Environmental Justice · Public Involvement · Technology

Environmental Justice, Technology, and the Planning Process

Wheeler’s cautionary note concerning technology is well-taken.  I work in the transportation industry and am the public involvement technical lead for the office in which I work, which consists of approximately 35 people.  I routinely work with PennDOT and the Pennsylvania Transportation Planning Partners (Metropolitan Planning Organizations and Rural Planning Organizations, of which there are 21 in the Commonwealth), many of which have staffs filled with many young professionals who have grown up with social media and e-communications and are raring to convert all public participation to digital communications.  While I appreciate their desire to become paperless and support the initiatives with which they are moving forward in their agencies’ communications, I often have to remind them that not all populations have access to digital communications, due to income, discomfort, distrust (or in the case of my grandfather, stubbornness).  Robertson (2010) notes that there is a need to provide services to all members of the public.  While e-participation might bring some citizens into the process who might otherwise have been left out, it might also leave others behind.

As e-participation in the planning process becomes more and more frequent, there is a growing concern among some that minority and low-income populations might be left out of the discussions due to a lack of access to in the internet.  Reddick and Norris (2013) define the purpose of e-participation as being to encourage citizens to be able to have an impact and actually make changes in government and its policies through active public involvement.  They also note that the use of e-government by the public is correlated to income and the local governments in areas of higher income generally have more resources, implying that there is less use in areas with lower income because the government doesn’t have as many e-resources.  However, based on my experience working with the public during the planning and project development processes, fewer members of the general public will have access to computers and the internet in lower income communities.

Reddick and Norris (2013) also found that the higher the percentage of population that was white, the greater support there was by local government officials for supporting e-participation.  This may be due in part due to distrust by some minorities of the government.  Many government officials, even in areas with high percentages of minorities, are white.  Ethnicity is also sometimes correlated with income, making it even more crucial that these populations be provided with adequate access to communications during the planning process, particularly when transit planning is being undertaken.

As Evans and Yen (2007) have pointed out, older Americans are often feel uncomfortable with new technology, even if they have access to it, and are reluctant to try new things.  They are not considered an Environmental Justice community under Executive Order 12898 (which only applies to low-income and minority populations), but they are a population that still needs to be actively accommodated throughout the public participation process. They may also not trust digital communications and be concerned that their transactions will be lost of that they will not receive what they need.  Robertson has noted, (2010) in some surveys, a majority of respondents felt that there is a great deal of incorrect information and propaganda on the internet.  He lists challenges that must be dealt with by governments using e-participation, three of which are education, accessibility, and citizen awareness and confidence.

Another observation I have made on interacting with the public through e-media:  People get angry if there is no response to their comments.  I have been peripherally involved in a project where there was a comment section.  Members of the public had to actually register before they could make comments, which seems unnecessarily burdensome.  The purpose was to collect demographic data, which often makes people uncomfortable.  In addition, the project developers were not at all responsive to the comments, and when contacted by telephone or email, denied ever receiving some of the comments.  E-participation systems need to be constantly monitored to ensure they are functioning properly and to provide timely responses.

*The original post was edited in order to remove direct quotations from the readings.


Evans, Donna and David C. Yen

2007    American E-Government Service Sectors and Applications.  Section:  Management of E-Services / Catgegory:  E-Services and Service Delivery Systems, Encyclopedia of Digital Government.

Reddick, Christopher and Donald F. Norris

2013    “E-participation in local governments:  An examination of political-managerial support and impacts.”  Transforming Government:  People, Policy and Process 7:4.

Robertson, Scott P.

2010    “Digital Government.”  Annual Review of Information Science and Technology 44:1.

Wheeler, Stephen

2011    “Technology and Planning:  A Note of Caution.”  Berkeley Planning Journal 15:85-89.


2 thoughts on “Environmental Justice, Technology, and the Planning Process

  1. Barbara, I really appreciated the connection to what you do and the readings – I think it really helped my understanding of the readings in a practical application. Do you think anything can be done to help those in under-served communities have access to transportation materials online? I’m originally from rural Lancaster county and now urban Philadelphia and have seen several definitions of under-served folks, and I feel that more readily updated information on road closings, bus detours and government changes to available transportation, etc would greatly benefit those communities. As a millennial, I struggle to think of ways outside of websites and social media to get that information out there. I hope that overall comfort with mobile devices and increase in responsive web design can help the unwilling have painless access to helpful information.

    I recently discovered the US Government’s analytics website Analytics.USA.gov (https://analytics.usa.gov/). The main page shows the number of people on US government websites, and then lists the most popular pages. I was initially surprised to see that USPS hold the #1 and #2 spots, followed by the weather! I needed to look up the 4th link – it’s the case status website for US citizenship. That really struck me! Many of our lower served communities consist of immigrants, whom I can imagine sitting on phones refreshing the website for good news. I was pleased to note this website is mobile friendly, and I hope the UX of websites helps reduce the cautious attitudes described by Evans and Yen.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Erica. I appreciate your thoughtful comments. I am a huge fan of the USPS – its history, architecture, postal routes, stamps – so I was impressed and also surprised to see that they hold the #1 and #2 spots!

      I agree with you that we need to make the internet as accessible to as many people as we possibly can. However, I doubt that we will even hit 100%, so we will always have to keep that in mind, even it is a small percentage who have to be reached in other ways. I think that libraries and other public access to the internet are more helpful than mobile devices for many low-income populations. Even if you can afford to buy a phone or tablet, you need to make money payments for a data plan or wifi. When compared to rent, food, electricity, and heat, those monthly payments for internet access will not be a high priority.

      Your point is well taken on road conditions – I have seen PennDOT do an increasingly better job, and those real time updates that change frequently are almost impossible to get out in any way than digital. Perhaps this course will help us solve these issues!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s