04. Public participation (Literature review)

In this chapter, the citizen/public participation theory is described. I will look at why we need to involve the people in decision making and how it can be done in different ways. The main theory applied is the “ladder of citizen participation” by Sherry Arnstein (Arnstein, 1969), which is used as a comparing tool in this research project.

4.1        Evolution of urban planning towards public participation

For large part of the 20th century, urban planning was a field dominated by technological expert engineers. The foundational work of Ebenezer Howard and Fredrick Law Olmsted “laid the philosophical groundwork for large-scale urban planning efforts” (Raford, 2011) that focused on rational planning based on scientific principles and experiments.

It was not until the 1970s that these large-scale urban models started to be criticized because of their dysfunctions. One of the critics was Douglas B. Lee Jr., who identified seven core issues with the large-scale urban planning (Lee Jr., 1973). One of these was the fact that the planning was often based on assumptions about system behavior that was not based on the real-world experiences of people living in the area. Around the same time, Garry D. Brewer pointed out the influence politicians and organizations can have on the planning process, often enabling political misuse (Brewer, 1973).

At the same time, changes in society in general called for more focus on social issues as part of the planning process. Initially the focus was on learning about the social dynamics of the environment and community that was being planned. The goal was then to take this “exercise in discovery” (Healey, 1997) and use that learning to get a better insight into the needs of the community.

It was Paul Davidoff who was one of the first to argue that it was impossible for the planner to have an overview of the entire needs of the citizens and that a method for greater diversity of opinions to be sought (Davidoff, 1965). This gave birth to a “communicative approach” (Forester, 1989) that “attempts to make planners aware of the value of discussion, debate and information sharing…” through a culture of “…greater community collaboration, consensus building, debate and discussion” (Raford, 2011).

4.2        What is public participation?

Public participation is a process in which people can influence projects and decision making on issues that are relevant to their lives and the environment they live in. By providing the public with necessary information and allowing their voices to be heard, the quality of plans is expected to improve with the citizen’s ideas, opinions and knowledge. It also gives the power holder a chance to assist them in understanding the problem, the alternatives and possible opportunities.

A wide range of participatory methods has been created in different countries throughout the world with new ways of interacting. People can meet face to face and discuss ideas and express their opinions. There are also online participation methods where the information might just go in one direction, feeding the public with information without allowing them to influence the project. Some of these online participation projects can also be a two-way flow between the citizens and the power holder, making sure that different opinions are heard, whether it be concerns or ideas. In every project, a decision has to be made on what kind of process should be used and at what level the citizen participation should be.

The level of participation between projects can vary. There is not necessarily an agreed upon, appropriate level. The idea that “more participation is better” does not always hold true because the more citizens get involved, the more time is required on both sides. This can especially be the case in large-scale projects in low-income communities where it may simply not be practical or feasible for the community to spend the time required to achieve the highest levels of participation (Imparato & Ruster, 2003).

4.3        Why public participation?

Involving the community or citizens in the public participation process can build the trust that the public has in the responsible power holders. Projects are expected to be transparent when more people are involved, all of whom have a better understanding of the process.

The expected benefits of increased participation are that it might improve the project design and help provide a solution that people can afford and are willing to pay for. It is also expected to provide relevant local knowledge and allow it to be taken into account in the slum upgrading process. By giving citizens a voice and allowing them to participate, they are more likely to feel they have gained ownership of the project and at the same time enhance their sense of responsibility (Imparato & Ruster, 2003).

4.4        The Ladder of Citizen Participation

The “ladder of citizen participation” was first described in an article by Sherry R. Arnstein (Arnstein, 1969). The article provides an overview of the different ways the public can be involved in decision making. It describes eight levels of participation, which are divided into three main categories. Even though it was first published over 40 years ago, planners, architects, politicians, power holders and many others still acknowledge these different levels of participation. These levels can be represented as a ladder, as shown in Figure 4-1.

Arnstein categorizes the first two levels in her ladder of citizen participation as non-participation, this is where the public is not directly involved and may be manipulated into thinking they are part of decision making, where the power holders have created a phony form of participation, perhaps around a decision already made. At the first level there is manipulation where people are “educated” and may be advised to sign proposals they believe to be in their interest.

Figure 4‑1. The Ladder of Citizen Participation
Source: Picture based on (Arnstein, 1969)

The second level of the participation, which Arnstein calls therapy, involves the power holders “curing” the people. The power holders promise to assist the citizens and have them engage in different activities where their opinions may be “cured”, and in the end accepted by the citizens.

Arnstein refers to the third, fourth and fifth levels as tokenism. This is where the citizens become involved but only to certain extent. The informing level is where the citizens are informed of what is happening. This is a one-way information process, where people receive the information in newspapers, in the media, online or by other means.

Consultation is the fourth step, in which citizens’ opinions can start to affect the power holder’s opinion. This is a common form of citizen participation utilized in urban planning. If consultation and information is taken into account as part of the planning process, this can be effective. However, if the consultation and information is not taken into consideration at the end of the day, this step will be of limited value and could therefore fall back into the non-participating level.

The fifth level in Arnstein’s ladder is where a citizens’ opinion will start influencing the power holder’s decision. Arnstein calls this level in the ladder placation. At this level, citizens may be hand-picked to sit on a governing board that makes decisions on the planning process. According to Arnstein, this process is more likely to work if the board members are equally split (citizens and power holders), so the citizens cannot be outvoted in the process.

The last category in the participation ladder is what Arnstein calls citizen power. This is where the citizens get to influence the decision making directly. At the sixth level the power holders and citizens create a partnership. Arnstein considers partnership relatively high on her ladder as she believes this can keep both citizens and power holders content.

The seventh level is what Arnstein calls delegated power. At this level the citizens can start taking control, and the power holders need to start negotiating with the citizens. Compared to the example given for placation (the fifth level), the majority of the board members would be the citizens. This would mean that the power holders would need to negotiate decisions with the board members.

The final level is what Arnstein calls citizen control. The words describe this level, since it gives the citizens the power to decide. This can be achieved through referendums, but since those are often costly and difficult to arrange it would most likely slow down the process substantially. They are therefore often only utilized for larger decisions. In many cases, local authorities do not, however, give their citizens full control in such elections, but treat the results instead only as advisory for the final decision made by the city council or other such decision making bodies.

4.5        Examples of participation

A participation process is not a standard process. When a process for participation is decided upon, a decision has to be made on what kind of process should be used and at what level the citizen participation should be. Different approaches can be used, such as workshops, open houses, community meetings, surveys and PPGIS, which can all be acceptable and deliver valuable results if done in the right manner.

According to KENSUP, one of the core concepts was to involve the slum dwellers in the upgrade process. A set of residents was chosen to participate to represent the slum dwellers. This might correspond to what Arnstein calls a consultation level of participation. However, a study done by Amnesty International reveals that the residents feared that this would only be a one-way dialog. They feared that there would be little consultation and that issues important to them, such as the affordability and suitability of the new public housing, would not be put on the agenda. With reference to Arnstein’s ladder, this could be identified as non-participation, where the community has only been informed of plans and are made to feel that their voices are being heard, thinking they are a part of a decision that may already have been made by the government (Amnesty International, 2009).

Map Kibera has run a project in the slums of Kibera in which the residents of the slum participate and create maps of their community. By allowing the residents to map their own surroundings and gather information about the community, the citizens have gained some control of the environment they live in. A partnership between the citizens and Map Kibera has been made, and the residents are gaining a physical map with vital information that they can share with the government and the world.

From New Delhi in India we can find similar examples of citizens gaining real citizen power through technology. There, Public Participation GIS (PPGIS) was used by the community to map their area. The residents, armed with maps, then submitted applications to the Delhi State government requesting service improvements. After mapping their community, they had realized that they had the right to demand more water taps for their community, as water standards were not being achieved. Knowing that 135 households were sharing the same water tap gave them the knowledge and power to negotiate for more taps to be connected (Hoyt, Khosla, & Canepa, 2005).

4.6        e-Participation

In the paper Participation and Geographical Information: a position paper, Carver discusses a new ladder (see Figure 4-2) of participation proposed by (Smyth, 2001), based on Arnstein’s ladder, that looks at how, through the internet, it is possible to increase the number of people participating (Carver, 2001).

Figure 4‑2. e-Participation ladder
Source: Picture based on (Smyth, 2001)

The traditional methods of community participation, such as attending meetings, often held in churches, schools or other community buildings during the evening or when people are attending work often do not represent the opinions of the broad community because many cannot attend meetings during the scheduled time. These meetings may be dominated by a minority of the vocal citizens. It can also often be difficult for the average person to understand what is going on (Carver, 2001).

In developed countries, online participation has opened up opportunities for more people to participate and for them to get a better understanding of the whole project. To enable online participation, or e-Participation as it has become known as, citizens only need some form of internet access to express their opinion and to gather information (Carver, 2001).

The e-Participation ladder defined by Smyth and described by Carver reflects an online application of Arnstein’s ladder of citizen participation (as described in chapter 4.3). The first step of the e-Participation ladder, which corresponds to Arnstein’s levels of non-participation, represents one-way communication, such as using a basic website. Through a website, citizens can be given access to urban planning information but have limited ability to influence it.

The second step of the ladder, which corresponds to Arnstein’s levels of tokenism, allows citizens to have a discussion around urban planning, but there is no guarantee that any of that discussion will be taken into account when decisions are being made.

The third step of the ladder maps to Arnstein’s consultation level. Citizens are asked for their input through online surveys without the ability to control what is being surveyed or how the results of the survey are being utilized.

The final step in the ladder maps to Arnstein’s citizen power level, where, through an online decision support system, the citizens are given the final say in making decisions.

Carver also points out that for many organizations the ability to move to two-way communication is difficult because of a communication barrier. The first step is easy because all it takes is displaying the information online, while the other three two-way communication levels all require that information is processed and analyzed. They also require more sophisticated technology solutions to implement the two-way communication mechanism.

Little research has been done on online participation in urban planning in developing countries and the applicability of technology to enable citizen participation in those countries. New research is, however, underway that focuses on the use of technology to enable better governance (Ford, 2011).


2 thoughts on “04. Public participation (Literature review)

  1. This is a stunning piece of work, very informative. In this article you have quoted a number of articles, i would really appreciate if you share the list of references.
    Kind regards.

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