The world of participatory planning and online public participation is full of complex terms and abbreviations. Public participation GIS (PPGIS), participatory GIS (PGIS), volunteer geographic information (VGI), crowdsourcing, e-participation, participatory e-planning, and planning support system (PSS) are all examples of broadly used language for describing digitally supported communication and collaboration, essential for participatory planning.
These terms are born and widely known within the circles of academia. Urban planners and other practitioners are, however, less familiar with them. Here we explain what Participatory Planning and PPGIS actually mean.
What is Participatory Planning? Bridging the Gap Between City Planners and Residents
Participatory planning is essentially a planning paradigm that emphasizes the interaction between two sides: the experts that advance urban planning and the individuals or organizations possibly affected by local planning decisions.
The development of information and communication technologies (ICT) has offered new tools and ideas for making participatory planning more effective and meaningful.
These digital tools for public engagement offer planners and the public easier and quicker communication methods, increased access to participation, better data quality, and the emergence of more attractive and playful tools for targeting different user groups.
What new technology hasn’t effectively solved is a pitfall widely acknowledged with participatory processes: the question of managing to work truly collaboratively around a specific issue or site.
Challenges of Participatory Planning
Ideally, a participatory planning process allows all participants to not only receive information from planners but also to share information. Such two-way collaboration should lead to decisions and outcomes that have been formulated together.
In reality, this goal is rarely achieved. Participation is often limited to one-way informing. And rather than supporting working together, many digital tools and platforms have only opened new ways and channels for one-way communication and data collection. Find out more about different types of public participation in this article.
Moreover, participation has conventionally been stifled by spatial ambiguity. Even though public participation is always attached to a certain place, the communication between planners and people has mainly been on-site discussions without proper tools for attaching verbal thoughts to certain locations in an efficient way. Especially when working with a big area, it’s a difficult task to talk about different places and locations with precision.
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What is PPGIS? Turning Regular People into Experts
Public participation GIS (PPGIS) aims to overcome these challenges of participatory planning. The concept combines advanced information and communication technology with a geographic information system (GIS), commonly used in urban planning processes.
In PPGIS tools, people’s communications and experiences acquire spatial characteristics while also advancing collaboration and co-creation.
Foundations of PPGIS
As GIS seeks to position everything on Earth, it presents an interesting frame for the public to communicate their preferences, ideas, and experiences. Such information hasn’t conventionally been perceived as a domain of spatial data.
Take a moment to close your eyes and think about where you live. Then begin to draw a mental map of the most important places to you, the spaces that make you feel uncomfortable, the addresses you frequently visit with friends, and so forth.
All these spots in your mental map also have coordinates in the real world. The idea of integrating this kind of ‘soft’ information and knowledge to GIS is the foundation of PPGIS.
Benefits of PPGIS for Planning with People
The power of PPGIS is in its ability to turn regular people into experts of their living environment by allowing them to position places that are meaningful and important for them on a map.
PPGIS is about opening GIS, a field previously exclusively used by experts, to people who have never worked with geographical data. Commercial PPGIS platforms like Maptionnaire bring in interactive mapping capabilities to make participation intuitive and fun for respondents. People participating in the production of GIS data, or location information if you will, support urban planning and development in many new ways.
The technological capabilities for meaningful collaboration don’t, however, necessarily ensure it happens. Although we need high-quality tools, successfully implemented public participation is not only about them. Many PPGIS stories have proven that no data set alone, no matter how comprehensive they may be, can improve the quality of public participation. Instead, the quality is improved when experts, individuals, and organizations involved in the process understand and value collaboration and co-creation.
For example, ArcticHubs is an EU-funded project that looks into collaborative solutions towards economic, social, and environmental challenges in the Arctic region. There, PPGIS solution Maptionnaire is used to understand local perspectives on the problems and collaboratively design solutions. Read more about how PPGIS is used on the Faroe Islands to understand local views about aquaculture and tourism. In the same project, PPGIS tool is used in Norway to survey public opinion on the same industries and analyse the SLO (social license to operate) concept.
With PPGIS, success will follow when all stakeholders appreciate working together for the creation of more sustainable and livable cities, and simultaneously, the ‘soft’ data can be applied and turned into valuable insight to support the effort.
Interested in the science of PPGIS? Maptionnaire’s CEO Maarit has written her doctoral dissertation about utilising PPGIS in participatory urban planning. Professor Gregory Brown has also published several research papers on PPGIS.