Shaping Places Online

Exploring the Potential of the Internet for Public Engagement in Spatial Local Governance
Acta Universitatis Tamperensis No. 1717

By Jarkko Bamberg
July 2012
Tampere University Press
ISBN: 9789514487613
155 pages
$82.50 Paper original

This study explores civic uses of the Internet in the context of spatial local governance in the city of Tampere, Finland. During the last ten years I have been involved in experimenting with novel Internet practices for public participation, and the study builds upon these participatory initiatives. The Internet and spatial technologies have been assumed as means to give a voice to the public and widen the knowledge base that informs planning. In this study I investigate empirically how the potential of the Internet and spatial technologies for public engagement is actualised in practice. The aim of the study is to understand the dynamics in play when the Internet is utilised to engage the public in urban planning and neighbourhood development processes. Methodologically I build upon interpretive policy analysis and science and technology studies. These traditions offer means to approach meaning-making and knowledge production as local, socio-cultural, and material practice.

The study comprises three cases. A dispute over building a bridge over the Tammerkoski rapids is the first of these. The analysis identifies four different ways in which people utilised the Internet during the dispute. The results suggest that the Internet facilitated challenging the local consensus-seeking and streamlined culture of governance. The second case introduces a citizen panel in Tesoma neighbourhood. The panel was established to explore novel ways of participation in the context of neighbourhood development. The results show that the form of information and the form of access to information are crucial to enhance meaningful interaction between residents and city administration. The third case concerns the planning process of Nurmi-Sorila neighbourhood. An online discussion forum in which people could geographically reference their statements was set up to elicit first-hand knowledge about the local characteristics of the place. The results indicate that the production of knowledge from geo-referenced public discussion is not a straightforward task. First, geo-referenced discussion provides multimodal means of meaning-making, which introduces ambiguity to the interpretation. Second, a particular type of knowledge is generated, where issues intended for public articulation are prominent and intimate experiential knowledge of place is overshadowed. Third, knowledge generated by the public is transformed as a result of planners’ practical reasoning.

The cases reveal how the actualisation of the potential of the Internet for public engagement in spatial local governance relies on the interplay between: (1) the issues, consisting of meanings and knowledge evoked in specific episodes of spatial local governance; (2) the actors who become engaged with generating and negotiating over those meanings, and; (3) the communicative settings generated to engage with the production of knowledge and sharing of meaning, and settings of which in turn actively generate capacities for these activities. This tripartite dynamics serves as useful heuristics to assess the instruments of public engagement as forms in the making. It outlines elements that show how the potential is actualised in specific situations of governance, while embedded in the broader culture of governance. To accompany this dynamics, the study also introduces three dimensions concerning the potential of the Internet for public engagement. The interactional dimension refers to the arrangement of the communicative situation between different actors in a communicative setting. The organising dimension refers to the ways and forms in which information is stored and how it can be accessed. The expressive dimension refers to different modalities of articulation. The results suggest that particular configurations of the interactional, organising, and expressive dimensions in locally specific circumstances have a critical influence on how the Internet facilitates or constrains negotiation over meanings and mobilisation of different forms of knowledge.

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