Interactive Urban Planning

My attention has recently been drawn to an urban planning initiative being trialled in Santa Monica City Swipe. Using Tinder type technology, it aims to enable anyone to look at their local area plans and swipe left (not for me) or right (count me in) through their smartphone. City Swipe provides local residents with slides of potential scenarios for their area with a question pertaining to a different element of ‘downtown’. There is a chat button built in too, if you have more to say about a certain question.

On the surface this looks like a great engagement tool for those who have a view but lack the time (or incentive) to fill out text heavy consultation response forms. What is unclear is how this technology works in the background for the organisation — how is that data collected? How is the data analysed to determine depth of opinion whether a proposal is supported or not? Who has access to that data?

However, I cannot merely dismiss this easily.

The idea is imaginative and engaging, it could pave the way for something more suitable for UK planning in the future. UK planning systems have barely changed since the inception of the Town and Country Planning Act 1947. But surely times have moved on from the messy method of announcing development on a lamppost, newspaper adverts easily lost among visually demanding banners and obscure resident letters? Research by the Future Cities Catapult (Government funded quango dedicated to exploring solutions to urban issues) has revealed a plethora of digital innovations that could move towards more data-driven planning systems; making proposals more transparent.

Local Authorities such as Manchester have begun taking steps towards digital consultation by launching an interactive map to outline potential developments sites across the city. Aggregating everything from water and transport infrastructure to property prices and land, it provides total view of the city’s physical, environmental and social infrastructure.

Broadland is beginning to develop interactive mapping, extracting local plan information and linking it to an online map interface; providing information about the district in a visual way, including proposed future development within each parish (Site Allocations). What remains in development is to build in the approved planning applications and local data such as house prices and services as a supplementary layer.

Critics question whether increasing access for one demographic alienates another. Not everyone has a smartphone, those who do, not all like apps such as these. Questions could be too basic; the lack of clarity of who is collecting the information and what is being done with it exactly. True, for Local Authorities within rural areas, such a tool as this could be hard to promote — with poor connections, slow broadband and lack of access to online tools; are such places really ready for this kind of digital engagement?

I watch with interest how these initiatives develop over time and the success of the Santa Monica trial.