To engage citizens in planning technology must be matched with a participatory culture

Small_moabit_west_digital interactive table

There are many arguments as to why urban developments need to engage with their local communities.

Harnessing local knowledge and the experience of people who live in the area undergoing development can be critical in implementing development plans. True engagement can get communities on board with the development, engendering a sense of involvement and ownership.

Engagement, however, is not as easy as it seems. Too often the architect or client takes the perspective that engagement draws the usual not-in-my-back-yard suspects, while residents can often be skeptical about how seriously their inputs will be taken. How can engagement go beyond a token exercise? And, what role do digital platforms play?

Community engagement in Moabit, Berlin          

Nadine Kuhla-von Bergmann, an associate professor at the Department of Sustainable Urban Design and Urban Planning at Climate-KIC partner TU Berlin, leads a major smart and sustainable development in Berlin’s Moabit West district.

This ethnically diverse inner city district in Berlin is home to both domestic-residential and industrial activity. Kuhla-von Bergmann’s team have been working to implement major “smart” sustainability goals including electric commuter mobility and sustainable water management. Citizen engagement and diverse stakeholder involvement have been at the core of this.

Connecting with the hard-to-reach

“One of our challenges with getting people involved in the development has been how to attract those who don’t connect to the idea of ‘smart’ and ‘city’,” says Kuhla-von Bergmann.

“When we didn’t get the numbers of people we had hoped for an early citizen dialogue event, we evaluated why. One of the things we learned from the residents is that what you communicate has to have relevance for people’s everyday lives. Knowing what the local community is struggling with is critical to getting people engaged into a dialogue about the future of their district,” she says.

Matching technology with a participatory culture

“The current trend is to use online tools for engaging with citizens,” says Kuhla-von Bergmann. It has the advantage of bringing transparency to the planning process because of the constant flow of information concerning milestones, stages and status quo of a project. But, she warns, online crowd mapping websites or e-participation tools don’t always reflect reality.

“There are beautiful online platforms that let you receive feedback from highly engaged people, but the challenge remains to represent the complex societal demands of citizens with diverse backgrounds, interests and income levels.”

Although the technology is present and some great platforms exist, Kuhla-von Bergmann says there is not enough “culture” around participating in local online democracy yet, leading to a mistaken belief that stakeholder engagement has been taken care of by simply launching a website or app.

That’s why it’s crucial for city planners to maintain a real-life connection with their community, not only to find out what is needed, but to harness their capacity for innovation and creativity.

Moabit’s engagement methods have collaboration at their heart. Scenario games and design thinking workshops with stakeholders and representatives from citizen and enterprise network have been used to produce ideas that could integrate projects that are usually developed as separate urban interventions – from bike sharing initiatives to rain water management and public wifi networks. “We really tried to pull things together that are usually taken care of by individual sectors,” Kuhla-von Bergmann says.

The Smart Citizen Network Board

One of the most innovative engagement initiatives has been the Smart Citizen Network Board (SCNB), a group comprising district administration representatives, figures from urban utilities, the enterprise network, the quarter management office and project leads.

Acting as a multi-level planning steering board, the group exchanges regularly about ongoing processes in the city and in the district, discussing general needs across Berlin and the ways in which the pilot projects in Moabit are relevant for the city as a whole.

Making development transparent

Another engagement tool, the District Data Atlas, a database containing all the data relevant to the Moabit development, helps makes the process transparent and accessible to all planners and implementation partners. This data management infrastructure has played a key role in visualising the added value of integrating solutions for various urban systems, and will support project management processes in the future.

Scaling up

Over the last two years and the course of the project, more than 100 individuals have inputted various ways to improve Moabit West. Now, rather than just handing over the projects to the city for consideration, Kuhla-von Bergmann is actively engaged in mobilising demonstrator projects by ensuring that the unique stakeholder collaboration networks will be continued and adopted by the district and the City of Berlin.

Digital collaborative platforms and e-participation tools offer an opportunity to negotiate directly with citizens, but they will only be effective when municipalities and developers use them to enhance engagement, not as a substitute. “To really engage communities in planning, you need to match technology with a participatory culture,” says Kuhla-von Bergmann.

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About the author(s)

Gina Lovett

Gina Lovett

Gina Lovett steers content and edits the Daily Planet. For Climate-KIC, she leads content development and thought leadership. She has a background in journalism and higher education, with extensive experience in publishing, producing events and managing strategic projects in the field of climate change, sustainability, design and innovation.