Architecture and Planning ETDs

Publication Date



Public participation has enjoyed a long, if embattled, history in the field of urban planning in the U.S. Although mandated by federal, state and local regulations, designing processes for meaningful public participation has proven difficult for both practical and political reasons. Recognizing the inadequacies of traditional participation methods – particularly in strengthening democracy, valuing local knowledge and pursuing social justice - many planning practitioners and participation theorists held high aspirations for the potential of communication technology in the networked world of Web 2.0 to transform the role of the public in improving the quality of urban environments. Although research in the analysis of online political discourse remains in a nascent form, evaluations of online communication have relied heavily on the conceptual work of Jürgen Habermas and the ideals of deliberative democracy. Seeking to build on this research, I employ communicative action theory and urban social movement theory, along with research on low threshold participation activities, to develop criteria for meaningful public participation. These criteria consider both the process and outcome of participation. Using a qualitative ethnographic case study approach, I apply the criteria for meaningful public participation to the City of Austin’s website, The City of Austin has been developing SpeakUpAustin over the past two years as a place where the public can provide input on plans, share ideas about improvements to the city and engage in dialogue with other residents and City staff. I gathered data through profiles of website users, focus groups with Austin residents, interviews of City staff and content analysis of website discourse. I conclude this paper with recommendations for improving the effectiveness of this participation tool in the areas of characteristics of participants, discourse of participation, participation opportunities and participation outcomes. Although specific to the City of Austin, the findings of this research have implications for a broad range of efforts to utilize communication technology to promote meaningful public participation.



Document Type


Degree Name

Community and Regional Planning

Level of Degree


Department Name

School of Architecture and Planning

First Committee Member (Chair)

Richardson, Ric

Second Committee Member

Harjo, Laura


Public Participation, Communication Technology, Urban Planning, Austin

Included in

Architecture Commons