Academic journal article Cartography and Geographic Information Science

Role of Local Contextual Factors in Building Public Participation GIS: The Milwaukee Experience

Academic journal article Cartography and Geographic Information Science

Role of Local Contextual Factors in Building Public Participation GIS: The Milwaukee Experience

Article excerpt

Introduction

Processes of de-industrialization and disinvestment have severely affected many American cities that once teemed with manufacturing and heavy industries. The result has been blighted central-city neighborhoods with high rates of poverty, unemployment, and crime, and generally a degraded standard of living. To counter these trends, government agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have implemented programs for revitalizing declining neighborhoods. Simultaneously, an important shift in local governance strategies has occurred, as citizen-based neighborhood groups and other local community organizations in cities across the country are increasingly involved in creating and implementing their own neighborhood strategic plans to solve such problems in their communities. The involvement of local citizens and their organizations in the inner-city neighborhood planning and revitalization process has generally been welcomed by planning officials, who recognize the value of the local knowledge neighborhood residents possess.

Unfortunately, citizen participation in neighborhood revitalization processes has been hampered by the difficulty citizens of distressed neighborhoods face in accessing information, notably spatial information (Barndt and Craig 1994; Sawicki and Craig 1996; Craig and Elwood 1998; Elwood and Leitner 1998; Elwood 2000). This is particularly troublesome in the case of electronic information technologies (such as GIS) because they provide the fastest and surest means of accessing, controlling, and manipulating information. In contrast, information technologies have been increasingly available to the more powerful segments of American society. Recent technological advancements in information technology (IT) and geographic information systems (GIS) have made them essential to public planning at every level--federal, state, and local. Ease of visualizing and analyzing neighborhood-based spatial data makes GIS especially useful to the neighborhood planner, citizen, and professional alike.

In practice, implementation of GIS and other information technologies, by virtue of their technical complexity and cost, has effectively raised barriers to empowerment by creating exclusive, sophisticated user communities beyond the reach of traditionally marginalized sectors of the society. The societal implications of GIS along with the hegemonic power relations embedded within GIS caused by differential access to data and technology have been studied by scholars in the GIS and Society research arena (Sheppard 1993; Aitken and Michel, 1995; Curry 1995; McHaffie 1995; Pickles 1995; Rundstrom 1995; Taylor and Johnston 1995). Consequently, the issue of making GIS/IT available to community organizations has received considerable attention among GIS professionals and scholars (Hutchinson and Toledano 1993; Obermeyer 1995; Sheppard 1995; Weiner et al. 1995; Barndt 1998a, 1998b; Clark 1998; Kim 1998; Leitner et al. 1998; Harris and Weiner 1998a, 1998b; Howard 1998; Obermeyer 1998). Academic researchers and government officials alike have claimed that such "public participation GIS" (PPGIS) efforts empower community groups, enhancing their control over decisions and problem solving strategies in their communities (State Cartographers Office 1998). Based on the assumption that greater access to geographic information leads to greater opportunities for citizens to participate in planning, a range of initiatives have been undertaken by various agencies for providing citizen groups with access to GIS. Universities, non-profit organizations, local government agencies as well as federal agencies such as HUD (through the Community 2020 software) have been key players in establishing PPGIS among marginalized resident groups to assist with their planning efforts. While the empowerment potential of such PPGIS initiatives remains an open question (Elwood 2000), unprecedented numbers of community organizations today are adopting and using this technology (Craig and Elwood 1998; Sawicki and Peterman 1998; Kellogg 1999; Ghose 2001). …

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