How might we increase and diversify civic participation through online, collaborative, participatory urban planning?



Urban design plays an immeasurable role in how people move, interact and feel in their daily lives. Yet many do not have a voice in designing the future of their communities. Civic participation in urban planning has historically solicited early-stage ideas ("what do you want to happen?") during face-to-face planning meetings, but people—especially women, the elderly, people of color and people of lower socio-economic status—are often prohibited from attending due to language barriers, lack of transportation, conflicts with work schedules and an inability to find or afford child care. Even those who can attend planning meetings tend to be heard unequally due to group dynamics and lack of mechanisms for capturing all ideas. Also, while ideation is an important part of urban planning, people are almost always excluded from subsequent processes of critique, elaboration, budgeting and design. Many report their frustration with sharing ideas that enter a "black box," without government officials ever providing feedback or acting upon them.

Lack of representation in urban planning processes can result in urban spaces that advantage some populations while marginalizing others. In collaboration with a group of community organizers, we focused on the ongoing design of a critical intersection called "El Nudillo" (Spanish for "the knuckle") between two neighborhoods in San Diego: East Village, which is predominantly affluent and white, and Barrio Logan, which is predominantly low-income and Mexicano/Chicano and has been repeatedly inequitably rezoned. The City of San Diego plans to create a green, pedestrian- and bicycle- friendly 14th Street Promenade to connect downtown San Diego to Barrio Logan through East Village. The residents of East Village were looking forward to the green space and more active in planning the future of El Nudillo than the residents of Barrio Logan, who were more concerned about gentrification, safety and parking competition and less able to participate in traditional urban planning structures.

We imagined: How might we increase and diversify civic participation through online, collaborative, participatory urban planning?


1. We began by attending local design workshops and planning meetings, which helped us gain insight into traditional urban planning methods and participants' motivations for participating in urban design. We filmed discussions, took notes during a street tour and administered a survey to gather information about challenges with face-to-face planning meetings, preferred means of participation and perceived potential for civic technology. The survey results drove our decision to create an online tool to lower the barriers for participation in urban planning, especially for underrepresented communities. We also noted participants' ideas, concerns and relationships regarding El Nudillo and their overarching goal of designing a pedestrian-friendly, green San Diego.


2. We conducted a lit review to learn more about civic engagement, social learning, consensus-building and urban designboth face-to-face and online. We were especially inspired by Arnstein's ladder of civic participation and the notion that social interactions increase online engagement. This led us to expand our vision for the web tool to move beyond "informing" or "consulting" the public, instead creating opportunities for the collaborative ideation, elaboration and evaluation of one another's ideas.


3. We began to prototype, using paper, Qualtrics surveys, Sketch, Invision and HTML. For each prototype, we solicited feedback from diverse stakeholders in an iterative design process. Our first prototype broke down hundreds of pages of planning documents about El Nudillo into manageable “micro-tasks.” People appreciated that our micro-tasks allowed them to engage briefly on one part of the design question without requiring extensive knowledge of the entire project or too much time. They were not engaged enough, however, by the information alone. Our second prototype was a Qualtrics survey that asked specific questions about different aspects of El Nudillo, accompanied by contextual information from the planning documents. Feedback from two community planning committees, the attendees of a planning meeting and an urban design professor helped us to refine our balance of asking specific questions with adequate background information to structure participants' thinking and enough open-endedness to encourage creativity. In response to people's preferred forms of participation, we designed micro-tasks that range from submitting new ideas to asking questions to evaluating the feasibility, safety, etc. of others' ideas. We also included different forms of interactions, such as text boxes and rating scales, and the ability to skip micro-tasks to enable participants to tailor their engagement.

4. We developed CommunityCrit to be responsive and mobile-friendly, using the Laravel framework, PHP and MySQL for the back-end and HTML, CSS and JavaScript for the front-end. It collects both qualitative and quantitative feedback from visitors. Visitors of CommunityCrit are first welcomed, provided with background information and invited to register. They then select which idea they want to work on and receive five micro-tasks to complete about that idea, with the option to skip any. Upon completing their micro-task workflow, visitors can select another idea to work on, view their contributions, view all contributions, submit their own idea or complete a post-survey. Over a four-week deployment, 76 people created an account and made a total of 352 contributions. We tracked every time a user views a new activity, their interactions with the activity (e.g. bouncing, skipping or submitting), the total time spent on each activity and the time spent typing for each activity.


Sample contributions:

5. We evaluated CommunityCrit through a post-survey for online participants, think-aloud interviews and a focus group discussion with the local planning committee about the pros/cons of the system and the quality of contributions. 14 people who completed the online post-survey gave CommunityCrit an 88.6% approval rating. Overall, they supported the micro-tasking workflow that streamlines them into a brief but deep dive into a specific idea, found the system a convenient way to express their ideas on their own time (circumventing the obstacles to attending face-to-face planning meetings) and wanted more social interaction, specifically information about the identities of the other participants so they could gauge their expertise and representation of stakeholder groups.

Survey responses:

The local planning group viewed its potential for capturing public sentiment and value for relationship-building and marketing, but called attention to the challenges of synthesizing perspectives and the possibility that wider participation could derail the project.

Local planners' comments:

6. We wrote a paper and presented it at the ACM Computer-Human Interaction (CHI) ‘18 conference. You can read it here.



CommunityCrit increases the accessibility of participatory urban planning by enabling people who are unable to attend face-to-face meetings to contribute online. However, the system remains prohibitive for people without access to computers, tablets or smartphones. It should not stand alone, but complement other methods of outreach and engagement.

CommunityCrit does not encompass the entire urban design process. Its activities range from individuals' idea generation to community elaboration, but it requires an external synthesis of participants' contributions to develop a proposal. This risks certain ideas being elevated or relegated based on the biases of the evaluator.


  1. What balance of face-to-face meetings, online participation and outreach efforts, such as door-to-door canvassing, can best increase and diversify public participation in urban design decisions with limited human resources?

  2. At what point and how should urban design expertise and rules be injected into a participatory urban design process, without discouraging creativity or dominating the conversation?

  3. How much of participants' identifying information should be displayed in an online crowd-sourcing platform to inspire trust, increase accountability and demonstrate representation of different populations?

This project was led by Dr. Narges Mahyar, a postdoc at the University of California San Diego's Design Lab, over the course of 12 weeks during the summer of 2017. Michael James, Carnegie Mellon '17, Reggie Wu, UCSD '18, and I were research assistants. I led our literature review into digital tools for civic engagement, social learning and consensus-building; synthesized observations, survey responses and interviews from urban planning meetings, design workshops and street tours; and contributed to the framing of our research question, iterative design of our platform, front-end (and a little back-end) development and user testing.