Local Internet Forums: Interactive Land Use Planning and Urban Development in Neighbourhoods

Local Internet Forums: Interactive Land Use Planning and Urban Development in Neighbourhoods

Aija Staffans (Aalto University, Finland), Heli Rantanen (Helsinki University of Technology, Finland) and Pilvi Nummi (Helsinki University of Technology, Finland)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61520-929-3.ch005
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The Internet is shaking up the expertise and production of knowledge in the planning institution. Digital citizens are searching for information from different places, combining formal and informal sources without apology, and are debating and speaking out on matters. Public planning organisations will be fully stretched to adapt their practices and services to meet these demands. This chapter will present the research results of a project that embarked on gathering and combining local information and knowledge on urban planning on Internet forums. Interactive applications were also developed for these forums to support public participation in ongoing land use planning and development projects in the City of Espoo, Finland. The research results demonstrate how fragmented local, place-based knowledge is, how difficult it is to combine informal and formal information in urban planning, and how inaccessible public data systems still are.
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Urban planning involves major social interests. For example, in Finland, the preparation of and decisions on land use plans are municipal monopolies, so the connection of land use to governance and political decision-making is strong.

The connection of land use planning to policy-making and governance is also reflected in planning theory, which over the years has focused specifically on the political nature of planning and power relations. The most important theorists in the field have stressed the social and institutional nature of planning. They have emphasised institutional design (Healey, 1997) and the position of the individual planner as a central actor in the urban planning institution (Forester 1989).

One of the general features in the debate on planning over recent years has been the promotion of communication and collaboration. There is broad support for increased interaction, but there has not been much debate, however, on what effects the increasing use of information and communication technology will have on the content of knowledge and on expertise. The connection between the exercise of power and information has been highlighted (e.g. Flyvbjerg, 1998), but not whether the strong expert institution would really be willing to open itself up to genuine public debate on what types of cities and environments should be planned and constructed.

The Internet is the most important knowledge building environment in today’s world. “Digital citizenship” includes the idea of the ability of citizens to effectively participate in social activities in real time via data networks (Mossberger et al, 2008). Participation in the production of knowledge in online environments is determined through its members own capacities, interests and objectives (Wenger et al, 2005).

Digital citizens, or at least the “born digital” generation, digi-natives (digital natives, Prensky, 2001), expect the same kind of high-quality usability, flexibility and reliability from electronic services provided by public administration as they do from commercial services. Applications like Wikipedia and Facebook have spawned a generation that is not content simply to read articles by others, but which wants to comment on and add to the knowledge itself, both as members of a community or network and as individuals (Foth et al, 2008).

The expansion in expertise and knowledge building is challenging the monopoly position of expert organisations in urban planning as producers of urban knowledge. Planners have to consider their own ways of working and the methods, through which planning information is created, distributed, processed and used (Goodspeed, 2008). The use of the Internet in planning projects has also raised questions concerning the utilization of formal and informal knowledge that has been generated in public online environments (Rantanen & Nummi, 2009).

In this chapter, we will examine urban planning, not from the perspective of the institution, but from the local perspective of urban areas and neighbourhoods and the people who live there. The aim has been to study the use of the Internet in interactive land use planning processes. We ask, with the aid of a few Internet applications that have been developed and implemented, how online environments are shaking up practices in urban planning.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Local Internet Forum: Local internet forum is a web site that is focused on publishing and discussing on many kinds of local issues and is maintained by various local actors. In an ideal case, a local internet forum is managed by a local community or a maintenance group that constitutes of actors from third, private and public sectors, as well as of active inhabitants and researchers.

Process Tree: A process tree is a tool for visualizing and archiving the various stages of a given planning and development project in chronological order. It brings several types of information together in one place, thus creating a general picture of the matter at hand.

4P: 4P refers to public-private-people partnership in planning and developing neighbourhoods and local communities. It is an integrative practice of planning and implementation emphasizing the role of users and local knowledge in developing the living environment.

Place-Based: Place-based refers to a general planning approach, which emphasizes the characteristics and meaning of places as a fundamental starting point for planning and development. Place-based knowledge or information has a geographical position.

Learning-Based Urban Planning: Learning-based urban planning is a comprehensive approach to local development stretching the institutional processes of land use planning towards long-term collaboration and partnerships between the public, private and residential (civic) parties. Dialogue and interaction between the stakeholders is supported by various tools, e.g. the local, internet-based forums.

Usability: Usability is related to interactive tools and their users. Knowing the users, their goals and the context they use the tool in are the main principles of usability. Efficiency of use, learnability, memorability and subjective satisfaction can be considered as dimensions of usability, but also other criteria can be defined. Usability research explores the relationship between the user, his goals or tasks and the use context. The objective in usability design is to find harmony between these elements.

Knowledge Management: Knowledge management can be defined as a process in which knowledge is created, validated, presented, distributed and applied. It helps many kinds of organizations and communities to find, select, disseminate and transfer important information and expertise that is needed in problem solving, learning, strategic planning and decision making. The ?internet offers many usable tools for managing knowledge.

Local Knowledge Map: A local knowledge map is an interactive map application for examining place-related information. This information could be, for example, formal information concerning projects and plans, or informal local knowledge such as user experiences and comments of the daily environment.

Local Knowledge: Local knowledge is considered as the knowledge of inhabitants and other local actors in the neighbourhood. This knowledge is often based on people’s every day experiences, and it is formulated in many ways within the community and individuals. Thus, local knowledge is attached to the physical places where people live, work and act. In a planning process local knowledge is often valued as common or informal knowledge, which is hard to specify and translate into formal or technical language.

Formal Knowledge: Knowledge and information created and shared by formal institutions and their representatives like municipal governance, civil servants and other authorities. Typically, it is based on professional expertise, formal decisions and official documents.

OPUS: OPUS is an acronym derived from Finnish words “Oppiva kaupunkisuunnittelu” which refers to learning-based urban planning. OPUS was a name for a research project in the field of urban planning conducted in the Helsinki University of Technology in 2005-2008.

OPUS Forum: OPUS forum is the name of a neighbourhood specified and Internet-based local forum for urban planning, developed in the OPUS-project. It is a knowledge building platform where local place-based knowledge, information and data are compiled, processed and shared and, where knowledge is linked to local land use planning and development projects. OPUS forums act as meeting places for formal and informal information. There are three different applications of OPUS forums: inventory forum, planning forum and development forum.

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