Responsible urban planning: what/who is shaping the future cities?

As urban populations continue to grow, cities are becoming increasingly complex systems that require a comprehensive understanding of the various data sources that drive them. Cities are no longer just collections of buildings and infrastructure but are instead dynamic environments that are shaped by a wide range of interrelated factors such as transportation, energy consumption, housing, land use, environmental conditions, and social demographics. These factors generate vast amounts of data that can be harnessed to inform urban planning and management, but also require sophisticated tools and techniques to analyse and interpret. So, traditional urban planning and management strategies are increasingly approaching their limits with the growing complexity of universal cities in the current information age.

Due to the change in how cities are planned, big data technologies are becoming essential to the functioning of sustainable cities and urban data platforms are crucially mediating between researchers and decision-makers. There is a growing concern that these platforms are deviating from their primary purpose of facilitating communication between decision-makers and the community, and instead emphasising the collection of empirical data to enhance urban governance.

Data-driven urban planning

Data-driven urban planning is a process of gathering, analysing, and utilising data to make informed decisions about urban development. This approach helps to understand the complexities of a city’s environment, population, and infrastructure, which are crucial to developing sustainable and equitable urban systems. By using big data and AI, urban planners can identify patterns, trends, and potential problems that may not be visible through traditional planning methods. This can lead to evidence-based decision-making, more efficient resource allocation, and targeted interventions in areas that need improvement.

While data-driven urban planning can provide valuable insights into a city’s needs and challenges, it can neglect the importance of community engagement and resident participation in shaping the future of their cities. Data alone cannot fully capture the nuances of lived experiences and community perspectives, and without inclusive and diverse community engagement, data-driven planning may fail to address the needs of vulnerable and marginalized groups, reinforcing existing inequalities. To avoid a lack of trust and legitimacy in the planning process, urban planners should seek input and feedback from diverse voices and perspectives using a range of methods, such as community meetings and online surveys.

Also, we must recognize that the data we rely on is not impartial, but instead, reflects the biases of previous planning systems that were influenced by historic inequalities and power imbalances, and it can raise social and ethical issues, such as systemic biases and value-driven concerns such as inconclusive evidence or unfair outcomes.

ACT Young Planner of the Year 2022

How to be Responsible?

To achieve responsible urban planning, it is essential to recognize that the data we have is not free from bias. This means that our data may reflect and reinforce existing inequalities and may not accurately represent the needs and experiences of marginalised communities. So, as planners, we have an ethical obligation to critically assess the data we use, identify and address any biases, and work towards developing more equitable and just planning systems that are inclusive of all members of our communities.

It is crucial to ensure that data-driven planning isn’t simply imposed upon communities;rather, planning should be a collaborative effort that takes into account the unique needs and aspirations of the communities. This means moving away from a top-down approach and toward a more participatory process, where community members could influence planning outcomes. By doing so, planners can strike a balance between data-driven planning and community development, resulting in planning decisions that reflect the needs and aspirations of the community while leveraging data to identify opportunities for improvement.

The Importance of building trust

Furthermore, the potential prioritisation of data collection over effective communication and engagement between decision-makers and the community could result in the erosion of trust between these parties. While data-driven urban planning can provide valuable insights, it can also result in solutions overly reliant on technologies such as AI, Digital Twins, Urban Observatories, etc. and a narrow understanding of complex urban issues. To ensure equitable distribution of technology benefits and take into account the diverse needs and perspectives of communities, policymakers and urban planners must adopt a responsible and inclusive approach to the use of digital planning platforms, ensuring that the data collected is transparent, secure, and used for the public good.

Who are the silent citizens?

In many cases planners rely heavily on data projections and other quantitative measures to guide decision-making processes; without sufficiently considering the lived experiences and perspectives of those who inhabit these urban spaces, including marginalised groups such as children, senior citizens, people with disabilities, and first nations. As an example, children are important part of the community, their unique needs and viewpoints must be taken into account when planning cities. By including children in the planning process, urban planners can develop more equitable, sustainable, and child-friendly cities.

Furthermore, place attachment and trust which are key features of cohesive communities begin to develop during childhood and can be reinforced by allowing children to participate in the planning process. Engaging children in city planning can cultivate a sense of ownership and responsibility, enhancing their engagement and investment in their communities. Ultimately, involving children in the planning of cities can lead to more favourable outcomes for all residents, including an improved quality of life, greater civic participation, and increased community pride. In light of these benefits, urban planning experts maintain that prioritising children’s involvement in the planning process is essential for creating cities that are responsive to the needs of their all residents.

Where to next?

In conclusion, responsible urban planning requires a balance between data-driven planning and community development. Data can provide valuable insights into a city’s needs and challenges, but it should not replace the importance of community engagement and resident participation in shaping the future of their cities. Planners must strive to collect data that reflects the diverse perspectives and experiences of our communities and ensure that it is transparent, secure, and used for the public good. By doing so, we can create more equitable, sustainable, and liveable cities that meet the needs and aspirations of all residents.

Engaging children in city planning can cultivate a sense of ownership and responsibility
Negar Yazdi
RI Lab