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From Boston to Los Angeles, scholars and practitioners are working to improve participatory design and planning through new forms of digital media. Visualization technologies have also become much more prominent in the quotidian operations of urban governance, broadening the scope and methods for public engagement in urban planning projects. Different visual methods powerfully shape people’s perceptions and understandings of urban issues, and broader institutional arrangements further shape the communication potential of visual information. However, little is known about how, specifically, visual information works to foster dialogue and debate in urban design and planning projects. This paper takes an institutional lens to analyze four civic engagement and participatory planning cases in U.S. cities. Digital media considered here include immersive 3D models, social network media, participatory mapping, smartphone, and cheap cellphone-based engagement. Cities include Boston, Acton (MA), Raleigh, and Los Angeles. It concludes that visualization technologies do offer new opportunities for participatory design and planning, while institutional arrangements influence the type of method, the way it is implemented, and its communication impact. Civic organizations, academic institutions, and private funding agencies are important players in the pursuit of social justice in the city. Longstanding relationships between civic organizations and research organizations are more likely to produce visualizations that articulate problems, and responses to problems, articulated by civic organizations.
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