Featured in Town Planning Review 93.5: COVID-19 and the rise of digital planning: fast and slow adoption of a digital planning system

The editors of Town Planning Review (TPR) have selected the following paper as the Featured Article in TPR 93.5, it is available to read Open Access for 2022 as part of LUP Open Planning: 

COVID-19 and the rise of digital planning: fast and slow adoption of a digital planning system by Alexander Wilson and Mark Tewdwr-Jones.

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When asked to describe the paper and highlight its importance, the authors stated the following:

The COVID-19 pandemic affected all our lives and our ways of working. On 23 March 2020, the UK Government told people they “must stay at home”. People were ordered to work from home, unless ‘absolutely necessary’. City centres became deserted as high streets, places of entertainment and employment centres closed. Shopping, movies, pub quizzes, celebrations and funerals all suddenly took place online.

The planning system was not immune to these changes. An activity, that relies on negotiation and decision making within and outside government, had to adapt rapidly to a new way of working: digitally. But how did it do this? And what were the immediate and longer-term impacts of adopting digital technology to manage planning?

This research project, that started in the depths of a second national lockdown, set about to review and understand how English planning authorities used technology. In particular, we were interested to see how local authorities were beginning to engage people digitally in decision-making.

This Town Planning Review paper reports our findings. There are two interrelated research studies, one that looked at statements of community involvement, and another that looked at planners’ own perceptions of digital planning. The article shows that COVID-19 certainly accelerated the adoption and deployment of digital planning, but it is an activity that has been developing in local planning incrementally for more than two decades. The critical question, post pandemic, is whether planners will begin to see digital interaction from people as a new, more accessible and convenient way of inclusive change than old style planning.

Alexander Wilson said: “Planning is an exciting, dynamic ever-changing debate about the how people want to live in the future. Yet, sometimes, the way we use these technologies struggles to capture these viewpoints. Instead, methods often overemphasise the views of those that are used to completing forms and writing emails. What we found is that some local planning authorities are doing incredible work at engaging people in these debates, often using technology in novel and engaging ways, but also that there’s a real need for planning to recognise the value of these discussions through legislative changes.”

Mark Tewdwr-Jones said: “With over 90 per cent of the UK now using or accessing smart phones and tablets, it seems appropriate that we harness that use within planning. Planners need to remember that the public are going to use this technology anyway to talk about planning online, even if local authorities don’t adopt platforms to receive legitimate planning responses. The more that the planning system does not embrace digital technology, the greater the danger that planning will be seen by citizens to be an archaic relic, operating to yesterday’s rules.”

-Alexander Wilson and Mark Tewdwr-Jones


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