Civic Relationships: Hackers + Planners + Citizens

I recently sat down with a group of passionate planners, hackers, and citizens at the APA Intelligent Cities Unconference morning session to discuss “Online Public Participation.”

We hypothesized why planners don’t involve citizens in planning decisions more often. We discussed the lack of a shared language, and the fact that planners can’t continue to communicate with citizens as if they’re talking to other planners. We all agreed that meaningful citizen input is often hindered by citizens not having all the facts or not being able to examine the data. But this is a difficult challenge, as planners generally have insufficient resources to help citizens understand the issues, especially online.

We talked about how, when it comes down to it, citizens (and hackers) don’t always know what planners even do or truly believe that their participation will make a difference. And while our discussion continued to generate more questions than answers, one reality became clear to me:

If we’re not building relationships, we’re doing it wrong!

To paraphrase Aaron Ogle, “What the web’s really good at is scaling and creating networks.” This is the heart of our work at OpenPlans. The web’s ability to scale solutions and connect people is a foundation for incredibly powerful relationship building, and it should be leveraged by hackers, planners, and citizens.

Planners are responsible for the sustainable development of our cities & neighborhoods, and they depend on citizens to provide the valuable feedback necessary to make many interrelated decisions (land use, transportation, safety, environmental factors, etc). They should also rely on hackers to build tools that make their outreach, research, and analysis more effective.

Citizens are beneficiaries—like it or not—of the efforts of planners to improve communities. But they’re taxed with the duty of being engaged in the decision making processes that effects their lives. With the help of civic-minded hackers, citizens should seek to become a greater part of these processes—in order to “like it” more often than “not.”

Hackers are the designers and developers building the tools for planning, As they build these tools, they should ask themselves several questions. Do these tools bring about meaningful participation? Do they result in meaningful outcomes? Do they strengthen the bonds between planners and citizens?

OpenPlans ♥ Planners + Citizens

At OpenPlans, we’re interested in building a complete planning toolbox containing all the necessary tools for communicating and gathering public input for planning projects. In doing so, we must be mindful that this toolbox shouldn’t simply make planners’ jobs easier. Although maximizing the limited resources of planners is very important, the outcomes are fundamentally for citizens. This toolbox should enable planners to better serve citizens and empower citizens to meaningfully contribute, thus democratizing the planning process. This toolbox should democratize the planning process to enable planners to better serve citizens and empower citizens to meaningfully contribute.