The role played by communication and participation in urban planning cannot be underestimated. Without proper communication to various stakeholders, plans and projects can easily fall prey to misunderstandings or be swayed by opponents and selfish interest groups. This predicament has been witnessed worldwide in various transportation, housing development and even urban renewal projects.
As a result, planners have to find tactful ways of engaging stakeholders in different spheres when coming up with various development plans.
The impact that social media has on society cannot be overlooked when considering the modern urban life context. Politicians, mainstream media and even educational institutions have not been left behind in using social media to develop and drive their message, and to engage stakeholders. Urban planners have to keep up as well.
A recent IBM report on smart cities indicated that the spectacular growth of social media has also increased expectations related to transparency and the right to participate in the policy-making process. As a result of this, leading cities in the world are already tapping into social media to obtain data from citizens. A good example is Coventry, where the application CovJAm obtains and shares real time information on mobility. Users can share their views, make suggestions as well as help planners understand the mood of the moment. In Nairobi, Kenya, traffic forecasts and real time traffic situations are regularly shared via the Twitter handle @ma3route (ma3 being short form for a local public minibus ‘matatu’). In the UK, @riotcleanup attracted several followers and volunteers in a drive to clean up cities that were affected by the London riots in 2011.
Various tools in social media have already been utilized towards ensuring more public participation in urban development. In Nairobi, Kenya, virtually every neighborhood association has a ‘WhatsApp group’ where matters of security, garbage collection and urban services are discussed. This has also helped neighbours get to know each other. Interestingly, it is the need to resolve various ‘problems’ that often brings urban residents together faster.
Although the biggest advantage derived from social media data is that it is real time and provides an impression of the ‘mood of the moment, this does not preclude social media data from being applied to long term planning. Recent research at Carnegie Mellon University indicates that when combined with new kinds of analytics tools, geotagged social media data, will, in a cheap, scalable, and insightful manner, let urban planners and other professionals explore how people actually use a city. . Such data can be used for mapping Socioeconomic Status, Quality of Life, Mobility and to identify known “Design Patterns” for Cities. These initiatives attempt to utilize current social media data and convert it into a spatial form that can be used to understand city trends.
Ben Berkowitz, CEO of SeeClickFix.com (an application that allows citizens to play an integral role in service provision) states that they had over 2,000,000 issues reported since 2008 and about 60% of them have been fixed; ranging from potholes, broken sidewalks and even lost pets. Residents in Nairobi have likewise established the ‘fixmyward.com’ communications platform that has similar goals where they can report matters concerning municipal service provision and maintenance within urban wards. This promotes ‘tactical urbanism’, which is a strategy that aims at getting community- driven short term projects completed as soon as possible while working towards a future urban vision.
It is said that the main characteristics of a smarter social media city are: engaging, transparent, nimble and secure. With the correct tools, increased web presence in cities globally and use of social media by residents can be utilized to and enhance participation, research, communication, urban planning and sharing of ideas. However, social media also poses the danger of non-representative data as usage tends to be by selective groups (based on age and social status).
In what other ways can web based technologies be used to achieve closer service provision and urban development? Have you used any web based or social media tools for planning in your city?
Credits: Image by Constant Cap, Bake; Video and Data linked to cources.