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How Do You Engage an Entire City?

Communities today are more informed than ever, and citizens expect real-time information at their fingertips. Digital public engagement tools are a powerful way to provide information, interact with more citizens, and create a broader understanding of what it takes to build a great city.



July 18, 2018

Public engagement is a critical part of city planning and citizens have growing expectations about their involvement. Engagement strategies often place the onus on citizens to make the effort to attend meetings, follow council decisions, and understand technical jargon. It’s no surprise that digital methods for public engagement are becoming more common. Digital public engagement can reach more people, generate more interest, and gather more ideas than traditional tools like public meetings and newspaper notices.

Digital engagement can reduce or eliminate barriers created by distance, demographics, and mobility as it allows citizens to participate when and where they have time: waiting for the bus, at the doctor’s office, during a work break, or after the kids are in bed. Traditional engagement also faces problems with exclusion as non-native language speakers may not be leveraged to participate. To counter this, digital content can be easily translated using internet extension tools and can also be read aloud for those with vision impairments.

In action, a project-specific website is a relatively common way to share a range of information, from high level to highly detailed. High level information can be explained using simple language, images or infographics, and quick videos. Headlines, infographics, quotes, short presentations or animations can provide citizens with a simplified overview in just a few minutes.

For citizens who are interested in more technical details, highly detailed reports can be accessed through additional links. While traditional project websites are informative, they mostly result in a one-way flow of information, and don’t always meet the expectations of the public.

How do you go beyond a project website? How do you provide more opportunities for informed debate and discussion?

Social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, allow two-way conversations between citizens and public servants that enhance political participation. Engagement methods can make bureaucracies more human, friendly and responsive to feedback, and maybe even save money. While it may take a bit more time to set up digital tools, when used strategically, online engagement can collect more information from more people using fewer staff resources. PlaceSpeak, a Vancouver-based digital engagement platform allows citizens to engage with local issues such as zoning bylaws, urban planning initiatives, and even identifying their favourite places in the city.

IBI Group’s interactive map allows citizens to give feedback on the proposed BRT design at their convenience. Click here to view larger image.

IBI Group recently designed and launched an interactive map of a proposed 24 km Bus Rapid Transit network in London, Ontario. The map is layered over aerial imagery and shows the proposed design including stop locations, traffic lanes, crosswalks, sidewalks, and bike lanes. Photo-realistic images of the design are included with the map and show the the proposed Bus Rapid Transit system in the real world. People are free to explore the design in their free time and are encouraged to drop a pin and leave a comment for the project team to review. The map was launched by the City of London earlier in June and after three weeks there have been over 20,000 page views and 220 comments from 125 unique users. These comments will be used to respond to common questions and inform further design alterations.

Digital engagement also enables sustained participation, which is important to long-term city building projects. Social media channels and other interactive engagement tools can be maintained through multiple project phases. The information collected can be easily transferred from planning to design to operations and even maintenance of a project.

Communities today are more informed than ever, and citizens expect real-time information at their fingertips. Digital public engagement tools are a powerful way to provide information, interact with more citizens, and create a broader understanding of what it takes to build a great city.


Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Margaret has over 16 years of transportation planning experience, and brings top technical skills in planning and design, plus strong communications to effectively engage with stakeholders and technical agencies on complex and controversial projects. Margaret currently leads a transportation environmental assessment and design group based in Toronto. She is a highly-effective project manager that brings out the best in her team. Margaret’s focus is developing  integrated solutions to complex urban transportation problems through corridor planning and preliminary design.

Margaret’s experience includes transit, active transportation, environmental assessments, and preliminary engineering design. Projects include London Bus Rapid Transit, Eglinton Streetscape and Cycle Track Design, MiWay Infrastructure Growth Plan, and the Toronto Relief Line subway business case and planning study. She also has experience in transportation safety and land use/ transportation integration. She is a member of Professional Engineers Ontario, and the Institute of Transportation Engineers, and has published numerous papers and articles.

Headshot of Margaret Parkhill

Written by Margaret Parkhill

Director | Sr. Practice Lead, Transportation Engineering
Toronto, ON
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