Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Building Communities While Building Plans: A Review of Techniques for Participatory Planning Processes

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Building Communities While Building Plans: A Review of Techniques for Participatory Planning Processes

Article excerpt


There is no single recipe for a successful planning process. Instead, communities must take advantage of the ingredients at their disposal. A variety of techniques, both high- and low-tech, can be used. None is failsafe; each has pros and cons. Typically, their success will depend on both the community's resources and its resourcefulness. In this review, we briefly describe and assess techniques that can be used to aid five phases of a participatory planning process: those concerning goals, information, options, decisions, and monitoring. We conclude with recommendations for ways to build, not simply a plan, but a stronger social fabric. In particular, we argue that participants in a planning process should be treated, not primarily as representatives of vested interests, but as citizens with the responsibility and capability to plan for the common good.


According to Greek mythology, Procrustes stretched or shortened his captives to fit an iron bed. Thus the adjective "Procrustean," a term which aptly describes conventional planning and regulation during much of the 20th century, where the emphasis was on imposing physical order (Meek, 1994).1 Zoning was the primary regulatory tool, and "planning efforts were largely carried out in a hierarchical manner by technical experts in government" (Ayres, 1996). Of late, however, "one-size-fits-all" has given way to flexibility, innovation, and community-based plans and regulations (see Ayres, 1996; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2000).

With an impetus arising primarily, although not exclusively, from federally-funded urban renewal, antipoverty, and Model Cities programs, public participation has become a centerpiece of local government planning (Sharp, 1989). Even if participatory opportunities are not specifically mandated, citizens have grown to expect that their voices will be heard in local planning processes (Rosenbaum, 1976). Moreover, by now it is more likely that citizen voices will be not only heard but heeded: We have moved beyond what Arnstein termed the "illusory form of 'participation'" seen in many urban renewal projects of the 1960s (Arnstein, p. 218, 1969; Mazmanian and Kraft, 1999); in other words, we have moved up the rungs of Arnstein's "ladder of participation" (Arnstein, 1969) toward a more significant degree of citizen influence.

The research presented here is grounded in the view, now held by many scholars and practitioners, that meaningful opportunities for public participation in all levels of government are essential. Public participation is fundamental to democratic values, it increases the accountability and responsiveness of public officials, and it encourages civic commitment (John, 1994; Nelson et al, 1998; Plein et al., 1998; Rosenbloom, 1998; Kettl, 2000). In addition, there is an empirical linkage between public participation and program achievements: Involving the public in a process can directly affect its outcomes (Meeks, 1985, Susskind and Cruikshank, 1987).

There is, of course, a continuing debate between those who espouse participatory democracy, in part because it allows individuals greater say over affairs that affect their lives, and those who espouse representative democracy, in part out of concern that interest groups will otherwise dominate (Pierce et al., 1992; Fischer, 1993; Overdevest, 2000). In this regard, we take a centrist position: We acknowledge the continuing importance of decisions by elected representatives, but we also believe that citizen participation is a vital augmentation to representative democracy, because, if done properly, it both builds civic capacity and increases the likelihood of fairer, more broadly supported decisions. (For a discussion of various methods to improve public participation, see, e.g., Creighton, 1981; Gastil, 1993; Verba et al., 1995; Renn et al., 1995).

In addition to championing citizen participation, this paper is oriented toward local practitioners: for example, planners; public administrators such as mayors, county executives, and city managers; and public works managers who provide the physical infrastructure for cities and towns. …

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