The Technology of Citizen Participation

In years gone by the main venue for participation was the public meeting, and the methods for communicating about the plan were limited. The public could be shown maps, artists' renderings, and models of subdivisions or other proposed developments. The main instrument for citizen expression of opinion was the raised hand followed by the spoken comment, perhaps supplemented by a letter to the planning board or the editor of the local paper. Those modes are still important, but technology is expanding the process very rapidly.

Text messaging and social media have expanded communication tremendously so that the citizen who cannot be present physically or is unhappy about speaking in front of a group can still make his or her opinion felt. Mobile devices can let the citizen participate while he or she is riding the bus or sitting on a park bench. Some places have used virtual worlds and gaming to bring citizens into the process. For example, role-playing might let citizens explore different personal situations, perhaps regarding housing or employment. Geographic databases like Google Maps make it easier for citizens to communicate their locations or locations they are concerned about. Apps that allow a citizen with a handheld communications device to select a site and then see what that site would look like if developed as planned offer the citizen what has been termed "augmented reality." Computer graphics software that continuously changes the image of a planned area gives the user the visual effect of walking through it. Access to interactive databases may permit the citizen to simulate the effects of different options—for example, how the municipalities' total greenhouse gas emissions will change if a bus service is provided over a particular route or if more or less dense housing patterns are developed, or how different zoning requirements will affect property tax rates. Touch-screen tables may permit a citizen to move elements of a plan and see how different physical layouts play out in terms of factors such as traffic flow. As with all types of modeling, the results are only as good as the data that go into the model and the model builder's understanding of how the variables in the model interact.

So nothing is guaranteed. But such interactive processes draw the citizen into the planning process, present a range of possibilities, and potentially permit more thoroughgoing communication about plans. At present, the technology is changing rapidly and there is great variety in what is being done in various municipalities.

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