Data Can Make City Planning Participatory, Overnight

Data is already driving urban planning initiatives on the citizen level. Directly, more plentiful data enables a richer understanding of especially concrete topics, such as those concerning waterways or infrastructure. Alongside this are efforts aided by the extra-apparent connectivity of our modern digital-geographical social space. Groups like BetaNYC can continuously put on events because of a collective awareness of knowledge about cities and about community in general. This is all because of what we know, and what we know and how much we know is dictated by the Internet, or more specifically the information the Internet’s data uncovers to us.

We are still a long way from participatory planning, however. From what I understand, this exists mostly in idealized political contexts where citizen access to and familiarity with the government is taken for granted as fluid. I’m not sure this symbiotic relationship exists even in places like Sweden, which are colloquially referred to as a haven of social democracy.

But I think that citizens have the power to spread their data-driven insights in whatever manner, environment or scope they feel appropriate. Those who are made aware of the open data available on New York City can find informative visualizations of distinct city phenomena. These are out there, and they are interesting to look at and think about.

People living in a city should feel excited talking about it, and talking and thinking about how to make it better. Connecting, in concrete ways, the ubiquitous and web-driven worlds of data with the ever present reality of city life will take a tremendous amount of thinking and framing, and branding. The connections to your local government already exist if you want them, the fact of the matter is that most people don’t want them, even if they would benefit from them. Is it possible to make people genuinely excited about communicating with their councilmember or borough president? Or even attending a debate, committee or community board meeting?

I think convincing lots of people to do this is unrealistic, so maybe enabling those who are already interested to go to these meetings, these meetings where some formerly needless numerical fact of city spending could turn into the deciding factor in a debate on affordable housing. I can see a situation like this happening if and when more people get the word out.

Ultimately, the struggle becomes framing these issues so that local people can feel like they can shape their cities and communities together, instead of feeling isolated from others. Data isn’t really going to help here, but it will help when people can learn to trust their own decisions and views.

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