Fiddling While Rome Burns?: Sustainable Communities and the Politics of Citizen Participation

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Fiddling While Rome Burns? Sustainable Communities and the Politics of Citizen Participation

Sherilyn MacGregor

Increased citizen participation in local governance is being touted as the answer to problems ranging from violence in schools to the global environmental crisis. From different ends of the political spectrum, arguments abound for the benefits of more local decision-making, more community consultation, and more direct democracy. Neoconservative governments want to hear from stakeholders (but not "special interest" groups), while left-wing social movements demand citizen control to put power in its place. But does more citizen participation really lead to better decisions and healthier communities? Or does it, in practice, amount to a lot of busy work that keeps participants fiddling with red tape while Rome burns? And what does it mean that the vast majority of volunteer participants in local governance issues - education, health care, air quality, pesticide use - are already overburdened women?

Recognizing that much of the community planning discourse is rather uncritical about the politics of participation itself, this article considers these questions by taking a close-up look, through the eyes of Hamilton resident and environmental activist Burke Austin, at the acclaimed citizen participation process of creating healthy and sustainable communities in Hamilton-Wentworth, Ontario.

Green and Healthy Hamilton?

Since its rather humble birth in Toronto in 1984, the "healthy community" concept has grown into a movement that includes thousands of cities around the world. The original intention of the Toronto visionaries like Dr. Trevor Hancock was to advocate a more holistic and community-based approach to health than the conventional treatment-oriented health care model provides. People are healthy or not depending on the quality of their immediate social, economic, and natural environments. Improve the over-all quality of life and strengthen community bonds, so the logic goes, and a healthier (and less care-costly) population will result. While such reasoning remains central, the now-international movement has broadened over the past 15 years to include the concept of "sustainability" (the environmental buzzword of the 1990s) and places greater emphasis on governance devolved to the local level.

The International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) led the way in this shift by establishing a Local Agenda 21 Model Communities Programme in 1994. The Model Communities Programme was a 4 year action research project aimed at helping local governments implement Chapter 28 of Agenda 21, the "global action plan for sustainable development," which was declared at the Earth Summit in 1992. The programme involved fourteen model municipalities in twelve countries that were asked to document and evaluate how their local planning processes managed to observe the principles of sustainable development.

The only Canadian municipality selected by ICLEI to be a model community is Hamilton-Wentworth, a municipality that is not only rife with environmental problems (it is the home of Canada's steel industry and the site of one of the worst industrial accidents - the Plastimet fire - in recent Canadian history) but also well-known for its sustainable community plans. In addition to being named a role model by an international environmental organization, Hamilton-Wentworth has twice received Canadian Environmental Achievement Awards for local government by Environment Canada (the federal ministry of the environment). In 1995 the region was profiled, along with eighteen other cities from around the world, at the annual meeting of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development. 1 Recently, both the Ontario Professional Planner's Institute and the Canadian Institute of Planners have given awards to Hamilton-Wentworth's planning department for its innovative planning projects. …