners turned to residents for answers even before drafting the plan. Using a map-based survey, residents could share their experiences and mobility barriers — and get involved in the planning process from early on.
With Maptionnaire, Slezská Ostrava included more residents in the planning process from early on — and in the end, their plans received fewer complaints during the public hearing stage. “It’s the duty of the municipalities to listen to the citizens and involve them in the process of developing cities,” — reflects Richard Veres, Mayor of Ostrava.
Note that these are not the cases analyzed by Valtteri. But they genuinely exemplify the same ethos of recognizing residents as experts and seeking their feedback.
Produce Place-Based Knowledge with Maptionnaire
But the mere willingness to involve residents in the planning process is not enough for making participation truly impactful.
A common challenge of citizen engagement is in data usability: participants produce experience-based data — ideas, emotions, habits — that is not compatible with the data layers planners use, like densities, demographics, traffic flows, and so on.
This often leads to a situation where it is, first of all, challenging for planners to efficiently utilize the input of the participants. Secondly, just because citizen knowledge doesn’t come in a usual form, planners might consider this data as less concrete and relevant.
However, when organizing participation with PPGIS tools, the knowledge is translated into a GIS format familiar to all the planners. PPGIS platforms like Maptionnaire alleviate the challenge of data usability.
What’s more, PPGIS data is available for statistical analysis and modeling, as well as creating tangible visualizations about specific aspects of the physical environment — for example, frequently visited spaces or unsafe areas. PPGIS technology also makes it easier to measure community engagement.
In this GIS-backed format, the resulting engagement data does not consist solely of opinions and ideas but is turned into location-based knowledge that is familiar, usable, and useful for planners. As a result, the integration of the engagement results into the planning process goes smoothly — an advantageous capability of PPGIS that traditional participation methods lack.
Maptionnaire enables planners to collect insights from residents via map-based surveys that generate location-based knowledge. Moreover, with the platform planners can organize the whole engagement process, from pre-planning communications to sharing results and organizing public hearings.
During the interviews, multiple planners mentioned that they had benefited from the highly visual nature of Maptionnaire, especially its analysis tool. Many appreciated heatmaps that one can quickly create in Maptionnaire.
More examples of Impactful Community Engagement:
This map-based community consultation asked residents and stakeholders where they’d need EV charging stations the most. Essentially, planners gathered valuable geolocated information that helped in decision-making and helped them communicate about the project and justify their choices.
Helsinki used community consultations for a master planning process. The place-based knowledge acquired from residents was used directly in planning efforts and community workshops.
Note that these are not the cases analyzed by Valtteri but examples from Maptionnaire’s practice.
Two Steps to Impactful Community Engagement
So what is crucial for impactful community engagement?
- First, planners should be eager to obtain knowledge and ideas from residents — in other words, recognize locals and stakeholders as experts in their areas.
In practical terms, this leads to engaging residents early in the planning process, when the plan is being drafted.
- Second, generating citizen engagement results as location-based knowledge increases the chances of this knowledge being used — because it comes in a familiar, quantifiable, and mappable GIS-backed format, equal among the other data layers used in planning.
Maptionnaire enables you to collect place-based knowledge and obtain GIS-based data that is easy to analyze and feed into your planning systems.
The study revealed that Maptionnaire increased the quality of the knowledge collected in public participation processes — and therefore made this knowledge more applicable and usable in planning systems.
Indirectly, Maptionnaire also helps planners to overcome the bias towards citizen engagement. Since the resulting data comes not as scattered opinions but organized GIS-based datasets, it is easier to explore, visualize, and use in city planning and development.