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Engagement tools as a middle ground

Sebastian Weise, PlaceChangers

September 20, 2021

Neighbourhoods throughout the country, indeed across the globe, have been affected by COVID. For most of us, it has been primarily about staying safe and protecting those we love from infection and illness. However, underlying these concerns, the crisis has also demonstrated a deeper issue: we have taken our communities for granted, and never questioned their adequacy when we had to spend all our time within their boundaries. The inflicted ‘COVID lifestyle’ has shaken the very foundations of the ‘normal way of life. Long-distance road trips are a thing of the past. Air travel has collapsed. We have been asked to stay in or close to our homes.

During COVID lockdowns, most of our daily activity has centred on the home and we have come to know our immediate neighbourhood at a more intimate level. Where the main purpose of commuting was for work, now it is for shopping. 57% of people now travel only 0-5km for outdoor trips, whereas it was 29% before the pandemic. The park has become the centre point for exercise. The nearby grocery store has become more important for our regular shopping than the megastore that was only accessible by car. Online video calls have dominated the household agenda and facilitated remote working from home.

So what does this all have to do with property and planning?

The COVID crisis demonstrated the opportunities and needs for a different way of engaging with our neighbourhoods to ensure places provide the right levels of walkable access to health-supporting local assets. We need ways to exchange ideas and thoughts on our environment; just as much as there is a need for a much greater focus on the assets and amenities of everyday life that make our neighbourhoods great.

PlaceChangers and Health Impact scoping projects

In response to the health crisis, PlaceChangers was awarded an innovation grant in June 2020, to develop digital tools to recognise the health outcomes in planning projects. The project was aptly titled “Towards a data-driven community needs appraisal to identify and address health inequalities in existing and future neighbourhoods”. Throughout the pandemic, we reviewed how health outcomes might play a larger role in development planning, barriers to practice, and how a new tool could look to incorporate them in new housing sites and regeneration projects.

In our project, we found that there is a lot of information on health outcomes. For instance, the Fingertips database by Public Health England provides neighbourhood indicators. There is also the Consumer Data Research Centre which produces the AHAH index, a health-focused place measure, that’s complementary to the Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD), which looks at how well people do on different dimensions such as income or education.

Through our research with health practitioners and planners, we noted that the evidence for incorporating health outcomes into planning was not always appreciated. While these indicators exist, they are often not seen as conclusive or linked to urban design actions. In terms of the data, IMD and Fingertips often rely on older datasets. Practitioners find that the datasets are not contextualised to the local area in a meaningful way. There are questions about what the indicators really mean for urban planning and how urban planners or developers can address them.

How new tools provide a middle ground

As a result of the project, we developed the Site Insights tool that sits on top of the powerful PlaceChangers engagement platform. The tool simplifies and responds to the questions above in a way that’s easy to understand and to use:

1. It contextualises the data, both geographically to the local area, and also through benchmarks that make it very simple to compare the local area to, and see how it performs against, other locations in England.

2. It also contextualises the data along key dimensions that are of interest to planning, because place changes are always a multifaceted endeavour.

3. Lastly, the tool analyses the area based on the map information we already have on the site location. It does so from a focus on what we know is significant for health outcomes: greenspace and amenity access and walkability of the neighbourhood.

With the Site Insights tool, it’s possible to raise relevant questions about issues in a neighbourhood or near a development; and also some of the effects of how to go about them. My co-founder Alex Moon has demonstrated this in his own neighbourhood, Bensham and Saltwell, in Gateshead. While on average a neighbourhood in the lower brackets of the IMD, it has good access to green spaces, which are an important equaliser for health. You can read the full article here.

What do tools such as PlaceChangers Site Insights mean for development planning?

Research by YouGov from 2019 shows that only 2% of the public trust developers and only 7% have faith in local authorities when it comes to planning developments. 69% wanted greater transparency.

In the new world of easy to access data, data tools such as Site Insights hold the promise for an objective and level playing field to inform place changes. In the words of one senior planner, “We can all sing from the same hymn sheet.” New tools will enable better benchmarks and clear measures and targets that can then be debated more openly, for example, to debunk myths, or to prioritise contributions to local infrastructure based on transparent data.

At PlaceChangers, we also see a move towards co-creating proposals between project owners and residents. Cities have always been co-designed but mostly only in a conceptual and academic sense. We have democratic involvement in plan making but the barriers to getting involved have always been high for residents.

With new tools, we can move towards a position where what we want to change in our area can be established much more quickly and with greater precision around specific local agendas. The city has always been driven by ‘issues’. If city planning was a debate then every planning application would be an issue to be debated. Digital tools have the capacity to open up planning and bring more people into the debate. Take a look, for example, at North Tyneside’s Coastal Cycle scheme on PlaceChangers: all proposals are out in the open in a large-scale interactive design review.

Crucially, new tools can help bring greater clarity to the limitations and constraints in an area. Often, as local residents, constraints to a site or plan-making are less visible, especially if they are high level, such as housing market-related or economy-driven issues. With digital tools and greater visibility of all those issues, trust can be rebuilt by referring to the same constraints.

Digital planning is not direct democracy

One thing is clear. More flexible and more open planning should not be confused with planning as direct democracy or radical bottom-up planning. What do I mean by that?

Firstly, successful planning projects depend on the sharing of resources amongst project teams. Construction and planning require huge sums of funds to be realised. Developers and local governments, as project owners, contribute the all-important funds to enable place changes.

Laws and regulations set out planning and development guidelines, and ultimately planning officers have power when it comes to managing the planning process.

With digital planning, however, residents can move much more into the focus of the arena. In the future, a key differentiator for any planning organisation will be how much they move the resident or eventual end-user into the centre of all planning activity.

Listening to locals

It is an interesting time for citizens interested in planning and the improvement of their local neighbourhood. The government recently announced the Department for Levelling Up, Housing, and Communities. There's now a greater recognition and focus on using place changes to support the health and wellbeing of residents, and recognise that housing projects need to complement local context - need, in other words, to have high ‘design quality’.

Clearly, the digital age will influence construction and planning in much the same way as it has opened other sectors to greater transparency. Technology such as the PlaceChangers digital planning toolkit responds to public demand for ease of access and involvement in real-world processes. Better tools enable easier access to data and allow cross-checking of local plan policies and development proposals.

For interested residents, such technology will provide opportunities to engage more closely with councils and developers. Just as communities need to be open to constructive project proposals, so too do developers need to appreciate a place-based focus that recognises their social role as an important place changer.

With the right planning framework, easy access to place analytics, and ways to collaborate, we have the opportunity to address health and wellbeing outcomes more readily and speedily through better planned and high-quality developments that drive a business case while integrating and building upon local areas’ needs.


Sebastian Weise is founder at PlaceChangers. He has a background in digital planning innovations and holds a doctorate in Digital Innovation from Lancaster University. Sebastian has supported many organisations with interactive design reviews of their plans, including Homes England, Town, Karbon Homes, Bellway, North Tyneside and Oldham Councils, and many more. He’s an expert when it comes to health indicators; and he’s passionate about digital transformation of planning to enable planning projects that cater for project owners and residents.

PlaceChangers is a property technology startup based in Newcastle Upon Tyne. PlaceChangers replaces outdated, slow, and inaccurate processes with modular, easy-to-use town planning software which achieves more liveable spaces for communities and caters to a digital planning system. The team is a finalist for a 2021 Award in Planning Excellence by the Royal Town Planning Institute.


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