GIS and the Importance of Communication

In the 1960’s an 70’s, GIS models—guided by rational instrumental planning processes—put the needs of the economy before citizens. This occurred in the form of massive urban renewal projects and, according to Stuart Aitken and Suzanne Michel, a lack of dialogue and communication was to blame. In accordance with the Chicago School of urban ecology, laws and models were derived, which revealed the secrets of urban dynamics. In order to position the community at the centre of the planning process and to avoid planning mistakes of the past, Aitken and Michel posit that GIS must be fully recognized as a tool in a process and the community should always remain at the centre of discussion. Does this process, then, transition GIS from a science to a tool?

While it is often assumed that the role of GIS in the planning process is an objective one, I feel that our current planning practices still rely on the rational instrumental planning process. As an example, the subject of misguiding community residents reminded me of a residential development project currently under way in Vancouver. Plans were made by the developer and formally submitted to the City. At some point in the proposal process, the project’s renderings—which were meant to address resident’s concerns that the building was too tall—were identified by local residents as inaccurate portrayals. As one can see in the images below, the developer’s representation of the project (A) is quite different from the city’s (B) and even more so in comparison to one made by a community member (C).

From: http://vancouver.openfile.ca/vancouver/text/tensions-rize-mount-pleasant

Aitken and Michel posit that individuals and/or organizations manipulate communication in order to legitimize political agendas and to exclude community members and I think that this development project is a good illustration of this occurring in real life. Using this as an example, I agree with Peck in that citizen awareness is crucial in understanding the planning process. If it were not for educated citizens who understood the role image manipulation has, the inaccuracy of the renderings may have never been realized.

I believe, however, that it is also the role of planning organizations to properly inform citizens, and I think that is where the authors’ concerns arise. A GIS potentially enables the spreading of skewed information, and this brings us back to the role of communication. Because a dialogue was in place with (informed) citizens, the planning process (and, therefore, the role of GIS) was arguably improved. Further, because data manipulation was caught, the marginalization of more locally grounded public discourses—those trying to gain “footholds in the planning process” by using accurate portrayals—was avoided.

- jeremy

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