New Media Tools and Urban Planning: A Case Study of the NoVacancy Prototype

Author: Nick Busalacchi

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Introduction: In the pilot episode of the comedy television series Parks and Recreation, protagonist and mid-level government bureaucrat Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) approaches a young girl playing in a sandbox. Wielding a clipboard, Knope begins asking a series of survey questions: “Would you say you are enjoying yourself and having fun, having a moderate amount of fun and somewhat enjoying yourself, or having no fun and no enjoyment?” Clearly uninterested, the young girl continues playing with her much more engaging animal figurines (Schur & Daniels, 2009).

While satire, this scene illustrates common perceptions about efforts to involve the public in visioning, planning, and developing their communities—put another way, the disconnect between urban planners and the people their projects aim to serve. Perception isn’t far from reality. Traditional outreach strategies (e.g., public hearings, surveys, etc.) in the U.S. often fail to produce information that affects outcomes, lack broad representation, and discourage the informality necessary for collaboration (Innes & Booher, 2000).

As planners struggle to provide meaningful engagement opportunities, citizens are withdrawing from the most fundamental civic participation outlet: the voting box. To cite a local example, during the 2013 Los Angeles mayoral runoff, winner-elect Eric Garcetti garnered just 12.4 percent of registered voters and turnout (23.3 percent), marking a historical low point for the city (Welsh, 2013). Exacerbating declining civic participation is the perception that public input has little impact on government actions. When public involvement becomes a disingenuous exercise of “checking the box” and fails to incorporate citizen concerns, it alienates people and contributes to the long-term trend of public disengagement from civic life (Putnam, 2000).

Despite these discouraging trends, individuals are defying Robert Putnam’s foretelling of civic
America’s disappearance (1996) through the accelerated growth of participatory cultures (Delwiche & Henderson, 2012). Participatory networks abound in our cities, connecting and mobilizing people through technology to take collective action. This could range from organizing a protest in Tahrir Square to creating a crowdsourced tribute to Johnny Cash. In contrast to perceptions (and often realities) of traditional outreach strategies, members of participatory cultures “believe their contributions matter” (Jenkins, 2006).

New media offers urban planners promising complements to status quo participation methods, enabling citizens and practitioners to build participatory networks and create new visions of the city. In a planning context, “new media” includes an evolving suite of digital tools that facilitate communication, collaboration, and co-production of content between planners and participants.

The first section of this paper provides an overview of new media tools used in urban planning, highlighting case studies and discussing their implications for planners. The second section introduces NoVacancy, a prototype game designed by the author that crowdsources urban design and helps municipalities catalogue vacant land. Drawing on research and project precedents from section one, this paper concludes by discussing NoVacancy’s practical and scholarly implications.

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