Lynn Mandarano, PhD, City and Regional Planning from the University of Pennsylvania, is Associate Professor in the Department of Community and Regional Planning in Temple University’s School of Environmental Design. She researches the impacts of regional environmental collaborative planning and management on our natural resources and governance capacities.
Mahbubur Meenar, MUP from SUNY Buffalo, is Assistant Director, GIS Operations and Research at Temple University. He researches hunger and food insecurity, GIS-based environmental modeling, sustainable urban design and revitalization, and the role of digital technologies and visualization in community engagement.
Christopher Steins, MPL from USC, is Chief Executive Officer of Urban Insight, a web development and technology consulting firm. Steins specializes in technology strategy and planning, technology for civic engagement, web content management systems, urban planning.
This article is concerned with “e-democracy, the use of Internet tools to enhance traditional public participation processes and to build a new form of a social capital — digital social capital” (123). There are four sections: civic engagement and social capital, how the digital age has influenced communication, digital technologies in planning, and evaluating digital social capital in planning.
Civic Engagement and Social Capital: Per Arnstein (1969), her ladder of citizen participation has eight rungs. From worst to best: manipulation, therapy, informing, consultation, placation, partnership, delegated power, and citizen control.
Exact definitions of social capital vary in terms of specifics, but all scholars consent it comprises relationships, trust, and norms. For Bourdieu (1986), it’s a relationship network emerging from investments, “individual or collective, consciously or unconsciously, aimed at establishing or reproducing social relationships that are directly usable in the short or long term” (as cited on 124). Coleman (1988) defines social capital in terms of function, “not a single entity but a variety of entities with two characteristics in common: they all consist of some aspect of social structures and they facilitate certain actions of actors…within the structure” (ibid). Putnam (2000) calls it, “the connections among individuals–social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them…and enable the participants to act more effectively to pursue shared objectives” (ibid).
How the Digital Age Has Influenced Communication: Even with the proliferation of long-distance, complex, and internationally reaching global networks, place still matters, a la Sassen’s (1991) “global cities” and Markusen’s (1999) “sticky spaces.” The network society (Castells, 1996) is one in which social relationships are contingent upon information technologies. In addition to the online social infrastructures, we see Oldenburg’s (1991) “third places” cropping up in the built environment to sustain the online social network world.
Digital Technologies in Planning + Assessing It: Third places’ online analog (if you will), social networking sites (SNS), have considerable potential for developing social capital. However, public participation geographic information systems (PPGIS) alone, per Harrison and Haklay (2002), aren’t enough to surmount larger planning quandaries, including the legitimacy of the planning process itself.
Problems with relying too heavily on digital media for the proliferation of social capital are as follow. (1) There really is no replacing face-to-face discussions and decision making. (2) How can we know that online information is valid/genuine? (3) Transparency is an issue, particularly when the Net permits anonymity. (4) In the end, we only talk to those who are already like us–it’s harder to reach diverse audiences this way. Finally, the disenfranchised populations are generally outside the network, thus more difficult to reach.