Research into Practice

Increasing the Impact of Public Participation in Planning: 6 Examples from Urban Planning Projects

December 29, 2022
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 Even with so many methods and tools for public participation in planning, an effective arrangement of this process is still a struggle. Planners often hear the same loud voices during town hall meetings, and the insights gathered from these discussions (be they in-person or online) are hard to convert into data useful for planning purposes.

The PPGIS (public participation GIS) method of collecting feedback and arranging the whole engagement process has proven to effectively overcome these challenges. In this article, you’ll explore together with Valtteri Nurminen how a PPGIS-based platform Maptionnaire strengthened public participation in planning based on six examples from Finnish municipalities.

This blog post is written by Valtteri Nurminen who has interviewed nine urban planners from Finland about their experiences with the PPGIS-based platform Maptionnaire. This research is a part of his master thesis “The influence of participatory mapping on urban planning” defended at Aalto University. His other articles present three solutions for better integrating the results of public participation in urban planning and elaborate on making community engagement impactful with place-based data.

What is Public Participation in Planning?

Public participation is a process of collecting and including public opinions in a planning project. How has public participation in planning traditionally been arranged? Planners collect written and oral feedback during the drafting phase with a public hearing as a culmination of the community engagement process

As a result, the insights collected during the public participation process are often negative, quite unstructured, and present in all kinds of formats. What’s more, these participation activities attract a low number of participants which raises concerns about poor representativeness and fairness. 

Additionally, there are no mechanisms to transparently report the impact of public participation. This often makes citizens feel that their input has had no meaningful influence on the planning outcome.

Increase the Influence of Participation with a Community Engagement Platform

Maptionnaire Community Engagement Platform has many proven advantages when compared to traditional participation methods. Its crucial difference from other engagement platforms is having PPGIS (Public Participation GIS) at the heart of the platform.

PPGIS is a digital method of collecting community input about urban planning projects — in a highly structured and location-based manner through map-based surveys. 

Here a just two examples of why PPGIS is so influential for urban planning: 

  • PPGIS increases the number of participants and enhances the representativeness, fairness, independence, and equality of participation. 
  • PPGIS has the potential to lead to more influential participation also in terms of the planning outcome. 

But what makes PPGIS-backed engagement so influential?

Firstly, PPGIS produces GIS knowledge which is similar to the traditional data layers the planners have been accustomed to utilizing. 

Secondly, PPGIS is providing tangible visualizations connected to the specific aspects of the physical environment, offering valuable insights. When the input of participants is placed on the map, the physical features of the environment can be linked with the experiences of residents. 

However, while many of the advantages of PPGIS have been proven, what still remains unclear is the influence of PPGIS on the final planning outcome. This article follows nine cases of Maptionnaire being used in Finnish municipalities, evaluating the effectiveness of the PPGIS method in running public participation. 

Exploring the Influence of Public Participation in Planning

The planners interviewed for the study fully recognized the benefits of using PPGIS tools for community engagement. And even in a few cases where the impact of public participation couldn't be concretely pinpointed, it still had a tangible influence. For example, the data gathered confirmed the planner’s initial thought or indicated that no changes are needed in a specific area.

Overall, the planners have experienced that digitized community engagement with robust spatial functionalities: 

  • increases representativeness, 
  • grants more equal access to participation activities, 
  • increases the quality, amount, and usability of knowledge, 
  • translates community opinions into highly valuable knowledge about planning projects

In almost every case, the planners reported that the PPGIS knowledge influenced the final planning decisions. They could provide specific examples of community insights influencing the planning outcome. Here are these cases discussed during the interviews in a nutshell.

6 Examples of Public Participation Influencing Project Outcomes

Case 1: Master plan. 

In this case, the planners asked for public input when deciding about the location for new services — grocery stores, educational facilities, and so on. The placement was decided based on these suggestions gathered from residents so that the services would be conveniently placed for as many as possible. 

A public participation survey also helped planners realize that the residents appreciated the river area much more than was initially assumed, which was then considered in the plan. Altogether, engaging residents early in the master planning process helped to identify areas of development and find most satisfying locations for specific facilities. 

Case 2: District plan. 

During a community consultation regarding a district plan, it was found that the residents were really concerned about the preservation of nature in highly developed urban areas. As a result, the planner decided to “set nature as a starting point”. The green areas had to be preserved despite the extremely high land use intensity by Finnish standards. So, due to citizen engagement on Maptionnaire Platform, nature was officially made the main theme of the vision and development of the area. 

In the same project, the participants were highly resisting the reduction of parking spaces in the city center. Because of this, planners decided to reduce parking spaces gradually, in several phases. This gives the residents more time to adapt to this change. 

Case 3: City center development plan. 

For this project, planners used local input to identify development areas and community needs to be included in the plan. The planners could easily integrate the results of public consultations into their planning process due to the heat maps feature available in Maptionnaire.

For example, in a digital map-based survey, residents were asked to mark unsafe areas. As this data is available in GIS format, it was directly transferred from Maptionnaire onto a plan as areas to be developed into safer spaces (for example, by including more lightning or crosswalks). 

Similarly, planners learnt about the most attractive and valuable places for residents. They used this geospatial data to identify areas whose lovability should be further enhanced. The participants also brought up some completely new interesting areas that the planner hadn’t thought of.            

a heatmap visualizing public participation in planning
On Maptionnaire Platform, any location marking (point, line, or area) can be transformed into a heatmap and exported as GIS-based data. This is a heatmap based on responses from Maptionnaire’s demo survey about biking routes.

Case 4: Framework plan for a station area. 

Here the input of the participants helped to find the best possible locations for new under- and overpasses to get across the railway. Additionally, planners used this citizen-sourced knowledge for planning the accessibility infrastructure of the area. For example, the new routes were planned based on the needs of the participants. 

Case 5: Area development plan. 

The residents’ knowledge was also used to directly identify development ideas and locations. As the planner stated, “the residents are perceived as the number one experts in the area”. Based on citizens’ feedback, new routes were planned, and transportation connections were considered. The need for new services was also marked on the plan.               

visualization of map responses in a public engagement survey
The map represents the routes that cyclers take to run errands (red) and exercise (green). Maptionnaire makes it easy to mark routes for respondents (give it a try here) and fast to analyze for planners.

Case 6: Detailed plan. 

In a PPGIS survey about a detailed plan, the participants pointed out a small forest area as a space of local importance that should not be redeveloped. This insight made planners re-evaluate the area. These further nature evaluations didn’t indicate anything preventing the development of that area. This is, however, a good example of the residents recognizing a real need for further evaluations, and the experts agreeing on it. 

What’s more, the knowledge gathered in the PPGIS study and follow-up assessments was used for planning walking routes and finding a common ground with the residents when it came to building new residential areas. In the end, the new housing was located in line with the participants’ wishes.  

Maptionnaire Tangibly Increases Public Participation and Impacts Planning Outcomes

Overall, these cases indicated that the citizen-sourced data has actually led to a concrete influence on urban planning decisions. The data collected with Maptionnaire was easy to evaluate and implement in the project, which streamlined public participation in planning and increased its tangible impact. This contradicts the relatively common view of public participation in planning failing to impact the final project. 

One reason behind the success of public participation activities is, in fact, the planners’ mindset. The planners considered the residents as experts in their living environment and were genuinely interested in the knowledge the citizens have about their surroundings.

So simply grabbing the perfect PPGIS tool is not enough — the decision-makers should welcome often divergent opinions and experiences of residents and actively use this information in all kinds of planning processes. When this culture of seeing people as experts is in place, Maptionnaire helps source residents’ voices and ideas and implement them in city planning. 

Interested in knowing more about PPGIS and its influence on planning? Read our other articles: 

Want to know more about how Maptionnaire tools can help you listen to residents and increase the relevance of public participation?

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