It would be an understatement to say the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way planners engage with the public — perhaps no more evident than the increased use of online participatory technologies (OPTs), like Zoom.
Before the pandemic, planners typically used such tools as an asynchronous supplement to the synchronous, face-to-face participation of in-person meetings. For example, social media interactions helped document public opinion but did not replace the discourse that in-person town halls provided.
As planners adapt to host synchronous participation online, technologies like Zoom provide planners with a potential tool for controlling public discourse — including silencing, removing, or password restricting participation. These features run the risk of pushing demonstrations of dissent into "parallel virtual channels, like social media" away from the online meeting spaces where decisions are made.
How can planners avoid being the "judge and jury" for evaluating what forms of dissent are allowed, legitimized, and recognized? In "Planning for Dissent," (Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 88, No. 1), authors Atul Pokharel, Dan Milz, and Curt D. Gervich discuss the risks of transferring tools that were not explicitly designed for public-sector use. The authors interviewed 32 planners of various backgrounds to examine how they were adjusting public meetings and engagement processes with OPTs.
They ask planners to be conscious of:
- power imbalances amplified by OPTs;
- inaccurate assumptions that face-to-face practices will translate seamlessly to online platforms;
- tendencies for OPT to "nudge" planners to control (rather than facilitate) discussions;
- evolving behaviors and new digital norms; and
- new forms of digital dissent.
Pokharel, Milz, and Gervich find that while planners are aware of the change brought on by online platforms, the profession still lacks a consensus on how to properly confront dissent in online meetings.
The authors advocate for planners to foster forums for dissent, especially because counter viewpoints help redistribute power and can disseminate information about the shortcomings of existing processes and institutions.
It's a healthy feature of democracy that, as pointed out in the article, is at risk of being silenced in the virtual realm of online participatory technologies. In addition, interviewees expressed how participants expected online meetings to be more efficient than in-person ones. As a result, dissent became more passive and presented itself in the form of disengagement with the meeting: "online meetings have robbed [planners] of their conventional responses to disruptions and outbursts."
Among their solutions, the authors present an important framing consideration for planners. As facilitators of public discourse, should planners value efficiency and civility if such values risk silencing dissenting views? Perhaps the answer lies in changing expectations away from efficiency and towards patience and reflection, instead.
As an entering second-year student in urban planning, this article is an important reminder of the power planners wield. We have a responsibility to constantly examine the role we assume in public spaces as well as the technologies we use to support such roles. As pointed out in the article, most synchronous OPTs were not developed for public participation. In my core planning curriculum this past year, we spoke about the importance of designing engagement processes to ethically gather and foster public input.
Pokharel, Milz, and Gervich provide an empowering call for that design process to include a critical examination of the very tools we use to design such engagement. After all, if planning is meant to foster "great communities for all," planners need to provide solutions that reflect input from all.
The Journal of the American Planning Association is the quarterly journal of record for the planning profession. For full access to the JAPA archive, APA members may purchase a discounted digital subscription for $36/year.
Top image: Koh Sze Kiat/gettyimages.com
About the author
Mike Lidwin is a master in urban planning candidate at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design.