Urban Planning and E-Government

This post is Part 1 of my public participation in urban planning series, adapted from my urban planning final paper, Citizen Participation and the Internet in Urban Planning, which received the University of Maryland Urban Studies and Planning Larry Reich Award for Best Final Paper.

Since the advent of information technology, there has been intense interest in its potential use to enhance and improve government functions. Despite innovations in many areas of governance, the use of the information technology in general and the Internet specifically to facilitate citizen involvement in urban planning has been limited. Two fundamental reasons explain this: the unique character of public participation has made it difficult to replicate online, and professionals have hesitated to work on the Internet due to the unequal distribution of Internet access. These reasons also serve to describe the obstacles that must be overcome before effective online participation can be realized. New tools and expanding Internet access address these concerns.

Limited Online Work by Planners
The Center for Technology in Government defines e-government as “the use of information technology to support government operations, engage citizens, and provide government services.” The four broad government functions reflected in this definition are: the electronic delivery of services (e-services), use of information technology to improvement management (e-management), use of the Internet to facilitate citizen participation (e-democracy), and the exchange of money for goods and services over the Internet (e-commerce).(1) Although e-services and e-commerce have spread rapidly, the development of e-democracy tools has lagged behind. To the extent there has been innovation in the area of participation, it has been to facilitate individual communication (e.g. email) to government officials.

Although enhanced participation in government decision-making has long been a theoretical goal of e-government advocates, its actual implementation has been limited. By 2008, the vast majority of planning departments and commissions had at least posted plans and other information online, many posted contact information to government officials, agendas and minutes from government meetings, and many have also begun to experiment with putting geographic databases online.(2) Consultants have emerged specializing in workflow management, online document production, and even receipt of public comments for proposed plans in electronic formats.(3) Despite broad adoption of some level of Internet use by public sector planners, few have elevated it to an important place in their work. A 2003 study of 60 urban planning processes in Florida and Washington states found just 5 percent used web sites as a “central role in providing information.”(4)

Planning a Unique Government Function
Government planners have not readily adopted Internet tools to engage the public in urban planning processes partly because of a lack of appropriate technologies. The work of creating plans is not limited to individual communications with the general public, but involves working with groups of people to identify problems and build consensus. In creating their plans planners must engage multiple distinct stakeholders, and often reach out to specific communities, organizations, and government agencies.(5) Planners need easy-to-use tools that allow multiple constituencies to hold a mutual conversation. They need appropriate means to moderate the conversation as well as present a large amount of visual, cartographic, and textual data. Finally, despite advances in teleconferencing, the subtle aspects of face-to-face interaction cannot be easily reproduced virtually.

This style of communication contrasts sharply with the technology developed for e-services and e-commerce. These systems are oriented towards managing individual requests, or managing relationships between individuals and a central organization. Technologies emphasizing individual communication have limited utility to planners trying to build consensus between people and groups. The creation of plans is fundamentally different than many other government actions because of its unique character. It often involves a large volume of information, takes place over relatively long periods of time, and entails abstract and value-laden policy choices like defining a future vision for a city. Planning processes involve public input and engagement with multiple constituencies. Unlike issuing permits or receiving service requests, it is difficult to imagine moving the process of creating long term plans entirely online.

Digital Access
Although access to the Internet has grown considerably, access remains unequally distributed. From a planning perspective, online initiatives may reach only a select group of residents or may be totally inaccessible to community members. Expending time and effort to development Internet systems seem less democratic than conventional means of engaging the public: meetings, notices, and receiving written comments. However, access to the Internet ranges widely, and participants of conventional participation practices can be more unrepresentative than online population.

The proportion of the U.S. population that reports using the Internet “at least occasionally” has grown rapidly in recent years, reaching 66% in 2005 and 73% in 2006.(6) The share of Americans with broadband connections had reached 42% in 2006, up from just 5% in 2000. Internet varies by age, income, race, and education. 88% of 18-29 year-olds are online, 84% of 30-49 year-olds, versus 32% of people age 65 and older. Low-income households are less likely to go online. 53% of households with annual incomes less than $30,000 go online, versus 91% of adults in households earning more than $75,000. Researchers have also found race to predict Internet use. 73% of whites go online compared to 61% of African Americans. Roughly 66% of English-speaking Latinos are online, compared to 33% of Spanish-dominant Latinos. Finally, education is a predictor of Internet use, ranging from 40% of those with less than a high school education to 91% of adults with at least a college degree.(7)

The data shows a gap in Internet use according to several important social and economic variables, a fact that has fueled concern with a “digital divide” and its effectiveness as a citizen participation tool. Although overall growth in the rate of Internet use has flattened in recent years, several historically underrepresented groups have seen rapid gains in Internet use, including African Americans, high school graduates, and older Americans.(8) Furthermore, Internet access in public schools and libraries has become practically ubiquitous, reaching 99% of all public schools and 92% of all public school classrooms in 2002.(9) The cost of computer hardware and Internet connections has declined sharply, with a fully-featured desktop computers available for less than $500 ($20 a month using credit programs), and dial-up Internet connections for less than $10 a month. Increasingly the paradigm of a technologically-driven “divide” between groups is inappropriate. While disparities remain, the data shows significant variation in access to Internet connections, quality of the connection, and skills and motivation to use it. One scholarly examination of the “digital divide” urges us to “Declare the War Won,” citing rapidly expanding use, declining cost, and advancing technology, concludes the “digital divide is disappearing” and the role of public policy will be to help those left at the fringes.(10)

A colloquium between activists in low-income communities and urban planning academics underscores the shifting understanding of the impact of the Internet. The activists were excited to learn about applications of information technology to enhance urban planning, empower communities, and compete for government resources and attention. “All these reasons contributed to the activists’ enthusiasm to learn about information technology (IT), even though the academics… argued that IT is unlikely to alter the conditions of the urban poor. …”(11) Despite excitement about the potential for e-democracy, technical barriers remain. Utilization of government websites depends on the website’s accessibility, usability, design, and functionality. Even citizens with computers may not be able to access websites that don’t function on their computers or that are difficult to use. These issues will be described in section four.

Web 2.0 a Potential Planning Tool
Since 2000, a host of highly interactive and popular websites has developed that allow Internet users to share information, form communities, and interact in new ways. Described by commentators as “Web 2.0” websites, they include social networking websites and specialized platforms allowing users to easily share photos and information.(12) These websites share a common dedication to simplicity, usability, and interactivity. Collectively, they allow groups to communicate and collaborate online. Standards and technologies developed in this generation of websites are the source material for some services provided by planning technology consultants.

These technologies have several ramifications for the urban planning community. Because they have engaged huge numbers of citizens, they have created sources of information about very local issues. Neighborhood email lists, blogs, discussion boards, or other types of interactive websites are now commonly found in neighborhoods and towns across the country, containing a mix of information and opinion.(13) The technology offers a menu of tools well suited for planners’ long-standing goals of sharing information, interacting with the public, and fostering community.(14)

Governments have hesitated to implement e-democracy initiatives because of a lack of appropriately designed tools and concerns about the digital divide. Furthermore, public participation planning processes are not easily moved to online systems and may contain qualitative features that cannot be replicated through Internet technology. Expanding Internet access and the development of a new generation of Internet technology promises to ameliorate initial obstacles to realizing broader e-democracy initiatives.

Hardware and access are necessary but not sufficient to expand e-democracy in planning. Also needed is a conceptual model to understand how Internet technology can contribute to a larger planning process. To do that we turn to two areas: the history of participation in planning, and professional theoretical debates surrounding public involvement. In part 2, (Monday, June 9) a study of history describes models of participation relevant to today, as well as helps to reframe participation in a larger political context. Despite ongoing, unresolved theoretical debates about the purpose and rationale of participation, contemporary professional practice reflects a surprising consensus. Part 3 (Monday, June 16) evaluates professional literature and practice for lessons relevant to new online models of participation.

View my Citizen Participation and the Internet Index

1) Center for Technology in Government
2) Charles H. Kaylor, “The State of Local E-Government and E-Democracy: Benchmarking the Progress of US Cities at Providing Online Opportunities for Citizen Engagement,” E-government: Key Citizen Participation Issues and Applications for Local Governments, eds. Jennifer Cowley and Maria Manta Montoy, (Columbus, Ohio: The John Glenn Institute of Public Service and Public Policy, 2005).
3) The UK-based Limehouse Software markets their product to government agencies as an integrated system to create documents, engage the public, and collaborate through a virtual environment. Urban Insight, publisher of the popular planning portal Planetizen, offers clients web design and development, database development, and internet consulting services.
4) Samuel D. Brody, David R. Godschalk, and Raymond J. Burby, “Mandating citizen participation in plan making: Six strategic planning choices,” Journal of the American Planning Association 69(3) (2003), 245-264.
5) See chapter 5 in Eric Damian Kelly and Barbara Becker, Community Planning: An Introduction to the Comprehensive Plan (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2000).
6) Mary Madden, “Data Memo: Internet Penetration and impact,” April 2006, Pew Internet & American Life Project.
7) Susannah Fox, “Internet Usage Trends – Through the Demographic Lends,” Speech, 6 November 2006.
8 ) Susannah Fox, “Digital Divisions,” Pew Internet and American Life Project, 5 October 2005, 6.
9) U.S. Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics, Internet Access in U.S. Public Schools and Classrooms: 1994–2002, NCES 2004-011, Anne Kleiner and Laurie Lewis (Washington, D.C.: 2003).
10) Benjamin M. Compaine, “Declare the war Won,” in The Digital Divide: Facing a Crisis or Creating a Myth?, ed. Benjamin M. Compaine (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press Sourcebooks, 2001).
11) Bish Sanyal and Donald A. Schon, “Information Technology and Urban Poverty: The Role of Public Policy,” in High Technology and Low-Income Communities: Prospects for the Positive Use of Advanced Information Technology, Donald A. Schon, et al. eds, (Cambridge, Mass.: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1990).
12) These include websites to share links, videos, photos. The term was popularized by technology writer Tim O’Reilly. For more information see Wikipedia.
13) Email lists circulate email messages among all group members. They can be privately administered, or easily set up using free services like Yahoo Groups or Google Groups, and the members and messages may or may not be moderated by the list owner. Blogs, short for web log, is a frequently updated website written by an individual or a group, and generally allow visitors to leave feedback in the form of comments. Discussion boards allow individuals to post messages on a website. All three may or may not be accessible to nonmembers, but blogs are generally the most easily available to general Internet users.
14) Chris Steins and Josh Stephens, “Building Cities in the Virtual World: It’s time for Web 2.0,” Planning, April 2008.

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. As someone who’s worked in IT for years and has becoming increasing interested in government planning I find the concept of e-democracy very interesting. Shortly myself and fellow IT professionals will begin pushing our local government to further open up access to documentation. We will be pushing for web services, RSS feeds and generally more standardized access to government data that could be better used and integrated to help improve our city.

  2. I realize I’m late ot this conversation. Anyhow – I think you’ve brushed off two major components – institutional resistance and IT ignorance.

    Institutional resistance – my personal experience is that planners are reluctant to include the public through use of the internet simply because “anyone can participate.” They often express their anxieties in precisely that way, but rarely seem cognizant that they’ve just contradicted the expressed preference for public participation.

    IT ignorance – the webpages you see put up by planning departments are like a history of the internet. Not on webpage I’ve seen has been cutting edge. Alta Planning, for the LA Bike Master Plan, put up a webpage which would be state of the art 7 years ago. LA DOT (not planning on the face of it, but in LA they’ve appropriated many of those responsibilities) put together a webpage at great expense that is almost entirely static, even though dynamic PHP powered pages have been SOP for several years. And planning departments continue to put up huge PDF’s rather than build more wieldy indexable pages with the same content.

    BTW – I would say a judicious use of Wikis and SMF forums can solve the participation issues you outline above.

    Anyhow – interesting blog, I like much of what you’ve written, and that which I disagree with is meaty enough to be worth thinking about. Keep it up.

  3. Alex, thanks for your thoughts. My concern with Wikis is that they have a rather high barrier to entry. Take a moderate level computer user and ask them to edit a wiki – I bet most will be confused or have problems. They also are great for aggregating content or synthesizing it, but a lot of planning is about articulating views and contrasting multiple perspectives – not ideal for wikis. What uses do you think they have?

  4. Interesting topic indeed..

    I am a town planner in Australia with strong interests in the interface between town planners at an institutional, local government level and stakeholder engagement.

    In fact, I have have noticed little research has been done in Australia on this topic and intend to complete a research project addressing some issues raised on this page later this year.

  5. Pingback: Recent Links Tagged With "edemocracy" - JabberTags

  6. Pingback: The Goodspeed Update » Blog Archive » E-Government Software, Part Two

  7. This study contains a planning participation history and theory in order to propose ways IT tools can be used to realize more inclusive, democratic, and equitable planning processes. The most important anticipated benefits of e-government include improved efficiency, convenience and better accessibility of public services.
    Melbourne city planning

Comments are closed.