GreenTwins: Reimagining public participation in urban planning for post-COVID era

Public participation in urban planning is a ubiquitous practice in Western developed democracies. The debate is no longer about whether to include citizens into planning decisions, but what are the best methods and tools for the purpose. The pandemic has, arguably, accelerated the digital transition in participation. For example, public hearings are held not in a City Hall, but online, allowing people to participate form any convenient location with the internet connection. However, “digital” participation, just like a “traditional” participation, is a two-sided coin, having certain benefits and drawbacks. On the one hand, it reduces the risk of infections and optimizes the time spent for travelling from one location to another, but on the other hand, it increases alienation between the members of spatial communities and excludes less technically savvy individuals.

FinEst Centre's GreenTwins pilot project, which was launched in January 2021 in the circumstances of complexity and uncertainty, aims combine the best of the “digital” and “traditional” participatory approaches. The project is a joint initiative between the cities of Tallinn and Helsinki, and FinEst Centre for Smart Cities. The pilot focuses on developing a layer of trees and green areas for urban digital twins. Additionally, it develops two digital applications, Urban Tempo and Virtual Green Planner, which act as interfaces between digital urban models and users. Urban Tempo is developed for the fine scale design of open spaces. It includes realistic visualization of plants and simulates their growth, seasonal and temporal, and maintenance induced changes. Virtual Green Planner is developed for large scale urban visioning. It allows to create and analyze digital three-dimensional sketches of the areas under development. All of the aforementioned tools are going to be showcased in the upcoming Permanent Centre for Smart and Inclusive Urban Planning (the Hub). The Hub will be a physical space in the city center of Tallinn at Kaarli puiestee 1, next to the Vabaduse Väljak, which is equipped with the state-of-the-art visualization technologies, and which is meant for bringing diverse stakeholder groups into discussion of urban plans and co-creation of desired urban futures. It will open, in time for the start of European Green Capital Tallinn, in early 2023.

The focus of discussion and co-creation exercises often lies in the area under development, rather than in the methodologies for leading and structuring the discussion and co-creation processes. In the GreenTwins pilot project we argue that it is important to include diverse stakeholders into the design of participatory processes at first place. The way how participatory processes are lead and structured, how inclusive, transparent, and fair they are, often defines their outcome. Therefore, we develop our digital tools in close collaboration with prospective users: urban planners, real estate developers, citizens and citizens-activists, who are actively involved into planning related discussions. Well-designed users research sheds light on the essential usability and usefulness aspects, as well as reveales the underlying motives for participation or non-participation.

In the time span from May 2021 to December 2021 we have conducted 6 online workshops, online questionnaires, and online interviews. The workshops were conducted via Zoom conference platform in local languages, Estonian and Finnish, as well as in English. We have, also, used Facebook live stream to increase our audience. In the workshops, and in the subsequent questionnaires and interviews, we asked participants to share their experiences of participation and collaboration in urban planning, as well as to express their opinion about the tools that we are developing. The biggest challenge that we faced was how to present the digital tools under development? The presentation and demo had to be clear enough to convey the purpose of each tool, and at the same sufficiently diffuse, to leave space for interpretation and change. The most important challenges defined via user research have been the legitimacy and usage of digital tools in the official planning processes as well as the initial concept of the tools being too complex to meet the end users' often very practical needs. This approach of concomitant inclusive user research as part of the development process for digital tools and digital twins for urban planning and design is an innovation and contributes significantly to improvement more democratic and “digital” participation.

This pilot project has been funded by the Estonian Ministry of Education and Research and European Regional Development Fund (grant 2014-2020.4.01.20-0289).