Local councils’ planning and regeneration teams have a strong track record in involving residents in the decision-making process to co-create urban places. Over the last few years, these teams have started to harness various digital tools, a process that has been significantly accelerated by the current pandemic. What are the benefits of using such tools in planning and regeneration projects and how can they be used most effectively to include citizen input in the decision-making process?
Here are the main takeaways from our webinar (recording below) with Jonathan McClue, Principal Planning Officer at the London Borough of Camden, and Eleni Katrini, Senior Regeneration Manager at the London Borough of Newham.
1. Engaging a wider audience
“Making sure everyone is participating has always been a struggle,” explains Jonathan McClue.“Usually we mainly get responses from white middle class residents. It’s not a good representation of society, especially in a borough as diverse as Camden. Engaging as many members of the community and making sure all voices are heard is one of our biggest challenges”.
As Eleni Katrini suggests, digital tools allow us to reach a more diverse audience. They enable people with less time at their hands such as working parents, or a younger population to respond to easily accessible surveys or suggest ideas online rather than having to take a night off to attend a town hall meeting in the evening. Moreover, the diverse platform functionalities fit different profiles, whether they are introverts (surveys, upvotes, downvotes) or extroverts (comments, ideation). By mixing these engagement tools you can have many different types of people engaging with the content.
Interestingly, although Eleni expected to mainly interact with young residents on the platform, she was surprised by the relatively high median age of the users. It seems like the pandemic has led older residents, more accustomed to town hall meetings, in-person workshops and activities to switch their engagement online. She believes that the pandemic, the simple user interface of the CitizenLab platform, and the increase in digitalisation of society all contributed to this phenomenon. Attracting young people through digital tools is easier but not guaranteed. Our guest recommended you top into their tools, such as social media, to engage in a more creative way. (By the way, we hosted a webinar on youth engagement last month. Follow this link to view the recording).
2. The pandemic accelerated the digital transition
Camden was well placed when the pandemic hit. The borough had been paperless for 6-7 years and council employees had flexible working arrangements. It had also taken other steps in the way of digitisation such as switching to electronic email alerts rather than letters.
Digital adaptiveness empowered Camden to successfully transition offline events to online events as Londoon went into lockdown. They held digital town hall meetings where developers presented plans to citizens, followed by Q&As. They also set up the country’s first remote citizens’ assembly. Yet, Jonathan argues that in terms of 3D planning, there is still a lot of work to be done for it to be fully digitalised. While there are various products out there, they still have a long way to go.
Newham was less digitized than Camden when the pandemic hit. Yet, the digital transition appeared as a way to reach a larger audience. According to Eleni, one of the most successful aspects of this transition was that they were able to engage new audiences while using fewer resources. Online engagement happened to be the most cost-efficient way to achieve this.
Newham launched its CitizenLab-powered platform as a response to Covid. Most of their consultations were previously happening offline through workshops and town hall meetings or paper surveys via post and local libraries. The platform helped them centralise the engagement projects and thus facilitate the process for both citizens and council employees. Moreover, the platform enabled them to map how they were engaging with specific communities on different projects.
CitizenLab gave citizens a more interactive platform but most importantly it helped organise and centralise engagement. Other digital tools included Zoom for online meetings and workshops, given it was the tool most people were familiar with, and social media outreach for communication purposes.
3. Information accessibility is key
“Accessibility and usability are a big part of the problem”, shared Johnathan. “Usually the information regarding planning is submitted online in the shape of large pdf documents. It’s too much information for citizens to get through, and it’s difficult to grasp”. He believes this information should be much more accessible to allow a broader audience to access it and engage with it. Active and early engagement are extremely valuable for all the projects the city develops. We have to encourage informed participation.
If you are actively involved in planning, you are probably familiar with the Government’s August Planning for the Future whitepaper. Jonathan shared some valuable insights on the paper, which according to him is advocating for progressive engagement that puts citizens at the forefront and encourages information to be available in shorter, more user-friendly documents. On the flip side, he questioned whether communities have the technical, financial, and human resources to achieve such plans.
To respond to this issue, he is building a prototype with Future Gov, to allow local authorities to adapt, by teaching them about best practices in digital engagement. The toolkit will aim to be flexible and will hopefully enable councils to respond to new challenges and get easy access to a variety of resources: case studies, guides, etc. (If you are interested, they are looking for partners to work with them, and for local authorities willing to respond to this survey.)
4. Digital platforms add transparency and accountability to projects
On the topic of transparency, Eleni shared that one of the main benefits of digital platforms is that they add transparency and accountability
One of the main issues with citizen participation today is that the process is often too slow for citizens who have become used to things happening quickly. The platform allows them to monitor the progress of the different projects, while continuing to engage on other ones.
It also allows citizens to discuss projects outside of municipal settings. Having analysed citizen interactions, Eleni states “it’s amazing that people who do not know each other discuss city projects and ideas without us. From the first round of letting people discuss, what I realised is that people were quite civil. You would imagine, based on what happens on social media, that things would get ugly really fast, but actually, they didn’t. (…) At times, the conversation diverted, but it was very fruitful.”
5. Fighting engagement fatigue
“Engagement fatigue is a big challenge, particularly for long-term projects”, reveals Jonathan as he spoke of the Euston Station development plans. Consultations that last over several years can trigger an endless spiral of consultations and lose resident interest along the way.” It is not all doom and gloom though. Digital platforms for instance can enable cities to communicate clearly around the timeline of a project and successfully manage resident expectations. Check out this project by the London Borough of Newham to find out how they are using timelines to avoid engagement fatigue.
All in all, this webinar was another fascinating conversation with practitioners truly committed to giving residents a voice in local policy-making. As we often discuss at CitizenLab, our guests were both adamant that online engagement goes hand in hand with digital tools. And, although they cannot wait to return to some face to face interactions, they plan to incorporate digital tools in all future engagement.
As Jonathan concluded, “we have to make the process a lot lighter: combine in a smart manner the things that we’re doing digitally and offline”.
If you’re looking to engage residents in planning and regeneration projects in your local council, don’t hesitate to get in touch!