Online public participation GIS. Shaping the scales and spaces of comprehensive planning: A case study on the use of geographic information systems on the Web to support comprehensive planning in the town of Amherst, New York
Howard, Daniel C
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Comprehensive planning is an opportunity for communities to collectively envision their future through a communicative participatory endeavor that can establish a foundation for lasting civic involvement. Comprehensive planning involves a process that guides the future designation of geographic spaces through social action; this process can simultaneously be empowering for some, and marginalizing for other stakeholders. The geographic area of interest for these plans typically spans the entire community, and they are intended to guide its physical growth and development over a ten to twenty year period. Long term planning on a community-wide scale is a challenge for stakeholders; participatory activities to support such planning also pose challenges for planners. Planners and geographers have long suggested that participatory uses of information technologies can enhance planning, and among these technologies are Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Increasingly, new modes of public participation include the use of GIS on the Web. In the geographic literature this combination of public participation and GIS is often termed Public Participation GIS (PPGIS) and includes applications undertaken by municipalities to engage stakeholders online, empowering them to effect planning proposals and decisions and reaching out to those who were heretofore uninvolved. The literature also suggests that longitudinal and systematic research of PPGIS experiences is needed to inform their use and improve our understanding of the implications for planning and society. This dissertation presents the results of such a study in an American suburban community. Employing a qualitative descriptive case study approach, this study examines how one community used online PPGIS to support participation in the preparation of a comprehensive plan. Using an online survey questionnaire, semi-structured interviews, and participant observations information was gathered about how the municipality designed and deployed it online PPGIS applications, and how its stakeholders employed them to participate in the planning process. These experiences are presented from both perspectives through the voices of planners, information technology staff, and stakeholders. The experiences of this municipality and its stakeholders reflect many of the issues raised in social critiques of GIS and consideration of its use to support public participation. Issues that emerged in this case include the practical-communicative influences of PPGIS in shaping and organizing public participation, conflicting notions of scale that are enabled through online geographic information technologies and the resulting NIMBY affects on comprehensive planning, and the social and spatial tensions that emerge for planning as a result of the individualized participation facilitated through online PPGIS. By recognizing and understanding these challenges planners can consider their influences on web-based PPGIS design and incorporate strategies to facilitate improved transparency for stakeholders involved in comprehensive planning. To assess such applications, ethnographic research methods are recommended to thoroughly understanding the effectiveness of online PPGIS and the social and spatial tensions that emerge from efforts to appropriate future designations of space through planning.