People-Centered Planning in Smart Cities

March 17, 2017

Emma French is a researcher with the Center for Urban Innovation and a third year dual masters student studying public policy and city and regional planning at Georgia Tech. SLS is supporting Emma's research on the role of smart city technologies on participatory planning in the Proctor Creek Watershed through the Smart Cities Fellowship Program. 

The SLS Smart City Fellowship Program has given me the opportunity to pursue my own research while at the same time gaining inspiration and new ideas from an interdisciplinary group of scholars and practitioners. Through our work sessions and small group projects I been exposed to new ways of thinking about "smartness" and "public participation," and have met local leaders who are envisioning the future for Atlanta and beyond. It has been an exciting learning experience and networking opportunity thus far. 

The term “smart city” has become common parlance in city planning circles in recent years. While there is no universally agreed upon definition, descriptions of smart cities typically refer to integrated and interoperable networks of digital infrastructure and information and communication technologies (ICT) that collect and share data and improve the quality of urban life (Allwinkle and Cruickshank 2011Batty et al. 2012). However unlike related concepts such as the digital city, the intelligent city and the ubiquitous city, the smart city is not limited to the diffusion of ICT, but also commonly includes people (Albino, Beradi, and Dangelico 2015).

Many of the technological enhancements propelling the smart city revolution require re-designing and in some cases re-building the underlying infrastructure that holds cities together. City planners will therefore play a significant role in the creation and implementation of many smart city initiatives. In a 2015 report on smart cities and sustainability, the American Planning Association (APA) purported that new technologies will aid planners by creating more avenues for community participation in policy and planning processes (APA 2015).

Public Participation in Planning

Widely-held conceptions of planning have shifted over the last century from normative, rational models that position planners as technical experts, toward a theoretical pluralism characterized by the political nature of planning, competing interests of stakeholders, and decisions as negotiated outcomes facilitated by planners (Lane 2005). These more contemporary models, most of which were first conceptualized in the 1960s and 1970s, view citizen participation as a key part of the planning process. Smith (1973) argues that participatory planning increases the effectiveness and adaptability of the planning process and that citizen participation strengthens our understanding of the role of communities in the urban system.

Meaningful public participation in planning has been found to better planners’ understanding of the community context (Myers 2010), improve decisions through knowledge sharing (Creighton 2005), increase trust in political decision making (Richards, Blackstock, and Carter 2004Faga 2010), produce long-term support of plans (Levy 2011), enhance citizenship (Day 1997Smith 1973), build social capital (Layzer 2008), and address complex problems through collaboration and consensus (Innes 2010Godschalk 2010).

While these more contemporary planning models emphasize the importance of citizen engagement, achieving meaningful participation has proved difficult.Challenges preventing meaningful citizen participation include funding and resource constraints (Creighton 2005), literacy and numeracy (Community Places 2014), disinterest (Cropley and Phibbs 2013), lack of access to necessary resources (Cropley and Phibbs 2013), the prescriptive role of government (Njoh 2002), power inequalities within groups (Reed 2008), jurisdictional misalignment (Layzer 2008), and lack of respect for public opinion (Day 1997).

In her seminal 1969 article, A Ladder of Citizen Participation, Arnstein uses examples from federal urban renewal and anti-poverty programs to illustrate different manifestations of participation in practice (see figure to the right). Arnstein defines citizen participation as “the redistribution of power that enables the have-not citizens, presently excluded from the political and economic processes, to be deliberatively included in the future” (Arnstein 1969, 216). Arnstein’s examples show how some efforts to include citizens in planning and decision making can perpetuate existing systems of power and actually further disenfranchise marginalized communities.

Glass (1979) attributes the dearth of meaningful citizen participation in planning and policy making processes to lack of attention to the design of participatory programs and a mismatch between objectives and techniques. Glass concludes that if the goal is just to get citizens to participate then almost any technique will be seen as sufficient. He argues that one technique alone is never enough and that meaningful citizen participation requires a continuous, multifaceted system of engagement (Glass 1979).

Technology-aided Participation

For decades scholars have been exploring ways that technology can enable meaningful participation in planning and policy making. Recent hype around “smart cities” has fueled the debate about the role of technology in these processes. Technology has been found to support citizen participation in planning by increasing participants understanding of issues and proposed plans (Salter et al. 2009), supporting collaboration (Jankowski 2009), strengthening the role of low-income residents (Livengood and Kunte 2012), and enabling alternative, informal manifestations of civic engagement (Asad and Le Dantec 2015).

Simply adding technology to the planning equation, however, does not always guarantee meaningful participation (Sylvester and McGlynn 2010; Epstein, Newhart, and Vernon 2014Holgersson and Karlsson 2014). While the use of technology may address some barriers to participation in planning processes, it may actually exacerbate other barriers that stem from structural social, economic and environmental inequities.

Equity, Planning and Smart Cities

Despite the emphasis of meaningful citizen participation in planning, low-income, urban communities of color often still suffer from poor infrastructure, environmental degradation and exposure to toxins, and potential displacement due to rapid gentrification. A concern voiced by many critics of smart cities is that, like previous attempts to use technology to engage the public, the existing digital divide will likely limit use of smart city technologies to certain groups of people with certain resources and skills.

Using 2007 Pew survey data, Sylvester and McGlynn (2010) conducted four logistical regression models that try to explain the factors leading to individuals having “low access” to the Internet and how internet usage and physical location influence civic participation. They find that living in a rural area and being African American or Hispanic increase the probability that you will have low access to the Internet. Age was found to have a significant, negative effect on Internet access—meaning that the younger you are the more likely you are to have access to the Internet. The results also showed that people living in urban areas were more likely to contact the government by phone (Sylvester and McGlynn 2010).

The recent hype around smart cities is fueled to some degree by the rapid migration of people into cities. In 2014 ,fifty-four percent of the world’s population lived in urban areas and the World Health Organization estimates that by 2030 that number will be closer to eighty percent (WHO 2017). Atlanta is expected to grow by about 2.5 million people in the next 25 years; however, income inequality in the city is increasing and poor urban residents are being displaced by millennials and baby boomers (Coleon 2016).

This brings up a major concern regarding smart cities. Namely, who are we making cities smart for? If our efforts to make cities more efficient, safe, and clean result in the displacement of marginalized communities, are these cities really smarter than the ones in we live in now? No sensor can substitute for public engagement and responsive leadership. Agyeman and McLaren (2016) advise against the creation of tech hubs without a simultaneous strategy to protect and invest in affordable housing, basic services, and infrastructure.  

Adam Greenfield presents a similar, albeit more in-depth, critique in Against The Smart City, where he investigates three major international smart city urban developments and argues that the marketing materials and promises of the sponsors highlight their interest in this top-down, data-rich urban management system (Griffiths 2013).

The Role of Planners in the Smart City

In the APA’s Smart City and Sustainability Task Force survey, planners ranked socio-economic disparity as the second most important topic for planners working in smart cities (after green building and site design), suggesting that planners are aware of the importance of socio-economic stratification. But what can planners do to ensure that investments in smart city technologies are benefiting everyone equally, rather than sucking away financial and political resources needed to fix basic infrastructure issues? How can planners use these technologies to support more meaningful community engagement?

The existing literature suggests that even where technologies enable greater understanding of the planning issues or more meaningful engagement, they must be used in tandem with of traditional modes of planning such as in person meetings and design charrettes. Scholars also emphasize the need for ongoing, participatory mechanisms. Especially where institutionally-mediated participation falls within the first five rungs of Arnstein’s ladder, perhaps ICTs can play a role in supporting alternate, illegitimate forms of civic action that have a greater impact.