Internet Tools for e-Democracy in Urban Planning

Update, October 2009 – I have launched a directory of web tools for collaboration in planning on my MIT website and will no longer be updating this page.


  1. Introduction
  2. How Does Online Planning Information Serve Planning?
  3. Evaluating Online Tools

The Internet has profoundly impacted the practice of urban planning as email, websites, online Geographic Information Systems (GIS), and online research have become central to the profession. However, planner�s efforts to communicate information and interact with the public online has been minimal. Individual agencies have experimented with various tools, but many have not due to technical illiteracy, concerns about cost, equity concerns, or the usability of available tools. As an example, last spring Common Cause Massachusetts’ Campaign for Open Government found dozens of Massachusetts cities and towns that either had no websites whatsoever or had not posted any of six basic government documents.

However, new changes suggest this will increasingly change. As of May 2008, over 73% of all American adults use the Internet, and a whopping 90% of people age 18 to 29. Technically sophisticated young people are beginning to enter the profession. Also, new technologies are making the internet more interactive and easy to use than ever before.

This page describes how planners could use internet tools to enhance the practice of planning. Used efficiently, Internet tools could enhance the quality of public debate about planning issues, engage and mobilize previously apathetic citizens, and facilitate the planning process. While face-to-face communications and traditional public engagement methods like public meetings and published reports will continue to be important, they can and should be supplemented with online information and communication.

One common framework organizes e-government into several categories: electronic service delivery (e-services), technology to improve management (e-management), use of the Internet to facilitate participation (e-democracy), and exchange of money for goods and services (e-commerce). Although urban planning processes can involve all of these (permitting may be managed by an e-management system, online transactions through an e-commerce, and citizen reports of potholes through e-services) I am predominantly interested in e-democracy. Creating urban plans requires extensive public involvement, and decisions about zoning modifications and development proposals are generally made by local government bodies in public meetings. (For more on this topic, see my post “Urban Planning and E-Government“.)

Since the advent of Internet technologies there has been a great interest in the planning profession for publicly-available Internet Geographic Information Systems (GIS). While this technology is a powerful way to let the public navigate the substantial geographic information resources amassed by planning officials, this article is not concerned primarily with these tools. The planning process itself is only partly geographic information, and planning debates and decisions are largely related to simple text and graphical information.

The Internet has several characteristics that distinguish it from other mediums of communication. Online information is ubiquitous, available equally wherever an internet connection is available. It is instantaneous, so emails and website updates are instantly reflected irrespective time or geographic distance. It is highly scalable, a website can host one visitor one day and 20,000 the next. It can be highly interactive, supporting quick and easy communication between users and sources. Online content can be highly persistent, available to find far longer and far easier than ephemeral audio and video broadcasts, or even printed documents. It can be conducive to the construction of a historical record, as all information can be available, not just the latest plan. Finally, use of the web is design sensitive. Citizens can still extract information from a poorly designed report if they can obtain a copy. Citizens may not be able to use a website that requires specific technology (browsers, plug-ins, bandwidth) or technical proficiency (understanding the buttons on an ArcIMS website). Badly designed websites are a bigger obstacle to communication than badly designed paper documents.

The attributes above make the Internet uniquely suited to communicating with discrete communities of interest. Geographically defined communities, the type planners are most comfortable with, have been no exception. Thousands of neighborhood, town, and city-specific websites dubbed by innovator Lisa Williams as �placeblogs� have sprung up across the country. These websites host online conversations, link to and analyze online public data, and help connect citizens who might not otherwise meet. Research by the Center for Interactive Journalism has concluded these websites are a broad-based and relatively permanent phenomenon.

Before discussing some of the concerns and obstacles to broader use of internet technologies by the planning community, I will outline some of ways it can enhance local community planning processes. In a most basic sense, engaging in broad-based public education is necessary for meaningful engagement and participation in the planning process itself. Will putting information online reinforce existing structures of inequality? I don�t believe it will for several reasons:

  1. Much information is already online, but only easily available to technically sophisticated or privileged users. Difficult to use websites, poorly explained material, and online tools with restrictive technical requirements are deeply biased towards the most sophisticated users. Additionally, highly interested participants already have information available to them through personal and professional networks or other privileged channels. While not without limitations, the Internet�s radically democratic nature is more leveling than relying on other forms of dissemination, such as �persons of record.� Making the existing information easier to us increases the number and type of users who are able to benefit from such information.
  2. Information travels in complex ways through society, with many intermediaries. While online information may not ultimately reach each individual citizen planners hope it to, it can greatly enhance existing systems of information dissemination. It can enhance the work for journalists, who play a large role in explaining and disseminating planning information to a broader public, and also empowering neighborhood leaders and activists. If we assume the most elite participants already know almost everything they need to know, enhanced communications will have the impact of flattening the information differential between elites and the least informed citizens.
  3. Online information enhances transparency and accountability, which benefits the least powerful participants. While elites have lawyers and resources to conduct investigations, those with the least amount of power are most reliant on public sources. Furthermore, transparent and accountable environments are the least susceptible to elite manipulation.
  4. Online information can help build a constituency for planning, explaining planning policies to citizens making them better able to understand and support them in the public policy arena. Online information can help the development community learn about community concerns and also applicable laws, helping them avoid potential pitfalls. In the words of Walter Dwight Moody, the legendary promoter of the Chicago Plan of 1909, “Promotion … is the dynamic power behind the throne of [urban planning] accomplishment.”
  5. Online information can help save plans from irrelevance. The persistent, iterative character of online information lends itself to linking visions, plans, and charrettes with implementation processes.

The host of place blogs that exist are already doing many of these things, publishing and discussing information about local community planning. However, these efforts are often inconsistent, and not informed by a deep knowledge of planning processes. To the extent it is already being done, planners could help clarify information by taking the role upon themselves.

If a planning agency commits to creating interactive and informational systems online, each potential tools should be evaluated in several areas. A growing number of consultants are creating “ePlanning” tools, and a host of free or low-cost tools online are available to planners. These areas include the amount of information they convey, how much administrative maintenance is needed, how easy they are to use for the public, and whether they support many-to-many communication between visitors. The ratings are subjective and reflect my view of how the tools are commonly implemented, however they will vary according to the specific approach taken.

Tool Amount of information Administrative maintenance demand Ease of use Many-to-many communication
Static webpage High Varies High No
PDFs High Low Moderate No
Discussion email list Moderate Moderate High Yes
Announcement/newsletter email list Low Low High No
Forum Low Moderate Moderate Yes
Internet GIS High Low Low No
Online Survey Low Low High No
Web 2.0
Wiki High Varies Low Yes
Blog High Moderate Moderate Yes

Many specific applications are available to implement the list of tools above, ranging in cost to free to expensive packages. Below is a collection of software tools related to e-government that do not fit into any of the categories above and may be used to facilitate e-democracy in urban planning – please contact me with suggestions for additions. The list is alphabetical and does imply endorsement.

  • Adobe LifeCycleES – Software tool designed to automate form-based business and government processes. Unclear what e-democracy potential the tool may have.
  • BallotBin – A free service offering ranked pair voting, designed to be used when group of voters is known, although self-registration is possible.
  • Basecamp – Proprietary project management and collaboration software.
  • Bang The Table – A company that offers a “flexible online community engagement platform” (with blog, forum, survey, RSS, email, etc) for clients who want to conduct engagement online, and a “Budget Allocator” tool for budget simulations.
  •’s GroupServer – Software tool developed by a Minnesota nonprofit that “combines e-mail list and web forum technology” to bring “e-mail and web participants together in one virtual space.”
  • Google Groups and Yahoo Groups – Free email discussion and announcement lists.
  • i-neighbors – A free “social networking service that connects residents of geographic neighborhoods” providing neighborhoods with email lists, polls, document sharing, reviews, events, and more.
  • LimeHouse Software – Provides software that allow the public to comment on documents, manage document versions, and facilitate project management. Suited for creating planning documents.
  • LimeSurvey – “Refreshingly easy to use open source survey application”
  • Microsoft Citizen Service Platform – “A comprehensive solution designed to help local governments worldwide to serve citizens and businesses.” Features include case management, individual communication with government, website management, and online forms.
  • OpenPlans – Free, open source online collaboration tool with “mailing lists, wikis, task tracking, team management, and blogs to help you build an online community and promote real-world change.”
  • SeeClickFix – “SeeClickFix encourages residents to become citizens by participating in taking care of and improving their neighborhoods. We allow anyone to: See – see a non-emergency issue in your neighborhood, Click – open a ticket describing the issue and what can be done to resolve it, Fix – publicly report the issue to everyone for resolution.”
  • UserVoice – Is a free tool that allows visitors to leave suggestions or comments and vote on suggestions left by others. Administrators can tag suggestions (planned, started, completed, etc). Best used to aggregate a large volume of feedback on a narrowly defined topic.
  • Ushahidi – “… which means �testimony� in Swahili, is a platform that crowdsources crisis information. Allowing anyone to submit crisis information through text messaging using a mobile phone, email or web form.”
  • Village Manager – “An on-line database solution that allows you to manage your village’s information and share that information with whomever you please. It empowers you to track people, property and business information and analyze it to understand the status and potential of your community.”
  • – Directory of Wiki platforms.

This is a very preliminary list of some organizations doing work related to Internet tools for e-democracy in urban planning.

Governments are increasingly experimenting with blogging.

Governments are using social networking websites and virtual worlds to communicate with and engage constituents.