Planners Support of E-Participation in the Field of Urban Planning

Planners Support of E-Participation in the Field of Urban Planning

Mikael Granberg (Örebro University, Sweden) and Joachim Åström (Örebro University, Sweden)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61520-929-3.ch012


The chapter questions what planners really mean when they display positive attitudes toward increased citizen participation via ICTs? Are they aiming for change or the reinforcement of existing values and practices? What are the assumptions that underlie and condition the explicit support for e-participation? In addressing these questions, this chapter draws upon a survey mapping the support for e-participation in the field of urban planning, targeting the heads of the planning departments in all Swedish local governments in 2006. The results show confusing or conflicting attitudes among planners towards participation, supporting as well as challenging the classic normative theories of participatory democracy and communicative planning.
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A common argument is that new information and communication technologies (ICTs) represent a vast array of technical improvements in our communication opportunities and that this would be a vital force in bringing about a closer relationship between citizens and their governments. The unprecedented degree of interactivity offered by new ICTs has the potential to expand the scope, breadth and depth of government interfacing with citizens and other key stakeholders during policy making. For e-participation to possess true meaning, however, these material capacities must be put to work in ways that reflect social intentions. Just as schools are not simply the buildings in which education takes place, but spaces organized around culturally specific notions of education, e-technologies cannot acquire a socio-political function without policy intentions (cf. Creasy et al. 2007; Coleman et al. 2008).

In the case of e-participation, there has been hardly any systematic work conducted aimed at identifying different normative positions. It is frequently assumed that all actors involved in e-participation share a common set of meanings about the nature of participation, technology and politics. This chapter examines to what extent planners support e-participation in planning as well as what they actually mean when they display positive attitudes. To meet this objective, we draw upon a survey questionnaire which maps attitudes towards e-participation in the field of urban planning and which was distributed by the authors in the spring of 2006 to the heads of planning departments in all 290 Swedish local governments.

While developments towards e-participation processes can be discerned in many countries, the prospects for implementing e-participation might be considered better in Sweden than in many other countries. The rapid expansion of the Internet, combined with an ongoing broadband expansion, implies that a technological platform now exists on which to develop applications that may strengthen citizen participation. According to 2005 statistics, 73% of the Swedish population between 18 and 79 years of age had access to the Internet at home, and, out of these, 66% had a broadband connection (Nordicom, 2006). Several state-backed studies on the national level in recent years have argued that the Internet should be used to promote government accountability and to increase public participation in politics and planning (SOU 2000: 1; SOU 2001: 48). This proposition is valid for various domains of political life, but public participation is regarded as particularly important for local planning processes: providing opportunities and encouragement for citizens to express their views on matters that affect their everyday lives.

The disposition of the chapter is as follows. First, the Swedish planning context is presented giving a background to the environment were planning is conducted. Second, a theoretical approach and two ideal typical models for the development of e-participation attitudes are developed. The e-participation models hold that opportunities for information and communication via digital technologies might affect attitudinal patterns, either by reinforcing existing values and practices or by contributing to change. In this section we also discussed some methodological issues. Third, the attitudinal survey, data, and measurement are described. In sections four and five, we describe the diffusion of e-participation support among Swedish urban planners in relation to individual and city characteristics. Furthermore we analyze the meaning of such support by examining whether the predominant beliefs and values found among “e-participation enthusiasts” are different from those of other planners, when enthusiasts are defined as those who state that Internet technologies “to a very large extent” should be used to increase citizen participation in policy making. Finally, the sixth section discusses the implications of the empirical evidence for the understanding and development of e-participation in planning. Accordingly, we will now continue with a presentation of the Swedish planning context aiming at giving the reader a basic understanding of the Swedish planning system and some of the changes it has gone through.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Participation: Taking active part in political life.

Communication: A two way flow of information, knowledge and experiences between entities (individuals, organizations, etc.) in society.

Influence: To have actual impact in decision-making. Accordingly, influence does not connote control over decision-making.

Citizen: An individual with rights to participate in political life (citizen rights also include civil and social rights). The term is integrated in citizenship which means to be a full member of society.

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