How Media Supports Participatory Urban Planning – Evidence from Hamburg, Cape Town and Mexico City

Ever since Robert Chambers started classifying different methods of participatory planning in the 1980s (Chambers, 1987 and Chambers, 1995), this method has been used as a buzzword in urban planning efforts around the world. While there are some very successful examples, too often participation becomes a token, unused and maybe even unknown by citizens. This is where media, and citizen journalism through social media, can play an important role. Via social media, blogs, and vlogs, citizens can actively participate in urban planning and document any planning efforts going on (Groot et al., 2018). This article outlines the general role of media support for participatory planning, using three case studies from Germany, Mexico, and South Africa.

Case Studies of Media Support for Urban Planning

Public participation in urban planning is thought to be a crucial element. After all, cities are supposed to be for people. Icons like Jane Jacobs and Jan Gehl have been preaching the benefits of people-centred cities, which can only achieve their most liveable status quo by asking the people what they want from the urban environment.

In this spirit, participatory planning has become a buzz word in the last decades. However, experts are still divided on what the best methods are. Participation rates differ widely from city to city, from country to country, and sometimes even within cities. At the same time, new initiatives in cities such as Melbourne, Hamburg, Mexico City, Cape Town,and many other metropolises show that a new way of participation using social media might be possible (Williamson & Ruming, 2019). How can media support the use and help generate the benefits of participatory urban planning?

New ways to participate include social media and apps, where anyone can share their opinions using popular hashtags; live streams to show current planning developments or share participatory events; fun ways of designing surveys; new ways of receiving input from citizens. On top of these possibilities, citizens themselves become crucial actors in urban planning. Anyone with an account on social media can call themselves a journalist now, which is changing the media landscape. However, newspaper support and TV remain crucial.

The following three examples of media and participation are a personal selection among a countless number of examples to show the different approaches at stake in the field of participation and the use of media therein.

The Case of Hamburg / Germany

German cities have good rates of participation and – equally important – good methods to participate in urban planning. This results in very long planning processes where, but the idea is that whoever is interested in giving their opinion will have the opportunity to do so. The country’s second-largest city, Hamburg, is a good example of it. You can find a participatory digital “Stadtwerkstatt” (city workshop) and invitations for online participation on the city government’s website. 

There is a mix of online platforms and real-life events for participatory purposes in Hamburg’s participatory urban planning landscape. Interestingly, media such as “Die Zeit” or “Der Spiegel” as well as local newspapers keep a very close eye on these developments. They can be relied upon to report about the latest planning and to inform citizens of important dates for participation.

The challenge for Hamburg’s government is to include younger people in urban development plans. There is not a lack of participatory tools, but rather a lack of public interest. This is why new hashtags like #hamburg2030 are being used by political parties, newspapers, blogs, citizen journalists and interested citizens to incite debate on social media.

The Case of Cape Town / South Africa

Media do not always have to be used in a traditional way. Started in 2015, the project “Your City Idea” in Cape Town showed another way to encourage citizen participation in urban planning. By using big letterboxes placed in strategic places of the city, citizens can vote for certain ideas and add suggestions. The results are published on the website, on social media and occasionally also on traditional media.

The interactive, low-barrier element of participatory planning is exemplary in this case. However, the challenge (as always) lies in creating awareness of and trust for the participatory approach. By using creative media as well as hashtags on social media, the project is taking an interesting step with very good results so far.

The Case of Mexico City / Mexico

In Mexico City, there is a lot of frustration with official participatory planning mechanisms, due to widespread corruption and many failed attempts at including the public in urban planning. At the same time, considering the size of this metropolis, it is a big challenge to foster interest in different areas and cover them with reporting.

Again, citizen journalism plays an important role in a country like Mexico, where most citizens consume their information through social media. This new avenue has to be used as a method to gauge citizens’ opinions (López-Ornelas et al., 2017). Indeed, social median can help to make important decisions, to analyse contexts, and to identify important players.

Mexico City’s government often relies on social media to gauge the public opinion. For example, “Enchúlatucolonia” (make your neighborhood cool) is a popular example of this in 2019. Although it is hard to increase participation rates in a city with high inequality, high rates of corruption and a resulting sense of disillusionment, it seems that the government is finding a new way to include citizens in the sourcing of new ideas.

Citizen Journalism for Broader Reporting

On top of hashtags and online participation fora, the case studies show a need for something else: An additional source for reporting about participatory planning and planning efforts as well as successful examples. Solutions journalism, purported by citizens, can incentivize and support participation in urban planning. 

The distribution of information about ongoing participatory efforts, successful results, and possibilities to participate as well as the search for new ideas is an important role that media can and should play. Hamburg shows that this is possible with the use of more traditional media, whereas cities like Cape Town and Mexico City show that in order to reach younger (and in many cases also poorer) people, it is important to include social media and other, creative media in the mix.

Conclusion

It is increasingly more evident that for participatory planning efforts to be successful, they need the support of media. Otherwise, citizens will not have any information about ongoing participatory initiatives, new planning ideas and successful examples of urban planning.

Social media can help to gauge the public opinion, to gather ideas and to build trust between citizens and the urban planners or the government. At the same time, it is difficult to moderate participation on social media and to incentivize citizens to use hashtags and other digital ways for participating. Therefore, social media and apps alone cannot be the only way to improve participation. In the realm of digital participation, however, it can serve some of the existing demand.

The case studies show that new ways of participation, supported by citizen journalism and the creative use of social media, might be a worthwhile avenue for improving participation rates and gathering solutions. Smart cities are supposed to use digital tools for participation. While these do not necessarily increase engagement rates, they are easily accessible and can be supported by social media and citizen journalists bridging the gap between urban participation offers and citizens. 


Bibliography

Chambers, Robert (1987), “Sustainable livelihoods, environment and development: putting poor rural people first”, Discussion Paper 240, Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK (out of print, available from the author)

Chambers, Robert (1995), “Whose Reality Counts?”, Environment and Urbanization, Vol. 7, No. 1, April 1995

Groot, Bert; Effing, Robert; Veenstra, Mettina (2018), “Urban Media Trends for Enabling Citizen Participation in Urban Planning: Old Wine in New Barrels?”, International Conference on Electronic Participation, August 2018. Available online at https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-319-98578-7_5

López-Ornelas, Erick; Abascal-Mena, R.; Zepeda-Hernández, S. (2017): “Social Media Participation in Urban Planning: A New Way to Interact and Take Decisions”, The International Archives of the Photogrammetry, Remote Sensing and Spatial Information Sciences, Volume XLII-4/W3, 2017 2nd International Conference on Smart Data and Smart Cities, 4–6 October 2017, Puebla, Mexico

Williamson, Wayne; Ruming, Kristian (2019), “Can Social Media Support Large Scale Public Participation in Urban Planning? The Case of the #MySydney Digital Engagement Campaign”, Journal for International Planning Studies. Available online at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13563475.2019.1626221?journalCode=cips20