A Brief History of Public Participation in Urban Planning

This post is Part 2 of my public participation in urban planning series, adapted from my urban planning final paper, Citizen Participation and the Internet in Urban Planning.

In order to describe the potential uses of the Internet in public participation in planning, this section will begin with a short history of public participation in planning. The history seeks to challenge the profession’s view of participation as simply the public processes designed and controlled by planners. Public participation includes not only the deliberate hearings, but also the role of politicians, civic activists, business leaders, the media, and others in engaging in or forcing public conversation about planning topics. Before the advent of modern urban planning regulation, American urban planners directly communicated with the public in order to implement their plans. The framers of early zoning laws sought to engage the public through an open and transparent process. Given the increasing power of citizen groups and growing complexity of urban development, contemporary planners crafting outreach strategies can learn from this history to achieve consensus about and the coordination of new urban development.

Participation to Realize Burnham’s Plan of Chicago
The Plan of Chicago of 1909 is an important document in the early history of American city planning. A group of Chicago business leaders commissioned architect and planner Daniel Burnham to create a plan for the city’s development. The plan reacted to the congestion and pollution created by industrialization and rapid urban growth by calling for new infrastructure, parks, and establishing a framework for future development. Noted for its comprehensive approach, the plan was adopted by city government, who created one of the country’s first city planning commissions to oversee its implementation. Although the plan’s creation is widely cited for helping to spark the planning movement in America, it is also associated with an important early example of public participation in urban planning.(1)

In 1909, city governments did not yet have the legal authority implement plans through zoning and an official planning commission. As a result, plan advocates turned to an unprecedented publicity campaign to win public support for the plan. Although the plan was commissioned by elites and presented to citizens through a propagandistic publicity campaign, plan advocates viewed public education as integral to the practice of planning itself. Voting citizens held direct power over the plan, since plan implementation depended on the approval of public bonds at the ballot box for road expansions, parks, and other initiatives. Therefore, before planners obtained the legal authority and institutionalized power to implement plans, the success of the nascent field depended on voluntary public and private coordination, created through broad public communication.(2)

After the completion of the 1909 Plan of Chicago, the business leaders who had commissioned and funded the plan formed the Chicago Plan Commission. The commission’s first chair, Charles H. Wacker, retained a former salesman and self-made marketing expert Walter Dwight Moody to craft an ambitious promotion effort to build broad public knowledge and support of the plan. Moody’s first publication for the commission was a ninety-page, hard bounded reference work titled Chicago’s Greatest Issue: An Official Plan, that was sent to over 165,000 Chicago residents, property owners and tenants who paid $25.00 or more in rent. The booklet rebutted critics of the plan and is credited for contributing to support for the first plan bond. Moody also wrote a 137-page textbook, titled Wacker’s Manual of the Plan of Chicago: Municipal Economy, which he convinced city officials to include into the city’s civics curriculum for all 8th grade students. Planning historian Thomas Schlerenth described the text as the first textbook in American city planning.(3)

Moody thought that planning was divided into two parts: first, a technical branch in architecture and engineering that creates plans, and a second “which is promotive, is likewise scientifically professional and could be truthfully termed the dynamic power behind the throne of accomplishment.”(4) Like other progressive urban reformers, Schlerenth argues Moody saw his task as to link planning reform with extensive public information for both adults and children. Moody supplemented the manual with thousands of pamphlets, hundreds of slide presentations to some 175,000 citizens, a documentary movie about the plan, and even talking points distributed to clergymen encouraging them to preach on the virtues of city planning on a designated “Plan of Chicago Sunday.”

The unprecedented publicity was one cause for the implementation of large parts of the plan, and the creation of a city planning legacy relevant even today. Although citizens were not directly involved in the creation of the plan, their votes influenced which recommendations were implemented. The publicity campaign enabled plan advocates to coordinate private decisions and build political support for government actions. The history of the Plan of Chicago demonstrates the “dynamic power” of a good plan well promoted.

Although citizens and civic leaders in dozens of American communities created city plans in the early 20th Century, government’s power to enforce them was limited. Governments had the ability to build public facilities and exercise eminent domain for public uses like roads and government buildings, but they did not posses the legal authority to regulate the development and use of privately owned land through zoning. The landmark 1926 Supreme Court Case Village of Euclid, Ohio v. Ambler Realty Co., 272 U.S. 365, settled the matter, upholding the Village of Euclid’s zoning ordinance as a reasonable extension of the town’s police power. The Court also rejected the Ambler Reality Company’s claim that the zoning violated their right to due process.

Mandating Participation: State Planning and Zoning Acts
In the wake of the case the U.S. Department of Commerce circulated two highly influential model acts for states interested in allowing cities to adopt zoning ordinances, the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act (1926), and the Standard City Planning Enabling Act (1928).(5) Conceived by lawyers, these two model laws were deliberately written in response to the Euclid v. Ambler case. Although the legal language is oriented towards guaranteeing property owners the legal minimum required to satisfy the due process requirements of notice and hearing, the footnotes reveal an earlier, progressive-era belief in the intrinsic need for extensive public involvement.(6)

The Standard Zoning Enabling Act (1926) published by the U.S. Department of Commerce contained language requiring public notice and access to hearings, and encouraged public involvement in a footnote. Before enacting or amending a zoning code in a given community, the model law stipulated “no such regulation, restriction, or boundary shall become effective until after a public hearing in relation thereto, at which parties in interest and citizens shall have an opportunity to be heard.” The law continued to require “At least 15 days’ notice of the time and place of such hearing shall be published in an official paper, or a paper of general circulation, in such municipality.” A footnote explains “it was thought wise to require by statute that there be a public hearing … There should be, as a matter of policy, many such hearings.” It also notes specifically that any citizen should be permitted to be heard, not merely property owners.(7) Although mentioning the importance of “many” hearings, the law is designed specifically to meet the legal standard of due process through at least one public hearings and notices. Once the legal authority to plan through zoning was secured through law, public participation shifted from something absolutely required for planning to something to allow and encourage through meetings. The attitude towards public involvement in the zoning enabling act is similar to the position taken by the model act specifically for planning published two years later.

The Comprehensive Planning Enabling Act (1928) provided for the creation of comprehensive planning commissions by state jurisdictions. Before enacting a comprehensive plan, the act requires “the commission shall hold at least one public hearing thereon, notice of the time and place of which shall be given by one publication in a newspaper of general circulation in the municipality and in the official gazette, if any, of the municipality.”(8) A footnote describes a rational for the public hearing that extends beyond the satisfaction of a legal due process requirement, and is worth quoting at length:

The public hearing previous to the adoption of the plan or substantial part thereof has at least two values of importance. One of these is that those who are or may be dissatisfied with the plan, for economic, sentimental, or other reasons, will have the opportunity to present their objections and thus get the satisfaction of having their objections produce amendments which they desire, or at least the feeling that their objections have been given courteous and thorough consideration. The other great value of the public hearing is as an educating force; that is, it draws the public’s attention to the plan, cause some members of the public to examine it, to discuss it, to hear about it, and gets publicity upon the plan and planning. Thus the plan begins its life with some public interest in it and recognition of its importance.

The quote hints at the awareness by planners that participation can have the functional use of not only building consensus (and here, diffusing the most dissatisfied) but also encouraging broad based knowledge necessary for implementation. Like the zoning act, it also requires notice and hearing for subdivision controls also.

Between the 1920s and the 1950s, the approach contained in the laws became widely adopted in the country. Citizen planning and zoning commissions, public newspaper notices, and public meetings became the common tools for allowing involvement in planning processes. After World War II, a newly dynamic economy and new federal funds for urban renewal would highlight the limitations of this restrained approach to planning.

The Housing Act of 1949 made significant funds available to cities to engage in slum clearance programs, and very soon after the passage of the law a host of cities launched significant clearance programs, often in low-income African American neighborhoods. The National Defense and Interstate Highways Act of 1956 provided funds for road construction providing funds to realize highway plans for urban areas, often being planned since the 1920s. In cities throughout the country, civic elites used the machinery of zoning and planning – combined with federal dollars – to forcibly remove low-income and African American communities for urban renewal projects. Despite public hearing requirements, low income communities had little meaningful input in the creation and execution of renewal plans.(9) By the early 1960s, scholarly critics concluded what many had discovered through personal experience: the urban renewal program did not protect the interests of those displaced, and was undemocratic. In his 1964 classic The Federal Bulldozer, Marin Anderson suggested each renewal project should be approved through popular referendum, ironically the very means used to implement parts of the 1909 Chicago Plan.(10) Another critique of urban renewal sarcastically argues that urban renewal must be “shielded from the voters,” observing “the more directly democratic a local urban renewal program is, the more likely is to live from hand-to-mouth,” and that the “City Planning Commission is consulted when appropriate (that is, after the basic decisions have been made)”(11)

Inventing ‘Maximum Feasible Participation’
In large part in response to the history of urban renewal, President Johnson’s War on Poverty invented an important new terminology and approach to participation in urban planning. The 1964 Economic Opportunity Act committed significant federal funds to a variety of efforts to combat poverty in America. It created the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) and over 1,000 Community Action Agencies (CAA) who were eligible to receive funds for a variety of social programs. The Community Action Agencies ranged from community groups, nonprofits, and city agencies, but the law required all be “developed and conducted with the maximum feasible participation of the residents of the area.”

Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s account of the legislation focused on the origins and repercussions of the phrase.(12) Moynihan noted that Robert F. Kennedy was the only administration witness to touch on the subject during legislative hearings, describing the clause as providing the poor with a “real voice in their institutions.”(13) His book includes a description of the voluntary guide created by federal administrators describing how community action programs could satisfy the maximum feasible participation requirement.

“The requirement of resident participation,” the Guide continues, “applies to all stages of a community action program, from its inception on.” Participation must be “meaningful” and “effective.” It should be brought about by “traditional democratic approaches and techniques such as group forums and discussions, nominations, and balloting.” It should be stimulated by “grass-roots involvement” committees; by “block elections, petitions and referendums”; by “newsletters to neighborhood leaders and potential leaders”; by “promotional techniques, including use of films, literature, and mobile units operating from information centers.” Further, residents should be given “meaningful opportunities … either as individuals or in groups, to protest or to propose additions to or changes in the ways in which a community action program is being planned or undertaken.”(14)

However, for the first two years of the program the precise meaning of “maximum feasible participation” was left undefined, with OEO offering little specific guidance other than that the CAA board should contain some representatives of the poor. Privately, federal administrators arbitrarily suggested one-third of the governing body an appropriate number. The issue of how the poor would be represented was intensely debated in dozens of cities, often distracting from the mission to tackle poverty. In 1966, the U.S. Congress stipulated democratically selected representatives of the poor comprise one-third of the boards, and in 1967 the Green Amendment allowed local elected officials to designate the official CAA for their area.(15)

The Great Society experience with maximum feasible participation had several important lasting effects. First, it established the principle that government planners should proactively ensure the involvement of citizens of low-income communities. Second, despite the professional consensus that involving low-income communities improved planning, it highlighted the lack of methods and techniques to translate the abstract goal of “participation” into reality. The inability of the OEO to translate the legislative requirement into meaningful techniques forced the CAA boards to debate the issue themselves. Beginning in the 1960s, the planning profession increasingly turned to the problem of defining participation and describing what it would mean in practical terms, described in the following section. Lastly, while having a profound intellectual impact in the profession, the legal requirement only ever applied to a shrinking slice of funds for social programs. Other planning processes – such as city plan commissions and zoning – were unaffected by the War on Poverty’s participation requirements.

The story continues in Part 3: Public Participation Theory

View my Citizen Participation and the Internet Index

1) Carl Smith, “The Plan of Chicago,” The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago, (Chicago: Chicago Historical Society, 2005), (accessed 15 April 2008).
2) Thomas J. Schlerenth, “Burnham’s Plan and Moody’s Manual: City Planning as Progressive Reform,” Journal of the American Planning Association 47, 1 (1983), 70-82.
3) Ibid., 72.
4) Ibid., 70-82.
5) U.S. Department of Commerce Standard Enabling Acts, (accessed 9 January 2008).
6) Bradford J. White and Paul W. Edmondson, Procedural Due Process in Plain English: A Guide for Preservation Commissions (Washington, D.C.: National Trust for Historic Preservation, 2001).
7) U.S. Department of Commerce, 6-7
8 ) Comprehensive Plan Enabling Act 1928, 12.
9) For a description of the experience of urban renewal in Detroit, see Thomas Sugrue, Origins of the Urban Crisis (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996).
10) Martin Anderson, The Federal Bulldozer, (Boston: Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the President and Fellows of Harvard College, 1964, McGraw-Hill Paperback edition, 1967), 225.
11) Scott Greer, Urban Renewal and American Cities: The Dilemma of Democratic Intervention, (New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1965), 89-91.
12) Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding: community action in the war on poverty, (New York: Free Press, 1969), 87. It should be noted the book did not receive positive reception, the New York Times described it as a “desultory after-dinner conversation, in which all sharpness and bite of analysis have dissolved in self- contradiction, [and] vague ellipses …” from Adam Walinsky, “Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding,” New York Times, 2 February 1969.
13) Moynihan, 91.
14) Moynihan, 97-98.
15) Lillian B. Rubin, “Maximum Feasible Participation: The Origins, Implications, and Present Status,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 385, Evaluating the War on Poverty. (Sep., 1969), 24.

Author: Rob Goodspeed