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Public Participation

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Urban planners have long been talking about the "communicative turn" in their profession-- the widespread realization that citizen input is vital, and leads to higher quality projects and policies, with better acceptance rates.

The problem is, public participation is hard. Meetings are a chore to attend-- especially for busy, working families (leading to a bias in who takes part). They are expensive to plan and host, and the results are unpredictable. In the worst case scenarios, planners have already made up their minds and are simply jumping through hoops to satisfy expectations for public engagement.

The ICT revolution... or not

In the planning world, there was a lot of hype surrounding Information and Communication Technology. Finally, we can communicate with our decision makers directly! We can attend meetings remotely! Our voices can be heard!

... as always, reality is a bit less exciting:

  • Online engagement is difficult to set up, host and maintain
  • It's difficult to moderate (too many voices; trolls, negativity, etc.)
  • The data is difficult to present, analyse and quantify
  • User experience is challenging, participation rates are unpredictable
  • Sometimes "participation" and "dialogue" is actually a one-way data flow (survey form).

Public Participation GIS (PPGIS)

In every planning participation workshop, we are talking about places. Urban planning is a spatial activity-- who, what and where. So what if, instead of online discussions, webinars, survey forms... we used maps?

Turns out, web maps are great enablers! They let users tie their comments to a specific location or place, allow them to view plans right on the map, and are a great medium for making suggestions and reporting issues, each with geographic coordinates.

PPGIS for Bicycle Planning

In 2017, before I built, I used some enterprise GIS software to run a PPGIS campaign for the City of Karlsruhe, as part of an EU funded project. We were interested in exploring the method and the topic together-- letting citizens suggest bike routes, improvements, comments and complains, and answering a few survey questions along side it.

We were inspired by a few trailblazers, especially the crowd-mapping campaign by the New York City Department of Transportation and MobilityLab in Washington DC, among others.

We combined this method along with some more traditional workshops, hoping to kickstart a vision for future mobility in the city where the bicycle was invented!

The Results

vector map

From this pilot project, we learned a few things. Some of them, obvious: user-experience is extremely important. Maps aren't always intuitive to everyone. Driving traffic and encouraging contributions is a challenge.

Other results surprised us:

  • Despite the above, almost all contributions were thoughtful, respectful, and interesting.
  • Among 577 map contributions, not a single one was profane, abusive or troublesome (though a few were miss-placed).
  • Planners found the results to be an interesting complement that most often mirrored, but sometimes challenged their expertise!

The results can be chaotic, but since they are already in an interactive web map, exploring and analysing is a cinch-- and generating a heatmap is a simple task for someone with GIS software.

heat map of suggested bike lanes

We concluded that, while still no revolution for urban planners nor public participation, collaborative mapping and PPGIS have significant advantages, especially for urban infrastructure related topics like cycle and mobility planning. They bring in local expertise, in spatial data format, to complement the expertise of professional planners.


No planner will ever have the time, energy, or knowledge to tackle the tiny issues found in every corner of every neighborhood. "We want a bus stop. We need a bike rack. This sign is broken. This corner is unsafe."

Yet, these are the issues that citizens often care about most-- they are the ones we see on a daily basis.

Turns out, web maps are the best way to gather this citizen expertise and merge it with the planner's expertise. Data collection and public engagement wrapped in one.

This is what I learned during my Thesis, and this is why we are building!

When we have some success stories showing how our platform can improve the process of collaborative mapping for bicycle infrastructure, we will be sure to update this article.