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Could a smartphone app make community engagement more democratic?

Community engagement is a vital part of any major planning application: all applicants are asked to demonstrate when submitting proposals for development that they have complied with the local authority’s statement of community involvement (SCI). The conventional method of evidencing this is through inviting members of the local community to attend a public exhibition displaying the proposed development.

However, these events tend to attract disproportionate numbers of retired people who are already home-owners which spells bad news for developers: research into people’s attitudes towards new housing suggests older people and those who own their home are less likely to support new development than those who do not.

When it comes to community consultation events, it is those who are most passionately against that are more likely to share their views (sometimes referred to as NIMBYs) rather than those who, when asked, would be inclined to support more houses in their local area but don’t feel strongly enough about it to troop along to a draughty church hall on a wet Monday night.

More often than not, many residents first become aware of new development when diggers arrive on-site and the “greedy developers” get accused of tearing up land without listening to the local community. But what if there was a different way? A way that could engage a fairly representative sample of the population whose voices typically aren’t heard, e.g. working adults with childcare responsibilities, the young, those on the housing waiting list?

Step forward ‘City Swipe’, dubbed “Tinder for Cities”. City Swipe is an innovative app currently being trialled in Santa Monica, California. The app asks users what they think of proposed developments, either by getting them to choose between two images or responding to simple ‘Yes/No’ type questions – making it quick and easy for the public to have a say on how their community looks, without having to wade through mountains of complicated-looking technical drawings and masterplans.

If someone does want to know more about a proposed development, the app includes a chat feature which allows the user to submit a question. In its present form, City Swipe is being used to shape Santa Monica’s Downtown Community Plan and initial feedback from the local community has been overwhelmingly positive.

Meanwhile back home, our planning system is frequently criticised for being inflexible, complicated and only accessible to those with sufficient resources. What better way to make planning more inclusive and accessible to the public than to make available an app which would make community engagement far more than just an annoying tick-box exercise? At the very least it would add some variety to the ‘age range’ section under evidence of community engagement…


Marian Craig
Account Executive, Ridgemount PR

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Kirstie Osborne