Public participation in the 3rd Millenium: making cities more sustainable?

The UN Summit Habitat III is just months away. At a critical time for climate change and sustainable development, public participation has a vital role to play in our efforts to “square the circle” of urban sustainability. Will the beginning of the 3rd Millenium be remembered for making major headway toward inclusive, sustainable cities?

Planning, people and power: symphony or cacophony?

The media feed us repeatedly with hymns to sustainable development (e.g. “Love Song to the Earth”  or the moving documentaries “Home” and “Human” ) where governments, companies and organisations are urged to work with ordinary people to achieve more equitable, well-functioning, sustainable cities.

An ode to a more sustainable, loving and inclusive world: Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s documentary “Human”

In urban planning, this is partly thanks to landmark contributions by Jane Jacobs, Paul Davidoff, John Forester, Patsy Healey, and Louis Albrechts, amongst many others. The “critical realists”, however, have been playing a somewhat darker tune: they remind us that planners have no intrinsic moral duty to make cities more inclusive, or even sustainable. The work of planning can indeed serve many different ends, from the narrow pursuit of personal careers to serving the political agenda of not-so-democratic governance coalitions (Flyvbjerg, 1996; Tewdwr-Jones & Allmendinger, 1998; O. Yiftachel, 1998). Planners may also become demoralised and lose faith in their capacity to bring about sustainable development (Grange, 2013). In some contexts, the planning apparatus can even mediate a form of neo-colonial development, featuring the colonisation, infringement and displacement of communities through reliance on planning regulation, as presented by Haim Yacobi at the 10th YA AESOP Conference in Ghent last April. In short, there is ample evidence about the non-democratic nature of governance in many urban contexts (Jenks, Kozak, & Takkanon, 2008; Oren Yiftachel, Little, Hedgcock, & Alexander, 2002), also intimately linked to questions of who actually owns cities.  Whereas an ideal aim of sustainable planning is a symphony between people, planning and power, the actual outcome is often embarrassingly disharmonious and unsustainable.

Governing by steering people

Contemporary urban governance is far from straightforward. Erik Swyngedouw warns against the ambivalent, “Janus face” of governance innovations in which the participation of civil society can play a central role (Swyngedouw, 2005) (a definition of Janus face and a history).

The ambivalent Janus – Ancient Roman god of beginnnings, gates, transitions, time, doorways…

Like other authors (e.g. Jessop), he argues that today’s governance networks operate “beyond-the-state”, enabling innovation in the participation of civil society, as well as a significant democratic deficit because governance coalitions largely come about with little influence or control from civil society . On the one hand, participatory planning since the 1980s has sometimes provided unprecedented levels and sophistication of engaging people living in cities , yet on the other hand the whole process is often carefully crafted to ensure that the status quo on urban development is maintained. In the process, what matters for many people or the environment is often silenced or discredited as unviable. In essence, public participation is usually framed in ways which will support and legitimise particular political/economic agendas, at the expense of others. Such is the practice of what Foucault termed governmentality, the “conduct of conduct”. In essence, it is the skilful steering of public opinion, through technologies for public engagement, and argued by rationalities that are often neo-liberal. As Swyngedouw writes (2005, 2003), such innovations in governance often give the illusion of empowering people, when in effect acting as a “Trojan Horse that diffuses and consolidates the ‘market’ as the principal institutional form”.

Exclusion, rather than diminished, is being reworked. Many groups and individuals continue to be routinely absent from public participation frameworks, because of lack of interest, lack of awareness, or distrust in the capacity or intention of local authorities to effectively address their needs. Other groups that were represented or active may now be side-lined, because the state has become more “hollow” in today’s governance networks.

The following image of a ship’s wheel encapsulates some of these issues.

“Deeds Not Words”. The ship of innovative governance, a symbol for governmentality. Photo by Michael Drummond on Pixabay

Etymologically, the term to govern originates from the Greek “to steer”. The above picture illustrates this in an original way. On the one hand, people demand greater participation in planning (“deeds”), rather than empty promises (“words”). On the other hand, it is really the captain who decides where the ship is going. The captain may suggest only a narrow selection of possible travel destinations to passengers, where people’s ability to choose may give them an illusion of real choice and power. The captain will be happy to have kept travel options within manageable limits, and so will the people, but many other travel destinations will not even have been considered… The captain likely decides how many people can board the ship (i.e. how many people can participate), and he can perhaps choose the ship itself, which will naturally determine how many people get to board the ship.

Roadblocks to sustainable cities

There are many hinders to pairing public engagement and sustainable cities. For one, people may not be aware of the wider stakes involved in urban planning, which some planners argue should be left to experts. Individuals or community interest groups may simply not care about sustainability as a whole, but simply about their own narrow interests. Furthermore, they may even argue that their narrow interests are actually collective interests, and militate accordingly.

Second, extensive public participation can be steered and framed to support particular views and practices of urban sustainability at the expense of alternative approaches to sustainability. In such contexts, sustainability is necessarily skewed, even where it may provide benefits for many.

Third, there is a wide range of technologies available to engage people in interactive, even creative/playful ways, such as Minecraft, which can go far beyond traditional consultation. Technologies even exist that could mediate citizen-led decision making on a mass scale, such as online tools for participatory budgeting of public resources. 3D virtual environments are becoming increasingly affordable and easy to use by both urban residents and experts alike. However, planners may be reluctant to use sophisticated, innovative tools to engage people, because they may see that planning “is not a game”. In the process, a whole potential for creative and playful problem-solving and exploration is being lost.

Roadblocks to sustainability. Photo from Wikimedia


Last, and most important, is the political will to make cities more sustainable. In view of the landmark UN Habitat III summit in October 2016 Quito, Ecuador, which will set the UN’s New Urban Agenda for the next two decades, participatory urban development will be crucial, particularly to tackle the longstanding issue of informal settlements. One example is the Pretoria Declaration on informal settlements which will inform part of Habitat III; it provides recommendations and a general understanding that participation matters. However, the Pretoria Declaration fails to provide details of implementation for effective public participation. If effective participation ends up being more or less voluntary and no clear guidelines are given to those organisations that need it the most, can we really expect cities to become inclusive any time soon? Cities over the world need to learn, but some do more urgently than others, and also require more guidance from more experienced partners.

Here is a major conundrum for urban governance: in the absence of political will and clear implementation guidelines for conducting public participation, can public participation ever make cities sustainable? There is ample evidence that planning for people with people can improve its legitimacy (see IAP2’s International Journal of Public Deliberation).  Still, the effects and benefits public participation are very seldom assessed in any formal manner (El Ansari & Andersson, 2011; Involve, 2007). Not really knowing the actual benefits can thereby limit local authorities’ uptake of more participatory forms of public engagement, and decision-makers may not see fit to invest in them.

In sum, there are no quick-and-dirty fixes to public engagement for achieving sustainable cities. But to genuinely learn how to effectively engage people and experiment with different models of urban sustainability seems hardly avoidable.  This is especially necessary if the aim is to make cities more inclusive, legitimate, and resilient, as opposed to sites of growing inequalities and environmental degradation. Amongst other pathways, the road to Habitat III could prove decisive in this respect.

Selective reference list

El Ansari, W., & Andersson, E. (2011). Beyond value? Measuring the costs and benefits of public participation. Journal of Integrated Care, 19(6), 45-57.

Flyvbjerg, B. (1996). The dark side of planning: Rationality and “Realrationalität”. In S. J. Mandelbaum (Ed.), Explorations in Planning Theory (pp. 383-394). New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Grange, K. (2013). Shaping acting space: In search of a new political awareness among local authority planners. Planning Theory, 12(3), 225-243. doi: 10.1177/1473095212459740

Involve. (2007). The true costs of public participation – Full report.

Jenks, M., Kozak, D., & Takkanon, P. (2008). World cities and urban form: fragmented, polycentric, sustainable? New York: Routledge.

Swyngedouw, E. (2005). Governance Innovation and the Citizen: The Janus Face of Governance-beyond-the-State. URBAN STUDIES, 42(11), 1991-2006. doi: 10.1080/00420980500279869

Tewdwr-Jones, M., & Allmendinger, P. (1998). Deconstructing communicative rationality: a critique of Habermasian collaborative planning. Environment and Planning A, 30(11), 1975-1989. doi: 10.1068/a301975

Yiftachel, O. (1998). Planning and Social Control: Exploring the Dark Side. Journal of Planning Literature, 12(4), 395-406. doi: 10.1177/088541229801200401

Yiftachel, O., Little, J., Hedgcock, D., & Alexander, I. (2002). The Power of Planning: Spaces of Control and Transformation (2002 edition ed.). Dordrecht ; Boston : Norwell, MA: Springer.


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