What Is Urban Planning?

The International Encyclopedia of Human Geography defines urban planning as ‘encompassing the preparation of towns, cities, and metropolitan regions. It attempts to organise socio-spatial relations across different scales of government and governance’. The planning process typically has two functions; managing physical development and planning ahead for future growth and development. While these functions appear to focus solely on physical development, they are also concerned with economic, environmental and social needs.

Urban planning is a complex process that draws on many different disciplines and has strict regulatory requirements. Below, let’s take a look at some of the factors that must be taken into consideration by urban planners.

1. Environmental and aesthetic considerations

Environmentally, urban planners must consider how a new development will impact the local area or community, resulting in the need for environmental impact assessments to be done. Aesthetic considerations are also hugely important, and this is particularly important when dealing with citizens. Poor aesthetic design results in a large number of complaints and will only serve to drive a wedge between urban planners and citizens, highlighting the need for citizen participation in the planning process. We will discuss this further when we move on to public participation.

2. Economic considerations

Economic considerations are also hugely important in the planning process -we need to take into account the impacts of new developments on the local economy and local businesses. Again, this is particularly important from a citizen relationship management perspective.

3. Regulations

As previously mentioned, urban planners have a complex regulatory field to navigate. Ensuring compliance with land use laws and planning regulations is important.

4. Human

Consideration must be given to how new developments will impact people in the area directly. Will a new development impact their living situation? Will it disrupt the community as a whole? Again, the need for public participation in the decision making process becomes apparent here.

Planning in the UK has changed in recent years, thanks to policies such as the Localism Act 2011, which seeks to:

  • Provide new freedoms and flexibilities to local government
  • Give more rights and power to communities and individuals
  • Make the planning system more democratic and representative
  • Ensure that decisions around housing are made at the local level

Do you want to learn more about the UK’s proposals on reforming the planning system and process? Check out our ‘planning for the future’ blog post.

What Is Public Participation?

Public participation is concerned with an individual’s or group of individuals’ right to be involved with and influence public assessment and decision-making processes. That is, citizens living in a community have the right to be involved in planning its future. After all, it is these citizens who will live with the consequential impact of new developments, therefore involving them at each stage of the project from concept to development is crucial. It is widely acknowledged and accepted that citizens need more say in shaping the future of our towns and cities. This is now seen as a basic condition of local democracy. Public participation is interlinked with participatory democracy. Participatory democracy can be defined as the process of collective decision-making, where both governments and citizens work in tandem to facilitate the co-creation of policy-making.

Public participation aims to achieve the best possible outcome and ensures the following:

  • Citizens needs have been heard and taken into consideration
  • All citizens have had the opportunity to share their opinions and sentiment
  • Encourages engagement and democratic participation
  • Ensures that decisions are well-informed and representative of the population

Early and enhanced public participation relies on citizens being told when and how they can get involved in the decision making process. The greatest impact from public participation in urban planning comes at the early stages. This is because at later stages of projects and developments, there are more minor alterations that can be made once work is already underway. This gap is further closed when negotiations between councils and developers have already been undertaken. Exploring new ways to bring citizens closer has been a primary focus for councils over the last number of years. This is in an attempt to make the transition of change to the area easier for citizens as well to make the delivery of the project easier. Rather than having three years worth of objections on plans to develop 300 new houses, involving citizens as you start to develop your plans allows you to bring the people along a journey. Their ideas, aspirations and hopes can be taken on board rather than simply imposing your own.

Urban Planning & Public Participation Challenges

While the concept of public participation in urban planning is widely acknowledged and discussed, the reality is often less practiced. As previously discussed, planning is a complex process controlled by strict statutory requirements, therefore citizens can become overwhelmed by the jargon and rigid language of public consultation methods. Furthermore, traditional methods often result in citizens having to read lengthy and complex documents unfamiliar to them, and they can also be extremely time-consuming. This has resulted in a small portion of citizens actively participating. Furthermore, in the past (and even still), the majority of public participation and consultation methods have been non-digital. Interestingly, one study found that digital methods of public participation in planning led to citizens critically thinking about their local area and what they would like to see in the future. This encouraged creative thinking and helped citizens to feel empowered, while also simplifying the processes and tackling many of the shortcomings of more traditional methods. Covid-19 has certainly impacted the way that public participation and consultation takes place- and has it improved the process? In many ways, it has. The pandemic has highlighted the need for a more open-mind to digital tool adoption; where once councils saw no need to digitise processes, they were forced to do so and have thus realised the benefits. Forced to embrace change, many of the challenges of more traditional methods have been overcome. We have a full blog post on civic technology and Covid-19, which you can read here.

With this in mind, let’s look at Hello Lamp Post as the perfect example of a public consultation engagement tool. Firstly, we bring the consultation to where the public already are; right in the streets of towns and cities. Secondly, Hello Lamp Post asks open-ended questions to citizens, such as “how can we improve green spaces in the Borough?”, encouraging them to think critically and creatively about what input they would like to give. This innovative way of public participation encourages as many citizens as possible to engage, and ensures that a diverse and broad cross-section of the community can be engaged. If you’d like to learn more about this, check out our West Ealing and Mesa projects, which focus on urban planning.

Digital Participation

The early stages of a new planning project typically involves gathering sentiment, opinions and ideas about an area, to give planners a brief overview of what the pain points of that particular area are, and how they might be overcome. At this stage, planners are simply trying to establish citizen’s perceptions. Some examples from Hello Lamp Post being used in these early stages of planning projects include our Utrecht, Netherlands deployment and our Bristol, UK deployment.

Criteria For Effective Public Participation

Public participation, albeit important and necessary, must be done in a way that maximises true value for all parties involved. Below, we identify and discuss the key criteria that must be met in order for participation to be effective.

1. Ensure all affected parties are represented from the beginning

We’ve touched on this briefly, but it is hugely important that all parties that will be impacted or affected by a new development or project are consulted and engaged with from the very beginning. This does not just mean consulting adults that live in the area, but also means consulting children, ethnic minorities, younger people or anybody that has or should have an interest in the development or project. Again, this comes back to the concept of having a representative population sample.

2. Be transparent

Everybody involved in the participation process must have equal and fair access to information. That is, each group consulted must be given all of the information that is necessary for them to effectively present their views and opinions. Transparency is absolutely critical to building trusting relationships between planners, citizens and stakeholders.

3. Allow for creativity & take ideas on board

As cities and their developments continue to become more human-centric, an open and cooperative dialogue between governments, planners and citizens will continue to gain traction. As pressing issues on sustainability and housing become more prominent, encouraging innovation and creativity from the public has huge potential. Encouraging new ways of thinking allows developers to tap into the knowledge of citizens and create exciting, innovative and forward thinking developments.


If you’ve read through our websites and blog posts, you’ll know how passionate we are about smart cities and what the future holds for community engagement. Public participation is on the rise across all disciplines, and that is no exception for urban planning. By involving citizens in the decision making process, true value and co-creation of our urban environments can be achieved. If you’d like to learn more about Hello Lamp Post and how it can help your organisation to achieve its engagement goals, you can get in touch with our team at contact@hlp.city.

We leave you with a comment from our CEO Tiernan Mines on the future of planning in cities: “The aim to modernise the day-to-day planning system will help to reduce any challenges with engagement throughout the planning process. We want to achieve true democracy from the masses in local decision making – this is exactly how it should be!”Back