Increasing Public Participation

Community Planning and Zoning July 11, 2013 Print Friendly and PDF

So you tried to engage the public in your planning process, but nobody showed up. What follows are a number of techniques to help increase public participation in the planning process.

The first point to remember is that people have an innate sense of when their participation is real and meaningful and when it is not. If the belief is that their time is just a token, or even less, in the planning process, that will be the chief reason why people choose not to participate.

Consider the three groups, or levels, of public participation presented in “A Ladder of Citizen Participation” by Sherry Arnstein (Journal of the American Planning Association, 1969):

  • Nonparticipation: When the public is generally uninformed, or the “participation” is only the public hearing at the end of the process.
  • Tokenism: Public might be informed, consulted but does not participate in policy making. The public does not really participate in or actually write the plan.
  • Citizen power: The public participates actively in planning and policy making.

A community can increase the level of public participation by making sure the participation is truly done at the citizen power level. If people are empowered to actually be able to write the plan, many will choose to participate and stay with the project to the very end. Ideally, the planning commission and planning department will have enough self-confidence to allow their egos to be set aside and not feel they have to write, or approve, the plan. At the citizen power level of participation, it is implied that whatever the committee(s) of stakeholders agrees to, that will be part of the plan. The planning commission and professional planner’s function is to bring together a large number of people representing different stakeholders and viewpoints and to facilitate, talk and mediate toward a consensus represented in the adopted plan.

Second, thought and effort should take place to reduce obstacles that may prevent or make it hard for people to participate. The following are issues to think about:

  • Is child care provided, especially where single parent families, young families or families with fewer economic resources are a significant part of the population?
  • The location is barrier-free and meets ADA standards.
  • Translators and sign-language interpreters are available and advertised as such in areas where there is a population with a dominant second language.
  • Time and location of events take into account when people work in a community. If many work out of town, or many work second or third shifts, then events may need to be held at different times of the day.
  • Promote the opportunities for public participation with one-on-one contact. Members of the planning commission and planning department staff need to be able to meet with civic organizations, special interest groups or advocacy organizations to personally explain what the project is, why it is important and to extend a personal invitation to participate.
  • Instead of large planning meetings, consider meeting with neighborhood groups, special interest groups or citizen committees.
  • Provide timely, adequate, clear and accurate information on the process, the purpose of the meeting and the planning process. It is very important to have a public appearance of being highly organized. That conveys a sense of success and people like to join and participate in successful projects.

Third, planners, and for that matter anyone working in government in general, should take measures to include representation for disenfranchised, minority viewpoints -- those that regularly disagree with local government leadership, and minorities (race, color, national origin, gender, gender identity, religion, age, height, weight, disability, political beliefs, sexual orientation, marital status, family status or veteran status). There are a number of ways to do this. Many of the points listed below are also principles found in the American Planning Association’s ethics statements and American Institute of Certified Planners Ethics code. In other words, doing these things is a professional ethical obligation as a citizen planner or professional planner:

  • Give stakeholders meaningful input in development of plans.
  • Deal fairly with everyone and be conscious of the rights of others.
  • Recognize a special responsibility to plan for the needs of the disadvantaged.
  • Recognize the planning process may reveal opportunities to preserve and strengthen traditional cultures through activities, icons, buildings and neighborhoods.
  • Use a variety of media formats in a variety of languages to reach the public and stakeholders.
  • Have available, or on-call, translators and sign-language interpreters.
  • Strive to include those who lack formal organization or influence.

In addition, think about these issues and how to compensate for them as you work with people, neighborhoods and planning in your community:

  • Environmental justice: Fair treatment of all races, cultures, and income levels, especially when citing what may be perceived as undesirable land uses. Make a special effort to work with low-income and minority communities to address environmental concerns.
  • Cultural differences: Remember that the United States is a nation of immigrants. So there are cultural differences even in what may appear to be a homogeneous community. With recent immigrants, recognize and help compensate for people who may not fully understand their rights, who struggle with the English language or may have a misunderstanding of conventional practices in the United States because of differing practices or customs. Planning can identify the need for cultural centers, small business help and zoning that allows mimicking home country traditions.
  • Gender: You will want to explore the demographic data for your community to understand significant differences in your area. There are several points that should be taken into account when planning and when involving people in the planning process: Overall in the United States, there are more females over 65 years of age. Females earn about 75 cents for every $1 earned by a male. Most single parent households are headed by a female. Females depend on public transportation more than males and use public transit in different ways than males. They have different safety needs and a higher desire for home-based business opportunities.
  • Racism: Race should be one of the first ways to frame many local planning issues, not avoided or the last consideration. Often past actions have built a reputation of an uncaring government or planning process: freeway construction dividing neighborhoods, urban sprawl, lack of cultural recognition or allowing cultural practices to continue.

Gaining participation is not an exact science. There is not one formula that will work. If one approach is not successful, then consider alternative methods. What is not acceptable is to operate under the line of thought that “we tried/offered, they did not come, so they missed their chance.” Efforts to increase public participation may slow the planning process down or put it behind schedule. But it is an element of the planning process that should not be skipped. It is the responsibility of a professional planner and members of a planning commission to identify obstacles that may prevent participation and to overcome those issues.


Kurt H. Schindler, AICP, Regional Land Use Educator
Michigan State University Extension

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