Public participation in planning and urban design has a long history that can be traced back over the past century to seminal figures in planning, including Sir Patrick Geddes and Ebenezer Howard. 


  • Associate Professor Melanie Davern
  • Associate Professor Verity Cleland
  • Dr Kim Jose
  • Dr Yvonne Laird
  • Dr Samantha Rowbotham
  • Professor Anna Timperio
  • Lynden Leppard
  • Kate Garvey
  • Dr Subhash Koirala

Today, the most basic models of participatory planning seek community input in decision making and, in Victoria, legislation ensures community engagement in local government strategic planning.

One of the main aims of participatory planning is for decision makers and residents to work together to identify priority issues of concern that can be addressed through policy and planning. 

However, despite global technological developments over the past 30 years, most governments continue to rely on traditional methods like surveys and town hall meetings to get resident input in decision making. 

The online resident survey is often the most advanced use of technology with low levels of participation. 

New methods of engagement that allow for meaningful participation are needed to support resident involvement in effective decision making, and we argue that citizen science provides new opportunities to support resident and government partnership in planning. 

Although it has been used for over a century, it has great potential as a participatory planning method that supports community and government collaboration to improve urban design and health outcomes.

What is citizen science? 

Citizen science is a type of research that actively involves members of the public in the research process, with the aim of generating scientific insights to address real-world problems. 

Citizen science has a long history in conservation and environmental monitoring, but has grown in momentum in recent years across a range of disciplines, including planning and urban design. 

Members of the public (“citizen scientists”) can be involved in one or multiple phases of the research process, from identifying priorities for research and shaping research design, to collecting, analysing, interpreting and disseminating findings and advocating for change. 

Citizen science approaches harness the skills, experiences and passions of citizen scientists, recognising citizen scientists as experts in their own right. They can educate and empower members of the public and give people a voice in issues that concern them, and provide evidence and tools to support advocacy. 

Engagement by local people in these processes increases local understanding and ownership of the issues, increasing the potential for sustained interest and cumulative knowledge. Importantly, citizen science can ensure that research and policy is responsive to community needs. 

Within planning and urban design, recent examples of citizen science include the use of Minecraft to involve citizens in the design of smart cities, as well as crowdsourcing geolocated data to address safety in shared public spaces amongst women and gender diverse people using the YourGround platform. 

Citizen science approaches have contributed to more accessible ways of involving the public in the planning and design of public spaces that meet the needs of diverse community members. 

How is citizen science being used to improve walkability in Tasmania?

Our team of academics and policymakers are using a citizen science approach in Tasmania to audit the local environments to identify features of rural towns that make it easier or harder for community members to be physically active. 

Citizen scientists are involved in many aspects of the project including recruiting other citizen scientists, auditing their town for walkability by using walkability assessment tools and taking photos, and participating in workshops to identify priorities for action and advocacy activities. 

The generation of local knowledge using multiple methods has provided important insights and led to deep discussions about the factors influencing walkability in these small rural towns. Local knowledge generation and priority setting for action has been valued by local and state government and community partners. 

In the words of one local government partner: “Generating local knowledge in context for action is very powerful … the idea that the community themselves generated the knowledge and can use that for advocacy is part of what drove this project.”

Citizen scientists who appreciated the opportunity for open discussion:  “We came back with a list of things we thought were important, as opposed to a list of things that we thought were possible.”

Citizen scientists from our towns are using the findings to support advocacy efforts to improve walkability in their community by discussing reports at local government committee meetings, establishing an e-petition to the state government and informing consultation on major infrastructure projects. 

Our use of citizen science is enabling researchers, policy makers and community members to work together to generate data and establish priorities to support walkability that reflects community needs.

Citizen science is enhancing community engagement and contributing to bringing about change and ensuring action is driven by community needs and priorities.


Truly meaningful community engagement in planning is hard to do well. However, our research investigating walkability in rural Tasmania is providing new evidence that citizen science and customised technology can be very useful tools to shape urban design based on resident experiences. 

These tools are easy to use, support participatory planning, provide evidence for advocacy and build partnerships with residents, policymakers and local governments in the creation of healthier and more liveable rural towns across Tasmania.

Join the Conversation


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Interesting take on citizen science. Those in the disability and ageing world have been calling this co-design – the method you use to get a universally designed product, service or environment. But co-design is actually broader than ageing and disability – it can apply to whole communities as the article says. Academics call this method Participatory Action Research. The bottom line is that consulting with the people affected by the design decisions is not a going to raise just problems and objections – people also come up with solutions. The skill set needed therefore is group management and listening skills. But maybe the term citizen science will be more appealing to planners?