Information Technologies and Progressive Planning

by Ann Forsyth

For two centuries technological changes in production, transportation, and communications have been reshaping cities and regions; and for around a century people recognizable as planners have been trying to manage those changes. We are currently in the midst of a new wave of technological change that started in earnest in the 1970s with the invention of microprocessors, microcomputers, fiber optics, the fledgling internet, and in a related move, genetic engineering. By the 1990s these technologies were developed enough to start to change a number of aspects of urban life including shopping and personal communication, and to suggest possible future changes in areas such as transportation, employment, and social inequality. Planners have also engaged with these new technologies in our professional work, embracing more complex data storage and analysis methods including geographic information systems, and exploring new forms of virtual professional and activist networks.

This issue of Planners Network Newsletter examines the role of some of these new technologies in community building and progressive planning. As contributor Bill Pitkin points out, in the past progressive planners have been ambivalent about using information technologies, seeing them as part of technocratic and apolitical practice. However, as this issue shows, in the past few years progressive planners have come to appreciate the potential of the new generation of technologies, particularly the internet, to empower a wide range of populations.

As Randy Stoeker describes in his article on COMM-ORG, progressive email lists can be a “lifeline,” particularly for people working in more isolated locations. Planners Network’s own list serve performs such as function as do many others in the areas of planning and community development. Progressive planners are in some senses distinguished by our commitment to an expansive set of ideals about equity and justice. New information technologies can link together a national and global community of progressives. This can reinforce the progressive commitment to global justice but interactions with new voices may also challenge old understandings of the scope of progressive change.

Information technologies need not only foster such virtual communities, but can link people in actual spaces. For example, the Neighborhood Knowledge Los Angeles project outlined by Bill Pitkin presents city data on neighborhoods, such as code complaints, and allows residents to add their own data. Also interesting are projects such as Living Independently in Los Angeles, described by Neal Richman, that links people with disabilities to services and gathering spaces in their local areas, such as the spaces where “deaf people gather to ‘hang out’ and have fun.” Abhijeet Chavan, writing in the context of the East St. Louis Action Research Project, explains how residents have systematically generated parcel-level data from their neighborhoods for use on the web. I wonder how this will change people’s conceptions of their local communities-and of their roles within those communities. Certainly there are new options for involvement, but at present these are unevenly distributed.

Progressive planners have also come to see a role for themselves in critiquing the concept of the digital divide, commonly seen as “the divide between those individuals and places that have connection to the internet and those that do not” (Gordo). As Blanca Gordo explains, this conceptualization underestimates the additional resources needed to enable people from disadvantaged neighborhoods and populations to “participate, compete, and prosper in an increasingly information and knowledge-based economy and society.” This is a key issue for suppliers of digital information, as Varkki George suggests, and there may be a real mismatch between progressive intentions and the capacities of disadvantaged populations to gain access to that information.

Gwen Urey’s analysis of a low-income area of Los Angeles County shows that even telephone access is not universal, let alone access to computers, and schools in these neighborhoods are also unlikely to have access to the internet. Further, there is a largely unexamined assumption that households are benign places, while there is more likely to be competition within households for access to information resources, particularly where that access is limited. As Gordo describes, however, there are some hopeful signs like the Community Technology movement. Overall, progressive planners are engaging with these new technologies with a blend of optimism and critique.

Ann Forsyth is a mid-level user of information technologies and an Associate Professor of Urban Planning at the Harvard Design School.

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