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Community and government planning authority use of social media in planning practice: a mixed methods analysis from Sydney

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posted on 2022-03-28, 14:35 authored by Wayne Williamson
Community participation in planning is generally considered crucial for the delivery of positive planning outcomes and has been the subject of considerable research. Likewise, community contestation and resistance to neighbourhood scale urban consolidation has been the subject of much research, while less attention is given to metropolitan wide participation. Community participation manifests itself in many different forms, including routine consultation embedded in development processes through to short and long term engagement strategies that mobilise activities, such as workshops, to discuss a large range of planning ideas. More recently, some have speculated on the role social media may play in participatory planning. Since its inception the Internet has generated debate over its likely role in reinvigorating democracy. The more recent appearance of social media and its ubiquitous use via smartphones has added fuel to the debate. Within planning literature, discussion has centred on the value of social media as a tool for community participation and the offer of an opportunity to engage a wider urban public in planning processes. In the first instance, this thesis by publication explores the use of social media, specifically Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, by community groups, individual citizens and planning authorities to communicate during strategic planning processes. The case studies in Part I investigate a range of planning matters from small site specific planning matters to large urban renewal sites led by state government development agencies. Part II examines how both local and state government planning authorities use social media using two case studies. Firstly, a large workshop where Twitter was used by planners and other stakeholders as a digital backchannel that runs parallel to the proceedings in the shared physical space. Secondly, an eight week metropolitan wide campaign that utilised three social media channels to engage Sydney's citizens. This thesis employed multiple data sources for multiple case studies that were analysed using predominantly qualitative methods. A mixed methods approach is considered appropriate as it provides the opportunity to answer research questions where either quantitative and/or qualitative methods are most suitable. For example, social network analysis is appropriate for visualising community group social media networks. At the same time, discourse analysis and content analysis are suitable for exploring the discourses and topics that are circulated through social media networks and mainstream media by all stakeholders. Sentiment analysis was also used to capture an aggregated snapshot of social media content. For the community groups investigated, it was found that they do not attract large numbers of followers on Twitter. Moreover, a community group's social media presence is led by a small number of people, while the other Twitter users had a low-participation rate. This was also observed for a social media campaign initiated by the state government where the response rate per capita was consistently very low throughout the campaign. On a more positive note, over time the community group's knowledge of the planning process improved to the extent that they developed a strong awareness of a larger planning system which broadened the scope of their social media strategy. This is demonstrated through their use of social media as an effective platform for connecting to other community groups experiencing similar planning processes. Community groups also draw on social media's potentially wide geographic reach to broadcast emotional strategies which raised Sydney-wide claims about consultation and equity. The case studies also consistently found that key stakeholders play a passive listening role in social media networks. In the only case study that found dialogue between a community group and a planning authority, social media seemed to strain the internal processes of the planning authority. Furthermore, in instances where the Department of Planning prompted the social media campaign as a conversation with the community, it only responded to the communities' comments with thankyou notes. The case studies also highlight the difficulties of moderating participation on social media and keeping comments on topic, which demonstrates the agency of individuals and groups to shape the discourse. The overall contribution of this thesis is the presentation of detailed empirical case studies of both community and government planning authority social media use in strategic planning. There is a mismatch between communities that utilise social media as an additional communications channel to engage and/or disrupt planning processes, while planning authorities implement social media to mimic traditional engagement processes, but seem very reluctant to engage in any specific questions or discussions through social media. While there seems to be a data collection or listening aspect to planning authority social media use, there is no public evidence that they review, analyse or use the social media data to change or influence decision-making. This research is a step towards a better understanding of community and government planning authority use of social media in planning practice. Further research should utilise social network analysis to investigate whether the availability of social capital in a network results in a community group's campaign succeeding or not. This analysis may also identify opposing views within communities and how these views are expressed through social media. To build on the live tweeting results of this thesis it would be useful to survey participants of a workshop or meeting to ascertain what percentage are aware of Twitter, the live tweeting that may be in progress and what they may want to get out of social media use. Lastly, further research should examine how planning authorities can prepare and implement multi-disciplinary teams to conduct a multi-directional dialogue with citizens through social media.


Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Introduction -- Chapter 2. Literature review -- Chapter 3. Data collection and analysis -- Chapter 4. Using social network analysis to visualize the social-media networks of community groups : two case studies from Sydney -- Chapter 5. Urban consolidation process and discourses in Sydney : unpacking social media use in a community group's media campaign -- Chapter 6. Urban renewal and public participation in Sydney : unpacking social media strategies and use for contesting consensus -- Chapter 7. Assessing the effectiveness of online community opposition to precinct planning -- Chapter 8. Social media adoption and use by Australian capital city local governments -- Chapter 9. Live tweeting the planning reform workshop -- Chapter 10. Can social media support large scale public participation : the case of the #MySydney digital engagement campaign -- Chapter 11. Conclusion -- References -- Appendices.


Bibliography: pages: 216-226 Thesis by publication.

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD


PhD, Macquarie University, Faculty of Arts, Department of Geography and Planning

Department, Centre or School

Department of Geography and Planning

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Kristian Ruming


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