19. July | 2020

New Special Issue on Visual Communication in Urban Planning Published

Digital visualizations have become an integral part of urban planning. Building projects are sometimes announced years before the ground-breaking ceremony with 3D simulations that appear increasingly realistic. But what is really new about how today, with the help of digital technologies, future images of cities are created? Does planning therefore function fundamentally differently?  These are the questions addressed in the Special Issue "Visual Communication in Urban Design and Planning: The Impact of Mediatisation(s) on the Construction of Urban Futures", published in the journal "Urban Planning" (Open Access). Guest editors are Gabriela Christmann, Christoph Bernhardt and Jörg Stollmann.

The contents of the special issue are partly based on the first results of the three-year project "Mediatization Processes in Urban Planning and Changes in the Public Sphere (MedPlan)", which were presented and discussed at the international conference at the Technical University of Berlin on the topic of "Visual Communication in Urban Design and Planning" on September 26 and 27, 2019.

The MedPlan research project, which was financed by the Leibniz competition, involved young researchers from the Chair for Urban Design and Planning (TU Berlin), the IRS research department "Communication and Knowledge Dynamics in Space" and the IRS Historical Research Unit. They explored the questions of, on the one hand, what consequences new information and communication technology options have on spatial design in cities and, on the other hand, how mediatizations of planning processes in the past can be analyzed and the insights gained can be used to shape current processes.

The special significance of this thematic focus is due to the fact that current discourses on mediatization processes are discussed at the interface of interdisciplinary research in architecture, history, urban planning, sociology and human geography. Based on the concepts of mediatization and digitization in media and communication studies and the sociological approach of Communicative Constructivism, the booklet expands the conceptual framework and traditional understanding of visualizations. Visualizations are not understood as mere representations of objects, but rather as formative interventions in the planning process, which emanates both from those who create or commission visualizations and from those who perceive and interpret them. In addition to the actor's perspective (who acts?), the focus is also on the specific techniques and circumstances of digital communication.

The individual contributions address local planning projects and national planning contexts as well as transnational tendencies of practical application of visualizations as innovative media formats. Examples of research can be found in Egypt, Germany, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden and South Africa. The interdisciplinary approaches illuminate the special significance of visuality in the context of mediatization and digitization with two main concerns: On the one hand, the authors show visualizations as processes of decoding, forming, (re)producing and communicative negotiation of spaces. On the one hand, the complex constellations of actors from governmental and non-governmental institutions, social initiatives, political decision-makers, those responsible for planning, and commercial enterprises are presented. On the other hand, the essays show the connection between different interests (common good, state, private, individual, planning), which manifest themselves in the images of urban visions of the future and charge the visual representations with content and meaning.

Secondly, the authors discuss critical approaches and possibilities for the use of (digital) visualization tools in urban planning practice and the changing role of planners as producers of visuality.
The contributions are characterized by a wide range of qualitative, quantitative and mixed-method approaches, with which different forms of visualization (analog, digital, multimedia as well as audio and video) and participation formats (citizen science, e-participation, apps, videos, analog forums) were evaluated. The examples range from the planning of new buildings for entire capitals, suburbs or residential areas to the reconstruction and handling of historical building stock. Visualizations have the task or function of reproducing and (re)presenting historical contexts and structures on the one hand, and producing and depicting social or interest-led visions of urban futures on the other.

In their contribution, Christoph Bernhardt and Kathrin Meißner illuminate the role of new communicative, visual strategies in the political and social context of the planning cultures of the 1970s and 1980s. Tino Mager and Carola Hein also demonstrate the significance of historical urban planning for the present by making historical photographs of Amsterdam's urban space tangible to visitors to the city through digital technologies and the Citizen Science approach as an app. Watson examines the influence of computer-generated images as an instrument of neoliberal urban development by looking at the international land economy in African megacities. In a similar approach, Mennatullah Hendawy and Jörg Stollmann demonstrate the extent to which Egyptian public discourses on urban development and urban planning are dominated by real estate advertising and ignore the needs of the population.

Sebastian Weise, Alexander Wilson and Geoff Vigar, on the other hand, understand visualizations as visual representations of perceived reality, and illustrate tools of communicative, participatory urban planning using British case studies. Ajit Singh and Gabriela Christmann also explain participation processes, but with a view to the mapping of sounds in public spaces on online platforms as part of a Berlin project on citizen participation. Joachim Åström, for his part, draws attention to the actor relationship between planners and citizens, in which trust is a decisive factor in the communication, implementation and social acceptance of government projects.

The Special Issue concludes that mediatization and digitization processes have significantly changed and continue to influence urban planning in the way urban visions are visually represented and constructed in communication. On the basis of the various contributions, the contextual dependency and the partly opposing developments of visual, digital instruments were shown and the necessity for further research in this interdisciplinary and spatially comprehensive field was emphasized.