Exploring the Use of Digital Technologies in Participatory Landscape Planning Processes

Deni Ruggeri and Anna Szilagyi-Nagy


As a result of the new discussion on sustainability generated by the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals and the European Landscape Convention, there is growing interest in participation as a critical ingredient in creating resilient, cohesive communities (UN 2015). Our understanding of participation is limited, often, to seeing it as a consensus-building tool or as the means to share relevant information with stakeholders. In this context, digital technologies are widening the range of people involved in decision-making, but they are seldom used to shift people’s values and beliefs and promote co-creation and collective creativity. This chapter investigates the recent evolution of the use of technologies in supporting democratic and transformative landscape planning processes. It sketches a framework for understanding the qualities of good digital participation, which it tests against four international case studies of participatory digital platforms, analyzing their potential to empower collective decision-making, strengthen civic discourse and identity, and foster the joyful unleashing of collective creativity. The cases reveal that digital participation is far from achieving its full potential to be more meaningful, engaging and, ultimately, transformative for those involved.

Democracy and Participation

Democracy is a prerequisite for a sustainable, peaceful society. Principle 37 of the UN New Urban Agenda calls for places to be “designed and managed to ensure human development and build peaceful, inclusive and participatory societies” and for “meaningful participation” (UN 2016: 16—18). Consequently, institutions, governments, universities, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have started to promote greater participation as a tool for creating genuinely democratic and sustainable communities. In an increasingly divisive society, participatory processes become the platform for learning and re-learning what it means to be democratic, and for shifting one’s attitudes, behavior, and values toward the common good (Print and Lange 2012). Through participation, communities can coalesce around future visions, engage in constructive dialog, mend conflicts, build stronger identities, and activate their collective creativity (Flanagan 2009).

Over the last 25 years, the use of digital technologies has facilitated direct participation of communities of otherwise unheard, invisible, or disengaged stakeholders (Van Dijk 2012). Researchers have found that digital democracy improves political information retrieval and exchange between all those involved; that it supports public debate, deliberation, and community-building; and that it empowers decision-making by citizens. Despite the existence of legislation requiring public participation in planning and design decisions in many countries, many governments pursue a narrow view of engagement as information sharing and consultation. At the local scale, municipalities have struggled to find resources to dedicate to the increase in participation and integrate its findings and goals into policy (Jones 2018; Knutson 2018; Millard 2009).

Digital Participation and Sustainable Landscape Planning

Parallel to the evolution of technologies in democratic decision-making processes, a paradigm shift has occurred in European landscape planning education and research as a result of the European Landscape Convention of 2000. The Convention recognizes the need to engage citizens as a key to building more resilient places, calling for a ‘right to landscape’ (Egoz et al. 2011). This is to say that landscapes should be not only accessible, but also co-designed and managed by those who inhabit them (Sanders and Simons 2009). Around the world, many governments are beginning to embrace participation as a tool for improving their solutions to the many pressing challenges they face. Many continue to consider participation an avant-garde approach to planning, too timeconsuming and costly, and limiting of the expertise and creativity of professionals (Jorgensen et al. 2015). Others are beginning to understand the many added benefits of participation in terms of empowering citizens, bridging social capital, enhancing community identity, and strengthening commitment to civic life and democracy (Ganz 2011; Hester 2006).

Over the last few decades, the rise of information and communication technology (ICT) has led to the introduction of innovative new ways to engage the public in public discourse, including through the use of social media platforms for community organizing and activism (Castells and Cardoso 2006). Advances in 3D (three-dimensional) visualization, web-based geographic information systems (Web-GIS) technology, and gaming, when applied to landscape planning decisions, have proved successful in facilitating decision-making processes, prompting new research on their potential to motivate commitment and a more civically engaged citizenry (Gordon et al. 2011; Thiel et al. 2016).

Questions remain about the quality of the engagement fostered by digital technology, and whether it can support the kind of intimate exchanges and rich interactions afforded by face-to-face participation. Critics question the non-systemic/systematic and often ad hoc nature of digital participation processes involving digital technologies (Gastil and Richards 2016). They conclude that the restrictive and structured nature of digital interactions may limit the possibilities to resist or fight projects (Cammaerts and Carpenter 2005). While digital platforms help to share information and ideas, they often fail to generate the trust and reciprocity of face-to-face participation. They have been known to favor a spectator-like attitude, limiting their potential for empowerment, capacity building (Bernoft and Li 2010), and social capital construction (Ruggeri and Young 2016).

What Makes Digital Participation Successful?

If participation is the primary tool of democratic change, critical reflection on its quality and its potential benefits to all of those engaged is paramount. Sherry Arnstein (1969) was among the first to problematize the quality of participation. She used the metaphor of a ladder to illustrate the degree of empowerment associated with each form of participation. In her model, dissemination of information was on the lowest rungs, while co-creation and citizen control were on the highest. Researchers have critiqued the ladder as being too restrictive, as dismissing the nuances and idiosyncrasies of the contexts in which participation occurs (Reed 2008), and as failing to account for the diverse behaviors participants choose to engage in (Davidson 1998; Lawrence 2006). They conclude that participation should be both “transactive” and “transformative” (De la Peña et al. 2017: 1) and that it should educate and inform, strengthen identity, construct new meanings, engage in civic discourse, build trust, and act and feel like one community (De la Peña et al. 2017; Hou and Rios 2003; Ruggeri 2018).

The benefits of participation in civic life are particularly relevant at a time when social capital and political engagement are at the lowest levels in history, while isolation and segregation are rampant (Putnam 2000). The measure of the success of future participation should be not only its efficiency in achieving consensus, but also its ability to touch people’s hearts and prompt them to become agents, not only spectators, of transformative landscape change (De la Peña et al. 2017; Schirra 2013). Gaming and social media can perform an important function in today’s society. They can serve as virtual arenas for “critical play” and for dealing as a community with the most challenging and controversial issues related to human life (Flanagan 2009: 3). While many of the digital participation and critical gaming efforts may be too short lived to be effectively assessed, more research and dissemination of case studies can help us conclude whether the integration of new media may indeed generate the ‘thick’ engagement that can motivate individuals and communities to act for transformative, democratic change (Gordon and Baldwin-Philippi 2014: 762; Gordon and Manosevitch 2011).

The Multifaceted Qualities of Digital Engagement

Digital participation can do far more than increasing the power of participants. Technology can widen the spectrum of perspectives involved, allow for rich dialog about shared values and identity, and engage residents in rich and transformative experiences (Gordon et al. 2011). Our framework for understanding the quality of digital participation (Figure 17.1) builds on Arnsteins ladder of participation (1969) to illustrate how technologies can be used to redistribute power in planning processes, but expands it to include three additional areas of consideration: purpose, meaning, and engagement.


Digital participation should facilitate a dialogue between experts and citizen-scientists, grounding future policy in the experiences of those who inhabit the landscape (Hasler et al. 2017). It should aim for full participation while recognizing the importance of the perspectives of those at the margins (Cammaerts and Carpentier 2005). It should be transparent, accountable, and accurate, and should allow for an iterative, constructive two-way dialogue between and across all those involved.





citizen control delegated power

inform planning, spatial change

civic learning social capital

exciting, playful immersive

Arnstein (1969)

Davidson (1998)

Lawrence (2006)

Reed (2008)

Hasler et al. (2017) Ruggeri & Young (2016)

Cammaerts & Carpentier (2005)

Gordon &



Prints Lange (2012)



Gordon et al. (2011b) Deterding (2012) Thiel et al. (2016) De la Peña et al.


Figure 17.1 Qualitative layers of digital participation.

Source: Supplied by the authors.


Digital participation should be a transactive experience grounded in open dialogue and mutual learning. It should allow for bridging across social and cultural groups; it should strive to strengthen individual and community competences to participate and lead democratic processes; and it should be constructive and reconstructive of a culture of civic engagement (Deuze 2006).


This refers to the immersive, dynamic, and fun nature of digital participation that includes the pleasure of participating in planning processes (Krek 2008). It speaks of processes that are transformative, instilling in those who participate the pleasure and excitement that result from their direct involvement in co-creation (De la Pena et al. 2017; Sanders and Simmons 2009). Digital participation should be stimulating, playful, creative, rewarding to the soul, and inspiring of commitment and stewardship to the community — and to one another.

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