Planners are gathering a lot of knowledge during the public participation process. Usually, most of this data finds its way to influence urban planning decisions: more sidewalks, better pedestrian crossings, and accessible public spaces are added to the draft and the planning priorities are adjusted. But still, there's also a lot of knowledge that is discarded or that fails to have an impact on planning.
Why is it so? Can planners use the full potential of citizen knowledge they already have obtained? Valtteri Nurminen has interviewed nine urban planners from Finnish municipalities to find the cause of these problems. From his own experience as a planner, Valtteri also gives a few suggestions on how to better integrate the results of citizen engagement in the planning process. Read along!
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. 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. Another post discusses how planners can transition from sharing opinion to generating place-based knowledge to achieve impactful community engagement.
Why Is It Challenging to Integrate the Results of Citizen Engagement into the Planning Process?
After a community engagement project is completed, planners work on integrating the received public input into the actual planning process. But some of this knowledge will never reach the target project.
This is indeed a common problem: every interviewed planner came up with at least one case when some of the public input couldn’t be utilized.
The main reasons behind this, according to the planners, were:
- unsuitability of the collected knowledge with the plan level and area, and
- incompatibility of the knowledge with the boundary conditions, development directions, and objectives.
Let’s unpack these challenges in more detail.
Challenge 1. Collected data unsuitable for the plan level and area in question
This is quite a common issue: planners end up with quite relevant data from residents that is unsuitable for the project in question. For example, some public comments might be too detailed for a master plan while others are too general for a detailed plan or refer to a different area in the city. Sometimes, the received comments fall outside of the planners’ responsibilities as they belong to a different department.
But this information is still valuable for other projects or departments and should not be lost. So what do planners do with that?
Valtteri found out that the interviewed planners sometimes forward this data to other planners or departments in hopes that the information will be useful there. However, this usually happens spontaneously and depends exclusively on an individual planner’s will and ideas of who can benefit from this knowledge.
One planner has summed up the process:
The participants usually also answer a lot of questions that weren’t directly asked, especially in the case of open questions. There are often a lot of answers that relate to other departments, so the collected knowledge is then forwarded to those departments. But of course, since everyone’s hands are so full of work, no one is going to read these comments at that moment. But at least the impression remains that this information was received at some point.
There is also no guarantee that the forwarded data is taken into account when it arrives at the correct department. Also, it will be laborious for the data recipient to find this data afterwards if they need it at a later point.
Challenge 2: Collected data incompatible with the boundary conditions, development directions, and objectives
After filtering out knowledge not suitable for the plan level, planners evaluate if the collected data fit the boundary conditions, development directions, and objectives of the planning process.
There are often a lot of public comments contradicting, for example, nature values or guidelines from upper plan levels. Some comments are unrealistic, unsuitable, or unfeasible due to lack of resources.
These irrelevant or contradictory comments usually appear if participants don’t understand the planning practice and what can be achieved within one project. Most commonly, this misunderstanding happens because of unclear communication.
Solutions for Better Integration of Citizen Engagement Results
By improving public participation practices, planners can ensure they get more relevant knowledge from residents. Here are three solutions to ensure better integration of citizen engagement results in the planning process.
Overall, these solutions will make public input even more influential and transparent.
Solution 1: A system for storing public knowledge
An organization-wide system for storing and sharing public participation knowledge is a viable solution for better utilizing citizen input. When using an archiving system, the data can be easily found and it’s accessible to everyone across all the departments.
This way, even if some of the public input is too detailed or too broad for the project, it will be systematically stored and available for further use. At the same time, the collected public knowledge influences planning decisions long after the initial participation process.
However, in only two of the interviewed Finnish municipalities, there was a system like this in use. This is definitely something that planning departments should develop in the coming years.
Such a system for archiving the citizen knowledge will enable planners to:
- store all the results of public participation processes in one place
- find relevant information for upcoming projects
- ensure that the collected public knowledge is fully used in various projects
- share knowledge across the departments
- avoid information silos
- prevent survey fatigue in residents and stakeholders.
What’s more, when new map-based community engagement surveys are conducted, this system could be used for comparing how opinions have changed between the two surveys. The availability of archival data will provide valuable information about certain trends, as well as the success of the previous planning projects. However, in such a case, the questions should be kept the same for results compatibility.
Solution 2: Better goal-setting and communication with residents
Better informing residents about planning processes and restricting factors will definitely help reduce the number of irrelevant comments. This should be done by situating each consultation project in a bigger development perspective and being transparent about restrictive factors such as budget, area, or responsibilities.
Some of the background information, as well as restrictions, can be communicated already through the citizen engagement survey design. Make sure the first pages of your survey provide enough context and planning objectives. Also, restrictions can be programmed into the survey design, for example, by selecting the aerial boundaries where geolocated comments can be made or by revealing budget restrictions.
Finally, it’s crucial to have a communication strategy for each public participation project. But building a relationship with residents and gradually educating them about various participation options is not a one-time activity. Local governments and planning departments should work together on these goals. The City of Vantaa, for example, has achieved great success in informing and educating residents with a city-wide community engagement portal.
Solution 3: Better citizen engagement survey design
Planners should identify the type of comments and suggestions they need from residents and stakeholders already at the beginning of the participation process. Then, they should design the community engagement survey with these goals in mind and be precise and jargon-free in question formulations. For more structured data, avoid open questions — you can use a variety of survey question types that provide you with more tangible results.
But at the same time, one of the planners wished for even more “boldly imaginative ideas.” So try to ensure that participants have space to use creativity and imagination — it’s a balance between wild creativity and concrete input that you should aim for.
If you want to know more about designing better community engagement surveys that are fun for respondents and drive results for planners, watch a recording of our survey design webinar. Maarit and Asta from Maptionnaire discuss what are the steps to great survey design and give concrete examples.
Bonus: Residents Benefitting from Better Integration of Public Participation Data
Improving the usability and integration of public participation data will also serve the participants. By decreasing the amount of knowledge spilling out from the planning system, public input will become more influential. This will also decrease the amount of frustration the participants have regarding the transparency and efficiency of the process.
Also, if the results of one survey are utilized more efficiently, there could be less need to bother the participants again and again with new surveys. Planners will save residents from survey fatigue.
Your take away
To sum up, the planners whom Valtteri interviewed agreed on two main impediments to making public participation influential. These are the unsuitability of gathered data and public misunderstanding of what can be achieved within a project.
The solutions for better integrating the results of public participation are:
- storing and sharing the knowledge so that it can be utilized not only by one project but by the entire organization,
- informing the participants regarding different limitations,
- defining the desired knowledge and the topic more precisely already in the survey design, so that all of the collected knowledge would be as usable as possible.