Cities look for ways to use social networks and mobile applications to engage the younger generation in the planning process. Photo by Fullbridge Program/Flickr.

Cities look for ways to use social networks and mobile applications to engage the younger generation in the planning process. Photo by Fullbridge Program/Flickr.

We live in a world where four out of five millennials prefer to live in walkable places with a variety of commuting options, a world where people want to drive less and socialize more. However, while the next generation’s desires are apparent in their choices of where to work and live, this new vision of walkability has been more slowly realized in the planning profession. Engagement with younger generations throughout the planning process is still lacking. Social networks and mobile platforms offer a way to educate and involve this demographic in the planning process on their own terms, fostering a truly shared vision for a sustainable urban future.

New social networks demand new participation structures

Social network are growing in influence: it is estimated that about one third of the time spent online is on social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Given the increasing importance of and reliance on these platforms, it is no wonder that, when presented with traditional measures of public participation like surveys and public forums, the current generation feels disenfranchised from the participatory process.

However, this does not mean that this generation does not care about issues in their cities. Rather, they are creating change outside of formal planning structures. Planners must work towards combining the younger generation’s desire to innovate with ways to participate in the formal planning process that fits with this generation’s new modes of interaction. Social media used to disseminate information from the government and smartphone applications that connect people with their cities, can bring community participation to the forefront of these people’s social networks, and to the forefront of their lives.

Cities innovate for greater citizen interaction

Cities around the world are using new strategies to communicate with and engage their residents. They are communicating across a broad array of platforms, including dedicated Facebook pages, Twitter handles, and hashtags to promote local issues. Some have become regional celebrities, with the Regional Planning Association (RPA) of New York having more than 7,000 followers on Twitter. Meanwhile, the City of Edmonton, Canada organized a dance party on its light rail transit (LRT) line as a way of showing young people the benefits of sustainable transport.

Yet, cities must do more than simply advertise their initiatives. They must also use these platforms to engage citizens throughout the planning process. The City of Austin, Texas is taking steps towards this with their Social Networking and Planning Project (SNAPPatx), a social media-enabled platform for people to express opinions about transport and mobility in the city. Meanwhile, smartphone applications like SeeClickFix allow citizens to report problems, like potholes or broken windows, anytime and anywhere to their local government.

Yet even here, the SNAPPatx project gives people a voice, but provides no guarantee that voice will translate into action, whereas SeeClickFix allows residents to change physical problems in their neighborhoods, but does nothing for letting them change the policies that created many of the problems in the first place. Applications that provide information to the citizens, allow citizens to provide information back to their governments, that give citizens power to make impactful change, and transparency in the steps to this change, are all key components in creating applications that support true citizen participation. The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) is a strong example of this kind of planning, with the development of an open-source platform and a smartphone app called MetroPulse. This application gives users easy access to regional indicators that track progress of the GO TO 2040 regional plan, allowing citizens to understand the importance of the plan, and to keep governments accountable.

There are many possible pitfalls with using social media and smartphones as planning tools, from losing the seriousness of civic participation, as well as unproductive and polarizing opinions that detract from rather than add to the public debate. It must be remembered too that there are still many demographics that cannot afford smart phones, and planners must work to ensure that all residents’ voices are heard. Yet, for all of the potential pitfalls, the potentials social media and mobile applications provide are immense. These mediums have the potential to give this emerging generation a stronger voice and a clearer vehicle for democratic change in their communities, and so planners must push forward to find ways to promote a style of civic engagement that fits with this new style of social interaction.