Public Participation Theory

This post is Part 3 of my public participation in urban planning series, adapted from my urban planning final paper, Citizen Participation and the Internet in Urban Planning.

The urban planning profession has developed increasingly sophisticated techniques and theories regarding how and why to involve citizens in planning processes, especially since the 1960s. Critics pilloried the effectiveness of citizen participation during the War on Poverty, suggesting a new theoretical approach to participation itself was needed. Despite theoretical disagreement about the proper definition of and practice of participation, professional literature reflects a consensus a variety of additional techniques can enhance the process and result in more effective and democratic plans. These debates suggest ways planners can craft strategies that take into account social divisions and inequality, and effectively incorporate Internet technology into existing processes.

The experience of limited participation during urban renewal and the debate surrounding “maximum feasible participation” in the 1950s and 1960s sparked an intense professional interest in the topic of public participation in planning. The political and social turmoil in American cities and the contested nature of urban politics raised serious questions about how participation should be structured, and how power should be distributed more broadly in the city.

A ‘Ladder’ of Participation
In this climate, Sherry R. Arnstein, a former U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) official, published one of the most influential articles on the topic of public participation. Titled “A Ladder of Citizen Participation,” her article described an eight-rung metaphorical ladder of participation.(1) The rungs are organized into three levels: nonparticipation (manipulation and therapy), tokenism (informing, consultation, placation), and citizen power (partnership, delegated power, citizen control). Interlaced with her description are anecdotal stories describing both flawed participation and successful examples where power was delegated to community representatives.

Arnstein described the lack of meaningful participation in policymaking in poor urban communities, and identified “citizen control” as the proper definition of citizen participation in planning. This approach discarded any effort where “citizens” were not given full authority. Arnstein observed “no Model City can meet the criteria of citizen control since final approval power and account-ability rest with the city council.” This “ladder” of participation was a powerful critique of duplicitous participation processes that do not provide citizens with real power. Two characteristics of the critique influenced subsequent debates and the usefulness of the ladder today.

First, the ladder provides few specific strategies. If we are sympathetic to her findings, it offers little guidance for planners seeking to design processes that conform to the standards proposed. The citizen control section describes one approach as giving grants to grassroots organizations, but Arnstein concedes full neighborhood self-government seems unlikely in the future. Aside from criticizing the usual methods used by formal planning to incorporate citizen input public meetings, special committees, etc she has little to say about how these processes can be improved.

Second, the article provides little to those who might disagree that citizen control should be the proper goal of citizen participation. Her model radically eliminates any role for the rational or technical expertise of planners, and assumes citizen power will result in good planning decisions. Transportation, environmental, and many other types of planners may bristle at any strategy that completely removes them or elected officials from the decision-making process. Indeed, the tension between planning’s technical expertise and democratic aspiration has fueled ongoing debate.

Arnstein was not the only scholar paying attention to the subject of participation. Just eight years after her article was published, the Council of Planning Librarians published a “comprehensive” bibliography of “Citizen Participation in Urban and Regional Planning.” The chronological index bears witness to a flowering professional interest in the profession: while the years of the 1950s each have just a small number of citations, the late 60s and early 1970s contain dozens of books and article each year. The compiler, John David Hulchanski, concedes in the introduction that the literature after the early 1970s has become too extensive to include in any one general bibliography.”(2)

Emerging Professional Values
By the late 1980s, the lessons of the experimental and uneven forays into participation of planners of the 1960s and 1970s had become synthesized with pre-existing processes and requirements, particularly for local neighborhood planning. The American Planning Association’s 1990 Neighborhood Planning: A Guide for Citizens and Planners, presents a wide variety of outreach methods, data-gathering methods, and participation methods. The book is sanguine on the effect of public participation on planning, arguing it is needed not just for ethical reasons but to create better plans that are more likely to be implemented: “Doing things democratically takes more effort and more time, but it is worth it for the quality of product that emerges and the sense of commitment that people will have toward it.”(3) The author describes four principles to “democratic neighborhood planning”: deprofessionalization, decentralization, demystification, and democratization.

Consultant James L. Creighton’s Public Participation Handbook defines participation as informing the public, listening to the public, engaging in problem solving, and developing agreements, within a framework where the government officials retain decision-making authority.(4) He argues participation can have a number of benefits: improved quality of decisions, minimizing cost and delay, consensus building, increased ease of implementation, avoiding worst-case confrontations, maintaining credibility and legitimacy, anticipating public concerns and attitudes, and developing civil society.(5) He proposes a process of decision analysis, process planning, and implementation planning, and provides a range of possible “tools” to reach and engage citizens. The manual has only a short section on Internet tools. Pointing out more than one-third of U.S. residents get their news online, Creighton notes the following: “This is a new enough area that I have little to offer in the way of advice on how to use these forms of communication more effectively. But it is worth your time to tune in to bulletin boards or listservs that focus on topics related to your public participation program and then consider how to use these media to reach audiences you cannot reach through conventional media.”(6)

Despite the diversity in these and other approaches, many common themes exist between them. A 2003 article proposing clearer regulation of participation organizes these themes into five areas. This framework provides a contemporary summary of what form participation should take according to stated professional theories.

1. Objectives: provide information to as well as listen to citizens; empower citizens by providing opportunities to influence planning decisions.
2. Timing: involve the public early and continuously.
3. Targets: seek participation from a broad range of stakeholders.
4. Techniques: use a number of techniques to give and receive information from citizens and, in particular, provide opportunities for dialog.
5. Information: provide more information in a clearly understood form, free of distortion and technical jargon.

Despite the professional consensus about “good” public participation, its practice ranges according to local preference, availability of funds, and the values of government officials. In order to propose how the Internet could be used as a participation tool, we need to understand both professional models of good participation and critics of participation as it is practiced today. Despite the proliferation of theory, techniques, and evaluations, the legal requirements of participation remain the same in many communities. A survey of legally mandated citizen involvement techniques in ten states found the requirements closely followed the requirements of the 1928 Planning Enabling Act: a public hearing and newspaper announcement after the planning had been completed.(7) A researcher proposing a model ordinance to require citizen participation at the municipal level found just seven such ordinances nationally, in cities in California, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Florida.(8)

Judith E. Innes and David E. Booher urge us to abandon the existing model of participation for a collaborative approach that “should be understood as a multi-way set of interactions among citizens and other players who together produce outcomes.” They argue the legally required methods of public participation, in particular public hearings and review and comment procedures “do not work,” and antagonize the public, pit citizens against each other, polarize issues, and discourage participation.(9) Recognizing that “governance is no longer only about government but now involves action and power distributed widely in society,” they advocate a set of approaches that are “inclusive of stakeholders and that put dialogue at their core.” The authors describe the differences between currently legally required participation methods and their proposed collaborative approaches as “one-way talk vs. dialogue; elite or self-selecting vs. diverse participants; reactive vs. involved at the outset; top-down education vs. mutually shared knowledge; one-shot activities vs. continuous engagement; and the use for routine activities vs. for controversial choices.” While the authors acknowledge the two approaches can coexist, the practical obstacles for replacing the existing techniques with collaborative ones are significant, and their list include everything from open meetings laws, costs of collaborative efforts, and the “hubris of elected officials.” The article suggests the next steps for advocates include “developing an alternative practice framework,” a daunting task that may not be possible given the significant expense and lack of specificity in their proposal.(10)

A study of environmental justice and industrial zoning in New York City found the public participation process unsatisfactory as well. Describing it as “complicated, convoluted, time-consuming, and intimidating,” the author concludes these characteristics have “helped to maintain the hegemony of the affluent and the non-minority population.” The study concludes people living near industrial zones were more likely to be minorities and poorer than the average New Yorker, and poor communities were more likely to see expanded industrial zones in their neighborhood. She concludes that these changes have happened despite modern participation, which in New York City includes enhanced neighborhood activism, community boards, community plans, environmental review processes, and an official “fair share” city policy. She identifies three major limitations of the participation process: the technical nature of policymaking dominated by a rational-technical approach, unreasonable time constraints for public responses, and a process that does not provide participants with actual authority.

Finally, a 1997 article argued citizen participation was an “essentially contested” concept that was not clearly defined in the profession. Indeed, if we mean “citizen power” as Arnstein defined it there is very little actually practiced, as the final authority in most planning processes is reserved for elected political officials. The author argues this lack of agreement on a definition is caused by the unresolved varied philosophies in the field, relating to the role of the planner, the functioning of a bureaucracy, and concepts of justice.(11)

Re-framing Participation Theory
My approach is to understand both the normative systems developed and actual history of participation in planning, not resolve long-running philosophical differences. The history of American participation in planning can be organized into two general categories: sources of participation from within the profession, and sources of participation from outside the field. Participation from within the field can be the result of legal or procedural requirements. In this tradition is the due process requirements of model acts, the federal maximum feasible participation requirement, and a small number of more complex modern statutes proposed by some scholars.(12) Also within the profession there is a history of voluntary, values or outcome-inspired participation. In this category we find professional manuals who urge participation because it makes for better plans and minimizes conflicts, and advocates like Arnstein who argue planners have a moral imperative to involve the public in a meaningful way.

The other large category of participation comes from outside the bounds of the profession. Individuals, community and special interest groups can insert themselves into planning processes through a variety of techniques, from lawsuits to protests. Planner’s frustrations with this type of involvement are responsible for the negative description of Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) activists.(13) The media can play an unexpected role, reporting accurately or inaccurately on a planning process. Finally, politicians can play a role, inserting themselves into processes, driving the agenda, or holding hearings. Often these forces will interact in complex ways.

There is a complex relationship between the two sources of participation described above. To a certain extent, many of the external sources of participation require at least some amount of voluntary disclosure and creation of forums through formal participation processes. (If there are no meetings and no public information, will the NIMBY ever be upset?) The first chapter of Peggy Robin’s pre-Internet 1990 NIMBY manual, Saving the Neighborhood: You Can Fight Developers and Win!, is titled “Finding Out What’s Coming,” describing the paucity of due process announcements and the variety of techniques citizens will need to use to use to find out information about proposed buildings ranging from public signs, personal contacts, government planners, and elected officials.(14) Our democratic culture and legally mandated minimums mean the raw material is almost always available, and the planner’s instinct to be as controlling of the process as possible or interpret public noninvolvement as agreement can sometimes backfire.

These critics aside, professional guides consistently urge participation in planning and its practice ranges widely. The American Planning Association’s statement of Ethical Principles of Planning requires planners “recognize the rights of citizens to participate in planning decisions,” “strive to give citizens a meaningful role in the development of plans,” and “ensure that information is made available to the public in a convenient format and sufficiently in advance of any decision.” Given this professional culture and ethical requirements, a clear model to use the Internet to facilitate participation will be professionally useful. It may also be possible the technology addresses concerns raised by critics about conventional practices.

Read Part 4: The Internet as Public Participation Tool, or go back to the Participation Index.

1) Sherry R. Arnstein, “A Ladder of Citizen Participation,” Journal of the American Institute of Planners, July 1969.
2) John David Hulchanski, Citizen Participation in Urban and Regional Planning: A Comprehensive Bibliography, Council of Planning Libraries, Exchange Bibliography #1297, June 1977, 2, 55-61.
3) Bernie Jones, Neighborhood Planning: A Guide for Citizens and Planners, (Chicago: American Planning Association Planner’s Press, 1990), 12.
4) James L. Creighton, The Public Participation Handbook: Making Better Decisions Through Citizen Involvement, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005), 9.
5) Ibid., 18-19.
6) Ibid., 204.
7) Samuel D. Brody, David R. Godschalk, Raymond J. Burby, “Mandating Citizen Participation in Plan Making: Six Strategic Planning Choices,” Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 69 (2003), 248.
8) Kathy Kem, BRR Architecture, “Citizen Participation Model Ordinances,” 2005 American Planning Association National Conference Poster.
9) Judith E. Innes and David E. Booher, “Reframing Public Participation: Strategies for the 21st Century,” Planning Theory and Practice, Vol. 5, No. 4, (December 2004) 419.
10) Ibid., 429-430.
11) Diane Day, “Citizen Participation in the Planning Process: An Essentially Contested Concept?,” Journal of Planning Literature, Vol. 11, No. 3 (February 1997), 421-434.
12) Brody, et al.
13) Perhaps indicative of the professional opinion is the title of Herbert Inhaber’s 1998 book Slaying the NIMBY Dragon (New Brunswick, N.J. : Transaction Publishers, 1998).
14) Peggy Robin, Saving the Neighborhood: You Can Fight Developers and Win! (Rockville, Md.: Woodbine House, copyright Adler and Robin Books, Inc., 1990).

Author: Rob Goodspeed

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