Participatory e-planning belongs to the emerging field of practice and area of research that is e-planning. It adds the aspect of citizen participation to the relationship between urban planning and information and communication technologies (ICTs), which lies at the heart of e-planning. In the recent Handbook of Research on e-Planning (Silva, 2010a), the contributors address participatory e-planning mostly through its connection to e-participation (e.g., Kubicek, 2010; Klessman, 2010) or urban planning (e.g., Granberg & Åström, 2010; Bourdakis & Deffner, 2010). E-participation is defined as “technology-mediated interaction between the civil society sphere and the formal politics sphere” (Sanford & Rose, 2007, p. 408). According to Horelli and Wallin (2010), participatory e-planning, similarly to e-participation, can be an important instrument of e-democracy and e-governance. Participatory e-planning is also related to the efforts to open up the traditional technologies used by professionals in urban planning, such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Planning Support Systems, to the general public. Internet GIS is a good example of this direction (e.g., Yigitcanlar, 2010; Kahila & Kyttä, 2009).
The focus of participatory e-planning research has consequently been on the institutional context of governance and planning, as well as on the use and development of tools that support modes of participation compatible with existing governance or urban planning processes. The investigations have been limited to the introduction of a specific technology that addresses a need identified in existing practices of participation, as well as to the assessment of the technology in a context of use that is already defined. In practice, the first generation of e-participation tools, such as online questionnaires, surveys, and polls, to name a few, have mostly addressed needs that stem from consultation, which actually means asking residents for specific feedback. The feedback received is then taken into consideration, or not, in the decision making of experts and professionals. For example, in Helsinki, until very recently the only opportunity citizens had to give feedback on planning issues was directly to the planner in charge, via snail mail, phone calls, or e-mails. However, now, at the beginning of the 2010s, some new ‘official’ participation tools have been put into use by the Planning Department, in addition to their website.
The tools are: 1) “Plans-on-the-map”, which is a website that allows citizens to get acquainted with existing plans; 2) “Tell-it-on-the-map”, which is a questionnaire-based online tool to collect citizens’ comments on specific issues presented by planners, and 3) the planning competitions website, where citizens can get acquainted with ongoing planning competitions and comment on them. Even though it is now possible to have the feedback from citizens publicly shared and available to all, none of the new tools enables citizens to put forward an issue of concern, and thus the tools and the way they are used continue the consultation model.
Although traditional types of participation are valid and beneficial in certain situations, they are limited in terms of citizen involvement (Arnstein, 1969). At least two mutually compatible approaches exist to transcend the effects of this limitation on participatory e-planning. The first approach relies on addressing the urban planning processes themselves. According to Silva (2010b, p. 6), “without the commitment to empower citizens and to share power, by those that hold political authority to decide on planning matters, the impact of these e-participation tools in the overall urban planning decision-making process will be limited.” Indeed, if participatory e-planning does not embrace a more genuinely collaborative approach to planning, the potential for participation remains unfulfilled (Saad-Sulonen & Botero, 2010).