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Participatory Planning: Re-examining Community Consultation as a process that integrates the Urban Room method with a digital mapping tool

Created on 08-06-2022 | Updated on 08-06-2022

A growing interest in new forms of democratic practice in planning is appearing, and at the same time, an increasing momentum is observed in new technologies affecting the way that decisions are made. Within the UK planning system, the practice of Community Consultation (CC) is the main statutory method for involving citizens in local planning processes and is currently under review. This case study involves the UK research project Community Consultation for Quality of Life (CCQoL) with the aim of improving the process of CC, exploring ways that civic participation in CC becomes much more meaningful, inclusive and engaging. The combination of innovation in the physical space, using an Urban Room for conducting research and the digital tools that affect the quality of participants’ engagement are at the centre of the CCQoL project. These two main methods are assessed regarding their potential for enhancing participation. A final reflection explores the opportunity to redefine the Urban Room as an Urban Living Lab.

Initiating entity
CCQoL project & University of Reading, UK

Objective/vision/agenda
Research project on the process of community consultation for planning (participatory planning research)

Educational/participation methods
rban Room, digital maps, survey

Urban context and/or policy framework/network
UK planning policy, industry-driven

Scale/Location
One month in Reading - part of a wider project taking place in 4 cities in different countries within the UK

Status/Runtime
Ongoing

Duration & pace
Daily

Stakeholders & Partnerships
Four UK Universities, the Quality of Life Foundation (NFP organisation), Common place (a digital platform for community consultation), Urban Symbiotics (experts on inclusion) & The UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence (CaCHE)

Selected option

Description

Public participation in planning is an enduring concern of urban research regarding the range of ways that participation is practiced, how inclusive, how effective or how impactful different approaches can be. Participation can be a long term relationship  - engagement – or more short term in response to formal requirements – consultation. New tools that are more hands-on and involve innovative and experimental methods of engaging citizens are increasingly appearing in countries considering opportunities for reforming their planning systems towards increased citizen participation and collaboration (AlWaer & Cooper, 2020; Rizzo et al., 2021; Scholl & Kemp, 2016). A growing interest in new forms of democratic practice in planning is appearing, and at the same time, an increasing momentum is observed in new technologies affecting the way that decisions are made.

Within the UK planning system, the practice of Community Consultation (CC) is the main statutory method for involving citizens in local planning processes and takes place in “invited spaces” of participation that are state-led. However major drawbacks of existing CC processes are presented (Lawson et al, 2022; Wargent & Parker, 2018); namely, under-resourced local councils, the dominance of technocratic processes that limit the scope of participation, consultation used for building consensus around new pro-growth responses to housing development and the uneven representation of disadvantaged groups. Recent research in the UK has revealed that CC leading to the development of a local area plan can be tokenistic, as decisions by powerful actors such as housing developers carry more weight, while input by communities comes at a time when many planning and housing design decisions have been already made (CaCHE, 2020). Formal opportunities for consultation include the consultation on local plans that happen every five years or so and opportunities to comment on a specific planning application in a place. The process is time consuming and demanding for community members, often involving consultation with a demographic group that is not representative. Therefore, the practice of CC is currently being reviewed in order to respond to these concerns.

Community Consultation for Quality of Life (CCQoL) is a UK based research project with the aim of improving the process of CC, exploring ways that civic participation in CC becomes much more meaningful, inclusive and engaging. This research project is taking place during the development of four pilot projects in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland and brings together community groups, academic researchers, industry partners and local authorities. The key elements examined in the analysis of the first out of the four pilot projects are the two foremost methods being used: (a) the establishment of an experimental Urban Room for community groups to have a platform for face-to-face participation and (b) the new method of social value mapping via a digitally mapping interface available on smart phones, tablets and online. The combination of innovation in the physical space, using an Urban Room for conducting research and the digital consultation tools that affect the quality of participants’ engagement are at the centre of the CCQoL project. As the aim of the project is to improve planning consultation, the physical location is used for the research team to test in real life the use of the Commonplace digital consultation platform. Commonplace is one of the leading consultation platforms in the UK. It is currently going through a period of review and will be relaunched as Commonplace 2.0 in the summer.

At the time of writing, I am a participant and an observer in the Reading Urban Room named “Your Place Our Place”, which is taking place during the whole of March, 2022 and therefore this case study analysis involves an ongoing reflection. My role involves helping participants complete the mapping and participation survey, as other researchers are doing in the field, but also observing the research process as an outsider and having conversations with the University of Reading researchers about their own observations.

 

The Urban Room

As defined by the Urban Rooms Network facilitated by the Place Alliance, the purpose of Urban Rooms is:

to foster meaningful connections between people and place, using creative methods of engagement to encourage active participation in the future of our buildings, streets and neighbourhoods. (Place Alliance, 2022)

The Urban Room is located on the ground floor of Broad Street Mall in central Reading. Reading is a large town half an hour to the west of London by rail and is characterised by its diverse population and high density of creative industries.  Running in parallel, a website is available as a platform to participate online which states in a clear and concise way: “We need your help to develop the Quality of Life maps of Reading. These will tell us about what you value in your place and help us create a wide-ranging resource of local knowledge” (CCQoL Reading, 2022). In the physical space of the Urban Room, posters provide more information regarding the community groups and other partners involved.

The shopping centre is located at the end of a very busy, pedestrianised shopping street and there are two ways in which people can attend the room. People can casually drop in as they pass by or attend a scheduled event. The urban room was organised very quickly, over four months, with a minimal budget of roughly £3000. Most of its components were borrowed from the school of Architecture. The space was given for free by the Mall’s management company Moorgarth. A great effort has been made in advertising the Urban Room through social media and the initiative has received a lot of interest from local community groups. Over the course of five weeks in March, a large number of events are planned, with many community groups organised by the project’s Community Partnerships Manager. Each week has its own theme; Introduction and Business Community, Health and Wellbeing, Culture and Heritage, Climate Change and The Future of Reading. The events are planned with the dual function of providing a platform for underrepresented groups to exhibit and discuss issues and as a way of attracting people to the space.

One of the most important benefits of the Urban Room events has been the opportunity for community representatives of different organisations to learn about each other and discuss about common concerns face-to-face. This determines the Urban Room as a space of learning, not only about the city but about the participants. However, the establishment of an Urban Room as an experimental setting for engaging people in the creation of place-based knowledge has already presented various challenges. The fact that it is “tucked away” in a shopping centre has made it less visible to the public, making it hard to attract a diverse demographic. Also, as a quasi-public space, it has not been clear how to manage who is allowed in the room or not and at which times. Furthermore, some comments by participants indicate that there is too much information on display, particularly for those on the autism spectrum, and researchers have pointed out that the 60 or so workshops and activities might have been too many.

 

Social Value Mapping

The main benefit of a digital consultation platform is that it can access more people. It can also be translated using Google Translate and there are a variety of inbuilt accessibility features that promote inclusion. The main digital tool that is being tested on the Commonplace platform within the Urban Room is a map on which participants can drop a pin to locate where they (a) connect with nature; (b) feel healthy; (c) feel a sense of belonging; (d) feel a sense of wonder; (e) feel a sense of control over their environment and; (f) find it easy to get around their area. These categories are based on the Quality of Life Framework (Quality of Life Foundation, 2021) and provide the opportunity for residents of Reading to reveal qualitative data that will be then visualised in the form of a map that captures social value (Samuel & Hatleskog, 2020). The participants often show an interest in others’ inputs on the map, indicating that the tool can function as a way of drawing connections and I would argue, build social capital. However, from the initial observations of the findings, the ability to only map the existing, positive characteristics of spaces does not allow participants to raise concerns about places they would like to see improved according to the above framework. The team have made an ethical decision to focus on positive attributes of the place as the inclusion of negative impacts on publicly available maps can have a long term negative impact on identity. 

However, according to Arnstein’s ladder of citizen participation (1969), in the use of the digital mapping tool, citizens’ degree of influence and level of decision-making power remains limited. After speaking to the research team about this, I realised that consultations always need to make clear the limit of their influence. Since the research project is not a formal CC, there would be a problem of addressing the participants’ concerns. Interestingly, this is a problem particularly observed in the formal CC process by local governments who do not respond to the issues raised during the consultation and community concerns are often disregarded as not being “a material consideration in a planning sense” (Lawson et al, 2022).

Therefore, contested issues and oppositional views present the difficulty of how to respond to them. However, regarding the mapping of positive characteristics, when the maps are made available to the community they can provide transparency and accountability of the planning process regarding the spatial interpretation of social value.

 

Reflection & discussion

It can be argued that an Urban Room is similar to the term Urban Living Lab (ULL) that has become popular in Europe - an environment and a methodology with a focus on real-life interventions by urban experimentation and collaboration between different stakeholders (McCormick & Hartmann, 2017; Steen & van Bueren, 2017). The areas of investigation vary in ULLs, but almost always involve the goal of innovation facing contemporary urban challenges. Importantly, emphasis is placed on citizen-centred approaches and social innovation. However, the approach of an ULL in planning is employed in sites for experimentation often at the context where an intervention for alternative urban governance arrangements and sustainability transitions is taking place. Urban Rooms at the moment seem to be placing more emphasis on enhancing the connections between groups of people, to provide a forum for discussion and in building awareness of local issues (Urban Room Network, 2022). Another important distinction is that ULLs place more emphasis on co-creation and are beginning to be used by involving citizens in the development of services and planning experiments (Höflehner & Zimmermann, 2016; Scholl & de Kraker, 2021; Scholl & Kemp, 2016). At the same time, co-production between local governments and citizens in collaborative planning processes is observed in design-led planning events such as charrettes (AlWaer & Cooper, 2020). There seems to be an opportunity to redefine the Urban Room as an ULL and integrate the Urban Room in planning charrettes in order to place importance on the decision-making power of participation in planning. Furthermore, despite some technical difficulties and limitations, the digital mapping tool can be a useful method of legitimising citizens’ views in planning policy, especially if it is improved to incorporate more nuanced and critical inputs.

 

 

Alignment with project research areas

The following research areas and sub-categories are related to the case. The radar diagram does not seem to help very much in visualising the relationships between the areas of research and the case study. The obvious connection is with community participation as it is the focus of research with the subcategories community planning and vulnerable groups being the most targeted research areas and to a lesser extent involving discussions on governance and sustainable planning.

From the area “design, planning and building” the CCQoL research project is involved in updating the processes that leads to sustainable planning and urban regeneration by prioritising the views of underrepresented groups. The most important area of alignment is “community participation” which involves community planning as a process that needs to become more meaningful, inclusive and transparent. In the UK this is especially true when investigating public participation in planning by the prevalent process of communication consultation.

 

 

Alignment with SDGs

Sustainable Development Goal 11 states: “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. Particular alignment is observed with the target 11.3 “by 2030, enhance inclusive and sustainable urbanization and capacity for participatory, integrated and sustainable human settlement planning and management in all countries” and its indicator “11.3.2 - proportion of cities with a direct participation structure of civil society in urban planning and management that operate regularly and democratically”.

The indicator determines the level of civic participation in urban planning and management processes. Emphasis is placed on empowering marginalised groups that are not regularly given a voice in how cities are planned and managed.

References

AlWaer, H., & Cooper, I. (2020). Changing the focus: Viewing design-led events within collaborative planning. Sustainability (Switzerland), 12(8). https://doi.org/10.3390/SU12083365

Arnstein, S. R. (1969). A ladder of citizen participation. Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 35(4), 216–224.

CaCHE. (2020). Delivering Design Value: The housing design quality conundrum.

CCQoL Reading. (2022, March 14). Tell us about Reading and how the town affects your quality of life!, https://ccqolreading.commonplace.is     

Höflehner, T., & Zimmermann, F. M. (2016). An Innovation in Urban Governance : Implementing Living Labs and City Labs through Transnational Knowledge and Experience Exchange. Regional Studies Association Annual Conference, Graz, Austria, April 3-6, 2016, 1–17.

Lawson, V., Purohit, R., Samuel, F., Brennan, J., Farrelly, L.,Golden, S., & McVicair, M. (2022). Unpublished manuscript.

McCormick, K., & Hartmann, C. (2017). The emerging landscape of urban living labs: Characteristics, practices and examples. GUST- Governance of Urban Sustainability Transitions, 1–20. www.urbanlivinglabs.net

Quality of Life Foundation. (2021). The Quality of Life Framework. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1445-2197.1982.tb06029.x

Rizzo, A., Habibipour, A., & Ståhlbröst, A. (2021). Transformative thinking and urban living labs in planning practice: a critical review and ongoing case studies in Europe. European Planning Studies, 0(0), 1–19. https://doi.org/10.1080/09654313.2021.1911955

Samuel, F., & Hatleskog, E. (2020). Why Social Value? In Architectural Design (Vol. 90, pp. 6–13). https://doi.org/10.1002/ad.2584

Scholl, C., & de Kraker, J. (2021). The practice of urban experimentation in Dutch city labs. Urban Planning, 6(1), 161–170. https://doi.org/10.17645/up.v6i1.3626

Scholl, C., & Kemp, R. (2016). City labs as vehicles for innovation in urban planning processes. Urban Planning, 1(4), 89–102. https://doi.org/10.17645/up.v1i4.749

Steen, K., & van Bueren, E. (2017). The Defining Characteristics of Urban Living Labs. Technology Innovation Management Review, 7(7), 21–33. https://timreview.ca/article/1088

Urban Room Network (2022, March 16). https://urbanroomsnetwork.wordpress.com/

Wargent, M., & Parker, G. (2018). Re-imagining neighbourhood governance: the future of neighbourhood planning in England. Town Planning Review, 89(4), 379–402.

 

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