Digital neighbourhood planning

The Context

Neighbourhood planning allows communities to come together to create their own planning policy for their area. But, it is a long and complex process. This work aims to support neighbourhood planning groups using media technology in three ways:

  1. Helping the core group producing the policy navigate the process
  2. Engaging local people that would not otherwise get involved in such processes
  3. Using the media produced to support the neighbourhood plan (and activity beyond the plan)

Bootlegger in Neighbourhood Planning

As part of this research is using Bootlegger with neighbourhood planning groups.

LogoBootlegger is a media commissioning tool. It puts complex film production and capture tools in the hands of citizens through an easy to use web tool and mobile app.

Working with two North East groups, we used Bootlegger to capture film clips of their local area to represent the issues, challenges and positive aspects that they were looking at as part of the neighbourhood plan.


Other Bootlegger projects include Loudest Whisper – a project to dispel the myths surrounding Stockton following the Benefits Street series. The project saw local people create and contribute their own footage and take part in editing the clips to show their own story.

What happened?

  • We created over 200 short clips (10-30 seconds) between the two areas
  • Clips are to be used in future community engagement more interactively
  • Actively captured film together as a group was beneficial in exploring issues of the are
  • Groups were able to see other people’s perspectives and realise other opinions were important
  • Local people saw how representative the group was (or wasn’t!)

Example: Transport video                   Example: Youth facilities video

So what?

This is part of a much larger project which looks at supporting the neighbourhood planning process.


  • Working with planners and local neighbourhood planning groups
  • Explore how neighbourhood planning works on the ground
  • Identify where more support is needed and where communities face challenges
  • Consider what technologies could support different aspects of the process

How could technology help?

Thinking of the three aims of the research, there are lots of ways technology could support the process:

  1. Helping the core group producing the policy navigate the process
    • Platform to simplify and guide the process
    • Linking groups to official national and local advice, policy and guidance
    • Sharing experiences across neighbourhood groups
  2. Engaging local people that would not otherwise get involved in such processes
    • Media technologies for community engagement (Bootlegger and others)
    • Promoting youth engagement with technology (Park:Learn)
    • Toolkits to support groups to use technology effectively (social media)
  3. Using the media produced to support the neighbourhood plan (and activity beyond the plan)
    • Using media produced as a form of evidence
    • Media for more interactive, online methods of engagement
    • Supporting examination process

More Information


For more information, questions or to discuss the project, contact Jen Manuel



Newcastle City Futures: Shaping the future of our cities

A new video shows the work that Newcastle City Futures is doing to collaboratively develop innovative solutions to urban problems.

Newcastle City Futures was set up in 2014 to explore new methods of urban development, looking at the challenges facing cities such as Newcastle, including an ageing population, traffic congestion and social change. It brings together local authorities, universities and businesses.

Several Digital Civics projects have formed part of Newcastle City Futures. The Metro Futures project involved working with Nexus, who own and manage the Tyne and Wear Metro, to better understand what Metro passengers want from a new fleet of Metrocars which will enter service in 2021. The ideas the Open Lab researchers collected, through pop-up labs, schools workshops, online consultation and more, included London Underground-style seating, space for luggage and even solar panels.

The Big Draw Weekend in October 2016 encouraged children to draw and imagine what Newcastle could look like in the future, using JigsAudio, an innovative technology designed by Zander Wilson at Open Lab. With JigsAudio participants can draw on wooden jigsaw pieces and then record an audio explanation of their design onto to a Raspberry Pi embedded within the piece.

This work with Newcastle City Futures fits within the wider digital civics theme of digital local democracy. Jen’s work on neighbourhood planning in Berwick and Zander’s Change Explorer project, which alerts people via smart watches when they visit an area that is about to be redeveloped, were both featured in a recent report by Future Cities Catapult.

Written by Mark Sleightholm. For more information please contact Mark Tewdwr-Jones.

Newcastle at the forefront of planning

A report by Future Cities Catapult has named Newcastle as one of the leading cities in the UK for digital planning and engagement.

The Future Cities Catapult’s Future of Planning project aims to explore how digital technologies can influence and improve planning practices and making the planning process more transparent and collaborative.

As part of this investigation into the future of planning, Future Cities Catapult have published a report into existing digital tools and how they are used in the planning industry. Newcastle was one of three “exemplary cities” listed in the report, alongside Bristol and Plymouth. The report praised Newcastle’s innovative and collaborative planning environment.

“Newcastle University, as a neutral academic body with a civic mission to give back to the city, has been critical in brokering between the different sectors and bringing them together for collaborative projects in digital planning,” the report explained, “especially under the leadership of Professor Mark Tewdwr-Jones, Director of Newcastle City Futures.”

The collaboration between universities, local government and local, national and international businesses – the kind facilitated by Newcastle City Futures and the Digital Civics initiative – puts Newcastle in a much stronger position than many other UK cities when it comes to planning innovation and engagement.

One of the Open Lab projects featured in the report was Jen Manuel’s research using Bootlegger to engage local people in planning decisions. The app facilitates the creation of videos, filmed collaboratively by multiple users, that document issues, opportunities and challenges of their neighbourhoods. These can then be used in planning discussions, and help to break down barriers between residents and planners.

The report states, “the app has been a great success with Berwick-upon-Tweed, as it has been used as a powerful device to communicate changes in a way that the public can easily access and recognise rather than by statutory documents.”

Change Explorer is another of the projects highlighted in the report. The app was designed by Zander Wilson, a doctoral researcher at Open Lab, and notifies people when they are close to an area that has plans for redevelopment. They will then be able to view and comment on the plans, making it much easier for local residents and visitors to have their say on planning decisions.

Zander also used Open Lab’s App Movement platform to design an app that allows members of the public to identify and review examples of Brutalist architecture. This means people can document the significance and condition of Brutalist buildings, which can help with heritage and conservation, as well as sparking discussion over architecture and town planning.

Newcastle’s application of digital technologies to planning decisions and processes fits within Open Lab’s digital civics research, and suggests one way in which planning could change in the future. The report comes out at a time of wider discussion on the future of planning and communities and age-friendly cities.

For more information, please contact Mark Tewdwr-Jones.

Working towards a Blue House roundabout solution

Following Newcastle City Council’s decision in August to rethink their plans for the Blue House roundabout, a working group was set up with representatives from the Council and local community groups. Open Lab has helped to facilitate this process, including documenting the consultation process on the working group’s website.

The working group has held regular meetings to discuss the plans for the roundabout, which has one of the highest accident rates in Newcastle. The idea behind the group was to increase public consultation and engagement in the planning process, something which resonates with much of Open Lab’s work.

Clara Crivellaro, who has done research into an online community-led campaign to save Tynemouth Outdoor Pool, has attended meetings as part of the Open Lab team. She explained: “This is part of a larger agenda within digital civics, looking into the potential role of digital technologies and design to support meaningful public discussions and processes of public consultations around the future of the places that matter to us in the city.”

Blue House Roundabout

Open Lab’s involvement with the Blue House roundabout working group also builds on work by Ian Johnson, Zander Wilson and Jen Manuel, who have all researched ways of engaging the public, and in particular voices that are not often heard, with planning decisions.

While the working group was designed to include the voices of a range of residents and users of the roundabout, the planning process can still be made more transparent. Both textual and graphic minutes of the meetings are uploaded to the working group’s website, but the press are not allowed access to the meetings themselves.

This demonstrates a need to balance the requests of the working group participants with public accountability and involvement in planning processes, which feeds in to Open Lab’s digital civics research. The Blue House roundabout working group is not just about finding the best solution to the increased traffic at the roundabout; it is an opportunity to explore new ways of using technology to engage the public in planning decisions.

For more information please contact Clara Crivellaro.

Big Draw jigsaw

A key digital civics theme is looking at new and alternative methods to allow easier participation in how people’s places change. Within this theme, digital local democracy, we are looking at how technology might help enable ‘planning’, the discipline of deciding land uses, to include more people in how their areas change.

One part of this is getting people involved in the planning process as early as possible. This is where visions of an area are shared, rather than the discussion of individual planning applications. Many people are forced to quickly understand what town planning is when they hear about a planning application, but to have a real say, these opinions need to be voiced at an early stage.

flyer, plain jigsaw pieces and coloured-in jigsaw pieces on a tableWith this in mind, Digital Civics at Open Lab (Newcastle University), Newcastle City Futures and Seven Stories collaborated on technology for the national Big Draw festival (the world’s biggest celebration of drawing) a few weeks ago, hosted at Seven Stories (the National Centre for Childrens Books). The Big Draw aims to enhance the “advocacy, empowerment and engagement” of people through drawing.

We saw an opportunity to combine planning, drawing, and digital technology. Drawing allowed the visitors to overcome some of the traditional barriers to getting involved with planning, such as having to write long letters and understanding long documents.

The technology was pretty simple: a traditional wooden jigsaw, lots of pens, and a Raspberry Pi (a credit card-sized computer). The children were encouraged to draw their visions of Newcastle on the pieces, and then explain their vision through talking about them.

The puzzle pieces were identified using an RFID tag (a technology which allows an object to be identified, frequently seen in contactless bank cards) embedded within the puzzle piece, which allowed audio clips to be associated with a puzzle piece.

3D model of NewcastleThe colourful puzzle came back with many varied visions of Newcastle and Gateshead. A five-hour barge trip along the Tyne and a colourful new bridge across the Tyne – painted in green, yellow, black, blue and purple – were just two of the ideas that emerged from the puzzle. These ideas will soon be available to view on a dedicated website.

The puzzle will also be used as part of the Metro Futures project, allowing anyone to design their perfect Metrocar, and explain their design to the world. If you’d like to have a play with the puzzle, you’ll find it at one of these Metro Future events.

If anyone would like to make their own puzzle machine, they can download the design here: For more information please contact Zander Wilson.

Help shape Metro’s future

Big changes are coming to the Tyne and Wear Metro, including the first redesign of Metrocars in nearly forty years. Open Lab are working with Nexus, who manage the Metro, to involve people in the design of the new Metrocars.

Through a series of workshops, pop-up labs, video diaries and online discussions, Open Lab will gather people’s experiences of using Metro. Everything from seating layouts to wifi availability will come under scrutiny as the public help to design the Metrocars of the future. Open Lab will lead pop-up labs and workshops at locations across Tyne and Wear throughout November, while the Metro Futures website will allow people to explore the past, present and future of Metro. The project is a major example of Open Lab’s interest in citizen-led public service commissioning.

Simon Bowen, who leads the project for Open Lab, explained: “We believe it’s the people who use Metro – and also those who don’t – who are best placed to tell us what works and what doesn’t. For example, should there be somewhere for bags? What are the issues when travelling with prams or wheelchairs? How accessible is Metro for older people?

“At Open Lab, instead of the traditional passenger survey we are interested in how modern technology such as mobiles, tablets and web-based tools can be used to give people a voice in how the future Metro should look. By sharing experiences and imagining alternatives, we hope to discover how Metro is used now and how it might be used in forty years’ time. Our findings will be used to help Nexus commission a Metro that is right for the future.”

Serving communities for several decades

These insights will then be used as designs for new trains are developed with suppliers in 2017. The new carriage designs form part of a £1 billion investment into the Metro system and infrastructure.

Haymarket under construction

Haymarket station under construction in 1976

Tobyn Hughes, Managing Director of Nexus, said: “A new Metrocar fleet is essential to the future of Metro, and ranks as one of the most important projects we have led.

“These new trains will be serving our communities for several decades so we want to involve local people as much as possible in the design process, thinking not just about how they might use trains now, but through their whole lives. We are delighted to be working in partnership with Newcastle University’s Open Lab who are bringing exciting new digital and social tools to improve public engagement.”

These new tools will sit alongside more traditional forms of consultation, with passenger group Transport Focus providing market research, and Nexus conducting their own online consultation.

Newcastle City Futures

As well as helping to inform the design of new Metrocars, the Metro Futures project forms part of Newcastle City Futures, a partnership between academics, government, industry and local communities to explore the challenges and changes facing Newcastle in the future.

Mark Tewdwr-Jones is the Director of Newcastle City Futures. “Newcastle City Futures is delighted to support Metro Futures as an innovative project for Tyneside. This initiative demonstrates the way citizens, businesses and the university can all work together to proactively shape the future of Newcastle and its region.”

For more information on how to get involved visit or pick up a leaflet from a Metro TravelShop, or contact Simon Bowen.

Blue House roundabout: planning at the crossroads

For a month in the summer of 2016 suburban Newcastle went to war. The Council’s proposals for major changes to Blue House roundabout in South Gosforth outraged many local residents, and after a month of petitions, feedback and rallies, the Council decided to redesign its plans.

The debate about Blue House roundabout demonstrates how digital technology is changing the planning process. Much of the consultation, both formal and informal, happened online, and as a result of the public reaction to the plans the Council are looking at new ways of engaging with the public.

Within days of the Council announcing the plans, which involved enlarging and moving the roundabout, residents had taken to Twitter to express their views. This use of social media in planning processes forms the basis of work by Open Lab researchers, including Zander Wilson.

“I’m a PhD researcher interested in citizen participation in town planning, undertaking a study looking at how Twitter was used in a campaign against the proposals,” he explained.

“Through looking at the proposals, my study will document the process of citizens using a combination of platforms to rally against the proposals.

“The work will look at how Twitter was used, in conjunction with the council’s consultation platform, and protests to campaign against the proposals, which eventually led to the reconsidering of the plans for the roundabout. The study considers how Twitter might be used to involve citizens in how their neighbourhoods change in the future.”

Online and on the ground

The council’s own website to collect feedback on the plans attracted 2,642 comments, “mostly negative”, and nearly 4,000 people signed a petition opposing the proposals. A similar petition hosted by the Newcastle Liberal Democrats attracted 621 online signatures, and over 1,000 once signatures from a paper version were included. The local Conservative and Green parties also opposed the plans, as did Labour MP Chi Onwurah.

Local community groups, such as Jesmond Residents Association and Space for Gosforth, also got involved in the opposition, and helped to organise the March for the Moor, a physical rally with over 2,000 attendees. A lot of this organisation, as well as the feedback and petitioning, happened online, from Council-run websites to social media, showing the importance of digital technology to a 2016 planning process.

The March took place on 21 August, the same day that the Council’s public consultation ended. Chi Onwurah organised a Town Hall meeting for 24 August to discuss the proposals, but on 23 August the Council announced that they would redesign their plans. “This initial stage of engagement enabled us to take on board the public’s comments before plans are finalised,” the Council explained.

Meaningful public discussions

The Town Hall meeting went ahead, with Chi changing the focus to be a general discussion on the future of West Gosforth. Technology was largely absent from the meeting, but six members of the Digital Civics team went along, including Clara Crivellaro.

“In the meeting we facilitated passionate discussions, centred around the premises for the proposed changes at the Blue House roundabout, alternative possible solutions as well as around ways in which public consultations could be done differently in the future,” Clara explained.

She continued: “This is part of a larger agenda within Digital Civics, looking into the potential role of digital technologies and design to support meaningful public discussions and processes of public consultations around the future of the places that matter to us in the city.”

Over 300 residents attended the meeting. Many complained that they could not hear all the speakers, and others were frustrated that there was no time for questions from the floor. However, everybody at the meeting was encouraged to write down any concerns and suggestions they had, which the Open Lab team digitised and analysed. This combination of traditional meetings and digital technology allowed for more public engagement in the planning process.

The Council used the meeting to announce the creation of a working group, with representatives of various stakeholders, including the community groups that were so involved in campaigning against the proposals. Open Lab are helping this working group to share ideas with each other and with the public. The team have created a website for the group and produced video roundups of meetings.

For more information please contact Clara Crivellaro.

Neighbourhood planning through a new lens

This year I’ve been working with Berwick-upon-Tweed’s neighbourhood planning group to capture the process they’re going through on film. This is part of a larger vision to create a media representation of a neighbourhood plan to supplement the lengthy policy documents usually created in town planning.

By using Bootlegger, a mobile app developed by Open Lab, I worked with the neighbourhood planning groups to film the local area with the intention of raising awareness of the work of the group and using the footage in future consultations. Bootlegger allows the use of templates and graphic overlays to plan and organise a film shoot. Although originally developed for live band recording, it could have many applications beyond this, one of which is neighbourhood planning.

Giving power to local people

Neighbourhood planning is a significant change away from local authority created planning policy. It gives power directly to local people to create their own policies for the places where they live and work, but is a long and complex process which can sometimes take groups a number of years to complete.

post it notesOne of the problems with the process is the lack of public participation in neighbourhood planning, which means the plans are created by a fairly small group of people within the community. Although consultation is carried out, it often relies on traditional formal town hall meetings and fails to take into consideration the way many people now communicate – through new media.

I worked with six out of the seven working groups in Berwick, each of which are focusing on a key planning topic and are in the process of compiling evidence and starting to think about potential policies. I stayed for a week in Berwick and continuously met with the groups. We met in local cafés and, as we chatted about the area, we began to create a storyboard of what they wanted to film.

Once we’d completed this, I introduced them to the app before handing the phones over to the groups. The citizens enjoyed the process and, in total, 330 video clips were captured in one week! Many individuals within the groups also downloaded the app onto their own phones and continued to film and contribute to the footage outside of the workshops.

Once the groups have captured all the footage they would like to have included, they would like to create short films of the key issues and ideas to share on social media and to showcase to the community. They want to encourage other citizens to contribute footage and to give their views and opinions through this visual method. Moving forward, I’ll be staying involved with Berwick and, hopefully, I’ll help them begin to build a media representation of their neighbourhood plan.

For more information please contact Jen Manuel.