Participatory Urban Planning

Published on: 23/11/2007
The Municipality of Massa (Italy) has launched an internet portal allowing moderated online discourses among the citizens on the definition of the main guidelines for the new structural plan which will be adopted in the next months by the City Council. The original character of this case is threefold: 1) on the content side: while several experiences already exist of participatory urban planning with respect to specific and limited issues (e.g. new roads, green areas etc.), this is the first time that an online discussion forum concerning a municipality act of such importance takes place well before, instead of after, the publication of the plan draft, 2) on the methodology side: the adoption of the Living Labs configuration methodology in the context of eParticipation has ensured codification of a structured and replicable approach and an easier evaluation of the trial results, 3) on the technical side: the customisation of an existing platform already implemented in other countries of Europe (Germany, Greece, UK...) has allowed to further refine and improve this technology and to enlarge its track record of successful applications. The project is framed in the context of the EU Pilot Actions 2006 in the topic of eParticipation.

Policy Context

According to the provisions of the latest Regional law on urban planning (No. 1 of 2005), sustainable development of a territory must become the underlying principle of any activity of legislation in the area of urban planning, and of all related policies in the topic of family housing, environmental protection, industrial promotion etc. As a result, the 'familiar' top-down consultation process of citizens and especially civic communities as well as other local stakeholders is extensively defined and supported by the existing law. Likewise, dissemination of information about the adopted structural plan is legally enacted and binding, as well as the possibility offered to all interested parties to submit amendment proposals before the plan is definitely approved by the City Council on its second reading. Conversely, what is really new in this case is the aim to activate a 'bottom up' proposal making (not simply a consultation) process from the citizens to the Public Administration (Municipality), 'before' and not 'after' the City's structural plan has been drafted and adopted on first reading. Furthermore, this novel participatory approach to urban planning is being conducted both online and offline, i.e. not just through the elicitation of internet-based forums, but also by means of more 'traditional' public hearings, which also serve to the purpose of spreading knowledge about the platform among the citizenry.

Description of target users and groups

The citizenry of Massa (69,000 inhabitants)

Description of the way to implement the initiative

Adaptation of the Living Labs methodology to the context of e-Participation has led to the structuration of the following, 5-step configuration process for the trial: 1. Contextualisation: meaning all the preparatory actions implied by the trial, from the collection of background material to its publication on the public administration’s web site; 2. Selection and motivation of participants: meaning the activities (if any) aimed to restrict / widen the panel of citizens and/or stakeholders representatives that will be involved in the online discussions; 3. Description of the thematic focus: an integral part of the trial, where its objectives are stated and pieces of draft legislation (if existing) are shown to the public for 'ex ante' evaluation; 4. Running of the trial: use of the IT system available within the project to reach an agreement with participants (if possible) or to collect and cluster the public opinion through moderated online discourses 5. Feedback from results: the internal, and usually partly undisclosed, activities leading to harmonisation of law-making with the trial results.

Technology solution

The platform is a server-based Web application. The complete program logic runs on the server. The participant only needs a common web browser. No plug-ins or other proprietary client-side programs are necessary. The discourse making machine is based on the open source scripting language PHP and is optimized for MySQL. It is designed as a classical three-tier-architecture. The presentation layer uses a high-performance template engine. All HTML and Layout is stored in separated XML-Files, which can be pre-produced and edited manually or generated with external content management systems. The presentation layer can produce a large variety of formats for web browsers and other devices like Mobile Phones. Among the formats are HTML, XML, E-Mail (rich content and MIME enabled) Microsoft-Office-Formats, PDF, WAP, RSS as well as all kinds of ASCII- and Unicode-Text files. Every aspect of the layout can be customized. This eParticipation technology was adopted in the context of the Massa trial as it has been successfully implemented on previous occasions in Germany and elsewhere. Technology choice: Standards-based technology

Main results, benefits and impacts

(a) the portal is registering a steady increase in the number of subscribed users, showing a continuous spread of news and a fairly good interest from the 'connected' population; (b) currently the utmost involvement is shown by single citizens, not their associated or representative forms; (c) the percentage of City inhabitants subscribed in the portal since the start of it is higher than 0,1 per cent (of total population, including the disconnected ones), which is pretty much in line with similar known experiences of e-Participation; (d) besides preparatory activities at local level, in order to launch the initiative and elicit citizens and stakeholders attention, additional dissemination efforts are being now provided to increase external visibility of the trial; (e) as previously stated, innovation lies on three respects, content methodology and technology; (f) the replication potential is quite high, as a result of the huge efforts provided for customisation of the preexisting platform, bug fixing and content implementation; (g) sharing this experience with similar or related projects is something that will mostly take place towards the end of the project activities; (h) likewise, co-operation with e.g. other Pilot Actions in the topic of e-Participation is something that will mostly be achieved at a later stage; (i) a public private partnership between the Municipality of Massa and the two private companies in the Pilot Action - the technology owner and the consortium coordinator - has been essential for the successful implementation of this trial.

Return on investment

Return on investment: €15-49,000

Track record of sharing

Dissemination and knowledge sharing at the level of Italian public authorities is currently taking place in various forms, namely through: - a presence of the Massa Municipality, with its own stand, in Dire&Fare 2007, the leading exhibition of innovators in the Public Administration; - the participation of a Massa representative as a speaker in a public workshop coordinated by the Tuscany Region; - distribution of project related information through several thematic newsletters and websites, such as, Cantieri PA and PublicaRes; - coordination of the Massa experience with the ongoing initiatives taken by the Region of Tuscany in the legislative area, with respect to citizens participation.

Lessons learnt

Lesson 1 - preparatory (offline) activities are strongly recommended if not essential to achieve a good reach of the online trial among the citizenry; Lesson 2 - curiosity is often the first mover for the subscribed users to take part in the trial, but second comes motivation to be really active, something that can only be enhanced through continuous users involvement and content improvement; Lesson 3 - including the 'connected' citizenry is a good thing in oder to enlarge the scope of participation in public decision making, but this can never substitute for the 'traditional' forms of civic consultation. Scope: Regional (sub-national)