Methods of engaging communities in urban planning decisions have remained relatively stagnant. Groups of people are assembled into community centers, school cafeterias, and libraries and are asked to provide input on the professional discourse of architects and planners. They are shown drawings, computer generated renderings, even 3D models and are then “listened to” as a means of informing the process. While these practices are designed to elicit useful, one-time feedback, they are not designed to build real understanding, or to provide the framework from which to build trust between the constituents, designers and stakeholders. Cities, towns, neighborhoods, and blocks are lived spaces. Design facilitates social interaction, individual perceptions and cultural production – but it is not an end in itself.
The strategy of “Immersive Planning,” on the other hand, begins from the assumption that community engagement through shared, collaborative experiences of space provides the necessary framework from which people can meaningfully engage in the urban planning process. Inviting communities to participate in the transformation of their lived spaces is not simply about assisting in the design; but also, and more importantly, it is about creating the trust and understanding necessary for trained professionals to collaborate with the lay public on reaching good decisions. Immersive planning typically implements new media tools to reproduce the qualities of urban space, including:
1) an individual’s co-presence with others (public spaces are typically not solitary)
2) participation (public spaces typically invite some kind of participation from shopping to talking to eating);
3) social experience (public spaces are not experienced out of context – individuals bring financial hardships, fast pace of modern life, and relationships to them).
Immersive planning builds off of some existing experimentation in planning practice: Participatory GIS (PGIS), where groups collaborate on designing and plotting maps, and visualization, where 3D, realistic fly throughs are created to give lay people a sense of cinematic realism. But these existing methods of engagement are lacking in some important ways. While PGIS is collaborative, it is largely abstract and cerebral; and while visualization implies immersion, it does so only through cinematic distance. Immersive planning, on the other hand, is an attempt to correlate the best qualities of these various techniques, providing a platform for collaboration and cooperation, while also providing a premise for presence through narrative and role play.
In short, immersive planning connotes immersion both in a virtual space, but also in issues and social experience. After all, urban space is nothing, if not immersive.