We all know that there’s a growing suite of digital tools available to planners that can help you do your jobs better. Some are specifically designed for planners and other built environment professionals; others are place-based tools that allow anyone to explore and interact with their environment, but which planners may find useful, too.
Here’s a quick round-up of a few platforms we’ve discovered this year or that we’ve tried out that we’re impressed with. We begin, however, with a universally available tool that is simply so useful that we can’t leave it out.
1. Google Maps/Streetview
Not strictly speaking a planning tool, but very useful indeed. Google Maps has a fair bit of functionality that many people are unaware of, but what we find most useful at The Planner is the 3D satellite view that enables you to fly around places and view them from a variety of angles; and Streetview.
Both offer a really quick and easy way to get a clear picture of a location (which you can see in action if you read one of our planning appeal reports). What’s more, in Streetview, you can also see how a place has changed over time, by comparing it with images of the same place taken during previous sweeps by Google’s cameras. The best part? It’s free to use.
On a similar theme, but with much more powerful functionality and aimed specifically at built environment professionals, VU.CITY offers precise 3D models of real locations that are underpinned by huge amounts of location data.
You can, for example, ask for a proposed building to be inserted into the model so you can test its impact, scale, massing and even how it affects light. You can pull up demographic and lifestyle data associated with a location.
VU.CITY is already widely used by developers and local authorities, and it’s extremely impressive. As yet, it has models of London, Manchester, Birmingham, Belfast and Paris, but it’s expanding al the time. Our understanding is that the team is working on an updated and improved version of the tool for release in early 2019. We will take a look at it when it is available.
This is a widely used consultation and engagement platform for planning that “enables broader engagement and data collection from local people right through from very early stages of pre-planning to and beyond the planning application”.
Like most of the new wave of planning engagement tools, Commonplace positions itself as one that helps local authorities, consultancies, communities developers to reach those who are normally hard to engage. Accessible and easy to use, it’s proved particularly good at reaching young people.
Commonplace takes a variety of approaches to consultations, from interactive maps to surveys, and also makes use of sentiment mapping to help users interpret shades and distribution of opinion.
Commonplace founder Mike Saunders tells us: “Commonplace breaks down barriers between urban planners and local people, helping to remove project road blocks and create more people-centred places. It provides real-time analytics, robust evidence and rigorous data protection which help ensure a smooth planning process.”
So there you go.
Also for engagement, Particpatr creates bespoke platforms tailored to the specific needs of clients and their target audience. The tools can be accessed from any internet-enabled device and interactive maps allow participants to pinpoint and share thoughts on locations. They can also upload photos to expand on what they do and don’t like, comment on plans and share ideas across social media platforms.
As with Commonplace, the use of an online interactive tool is intended to enable organisations to reach people who are usually passed over in face-to-face consultations. Participatr itself identifies “young, busy, working people that are traditionally excluded from the public consultation and the planning process more generally”.
The firm argues that its approach brings “balance to the debate over housebuilding, commercial development, spatial policy and placemaking” and results in “better-informed plans”.
Participatr founder Paul Erskine-Fox tells us: “Making public consultation more inclusive, interactive and user-friendly benefits everyone, whether you’re a developer looking to find more natural supporters for housebuilding projects or a local authority planner looking to build a more informed evidence base for policy. Our tools can help do both, whilst saving precious time and money, so everybody wins.”
5. Land Enhance
LandEnhance is a new software platform that enables planners to quickly and easily research and gather essential data necessary for planning applications. It’s from the makers of Land Insight, an established platform.
It’s map-based and it enables you to identify and search any planning designations that could affect your proposal, similar applications in the same area and any policies that might affect your application. For example, you can understand what the approval rate is for applications like yours, reasons for refusal, the scope of the local authority’s housing land supply and so on.
In short, it is designed to help you make better-informed decisions about planning applications. Grace Manning-Marsh from Land Insight tells us: “LandEnhance saves time gathering the research you need so you can spend more time forming a robust planning argument.”
It’s still being tested in a beta version and the developer is looking for more people to try it out. You can sign up for a free trial at: www.landenhance.io
We will take a closer look at LandEnhance in our January 2019 issue.
We could also have written about the ArcGIS suite, Open Street Map (and open source mapping generally), Indigo Planning’s use classes app, Citymapper, Transport for London’s WebCAT platform for planners, and plenty more.
We also know of local authorities that are working on some interesting tools that could change the way planning processes are carried out. It’s an exciting time for the sector as ever more developers take up the challenge of digitising the profession.
We’ll keep writing about it in these pages. We’re also keen to hear about the digital tools that you use in your work: email us at [email protected]
Simon Wicks is deputy editor of The Planner
Image credit | iStock