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Community Participation: Creating a civic culture through local planning

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Community Participation: Creating a civic culture through local planning

Jeffrey Soule, FAICP, Director of Outreach and International Programs, American Planning Association


In APA’s International Outreach Program, we promote engagement of stakeholders and citizens in the process of community planning. Lessons from the U.S. experience inform the discussions globally but are not a formula to be copied. Improving citizen access to decisionmaking requires understanding the institutions, systems, and current approach to local governance and then making informed—often incremental—changes that lead to a participatory approach. This article provides an outline of basic elements for civic engagement, examples, and tools that need to be tailored to the specific local needs and customs.

Although civic engagement varies from place to place, some efforts to improve the process, for example the following, are appropriate for every community.

  • A big-picture view
  • A local planning process
  • Access to information
  • A long-term perspective and
  • An objective facilitator, a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) or educational institution

The primary objective of participation is to make community-informed decisions. Developing effective and well-managed NGOs is a key component in improving community engagement. No matter where in the world we are, the process should start by asking fundamental questions of equity such as “Who benefits?” and “Who pays?” where “pays” refers not only to dollars, but bad environmental conditions, lack of access to services and other impacts of inequitable development. Civic engagement requires careful and committed management to ensure local concerns are addressed equitably and consistently across different perspectives and timeframes. Where there is a very short history of open access to governance, discussions of social equity and the costs and benefits of urbanization are valuable to identify ways to open up the process within the existing context.

Emerging “e-engagement” tools in China
In China, examples at the local level to engage citizens and respond to their concerns are emerging. In Nanjing, where APA has worked for over a decade, efforts include a mayor’s email, managed by staff, which solicits feedback from the public on everything from street cleaning to job opportunities along with a mayor’s radio “call in” show where citizens ask the mayor questions over the air. In other cities, local plans and designs for civic works are displayed in the local planning department and people can write their comments and leave them to be reviewed. Our mayor’s training program fields a lot of questions on community engagement and how to balance getting things done with community involvement.

Managing participation means being very clear about the purpose, outcomes, and expectations. For instance, community organizers must be honest about what the process can achieve in terms of impact. People engaged in the discussion need to know what the role of local participants will be. Can citizens make suggestions on issues that are still under discussion by the government? How will the government follow up and respond to citizen suggestions? What is the time frame for the plan, project, or program? Many times, lack of management results in lack of trust, disappointment, and misunderstandings, simply because what can and cannot be achieved is not spelled out.

Developing a culture of community planning and participation must be cultivated over time to show the community that the process works and produces positive results. Every city or town is a collection of communities of interests. A solid participation program understands how both the individual and the communities of interest benefit from a comprehensive vision. To explore citizen engagement, start with a discussion of issues that offer an opportunity for people to talk to each other in a nonthreatening environment.

Develop a community vision as the base of understanding, shared purpose, and collective support for moving forward on specific activities. Participation problems arise when a broad discussion of values and ideas comes too late. In a community where no vision setting has occurred, a specific proposal will be viewed based on isolated wants and needs and communities of interest. A vision and plan adds knowledge of civic benefits, costs and community impact, and the basis for further plans, strategies and tools. Often, elected or appointed officials fear participation because they view it as a loss of control. On the contrary, a jointly developed vision provides the leaders with the basis of agreement to move forward with an agenda to meet local needs. With a community vision and participation, mayors can have their short-term projects and visible achievements, but within an overall strategy—a win-win situation.

Building the context and setting a discussion framework will entail a wide variety of techniques:

Interviews and Focus Groups. People will privately volunteer information they may be reluctant to state in public, so meeting and interviewing key representatives in a community can give great insight into the way to approach community engagement. In my own experience, individuals who can reach out to underrepresented communities, stakeholders, and decisionmakers are a tremendous asset. These bridgebuilders are essential to help you develop your message and understand the values and priorities of all the various communities within your geographic area. Focus groups provide an opportunity to test messages and ideas with a representative sample of your community before you develop the overall outreach. Focus groups are a logical way to follow up on individual interviews and serve to refine your methods, questions and approach.

Public Meeting. Most commonly, neighborhood groups or agencies will hold a public meeting to offer the public a chance to participate. Pitfalls here are lack of adequate information either before the meeting or at the meeting, poorly managed meeting dynamics, and multiple agendas all competing for time and attention. The standard monthly business meetings of neighborhood groups, councils, and commissions rarely serve true engagement—informed impact on decisionmaking—and should be seen primarily as one of a variety of means to inform participants.

Surveys. Community-based surveys can be helpful but only if they are developed and conducted according to accepted methodology. One way to make sure this is done is to get a local nonprofit or university to help.

Aruba Case Example
In Aruba, the Dutch government, APA, and local leaders all agreed to support the first ever civic decisionmaking process and community vision. Starting with a good amount of background information provided by the local government and stakeholders, a small team of resource people were selected to visit Aruba to assess the situation and meet with as many groups and individuals as possible. Many locals were skeptical at the beginning but as the openness and discussion continued, they developed more and more ownership of the process. A follow up visit to refine and further develop the vision was held and a long term partnership was created involving local people trained in the process and the University of Pennsylvania Planning Program. More information can be found at

Charrette. A short-term intensive workshop aimed at a physical issue e.g., a new development, a park design, or street improvements. During a charrette, the community works with design experts to develop scenarios for the design, each scenario is reviewed and the information is used to inform future development.

Community Assistance Team. A community often can find assistance through local, national, and international organizations to provide technical assistance on a particular issue. Often, universities are good sources for this kind of technical help, as well. The community describes the issue and a group of experts focused on that issue engages local residents to develop a set of recommendations.

Electronic Media. Informing and fostering community discussion can be aided by websites, blogs, and so on, but in many cases this can only be used by those who have access to such information, such as representatives of organizations, government agencies, and private firms. In many international areas, it will have less benefit to the general public, but should be used where available, as in the case of Nanjing.

Civic engagement is essential to good planning and good governance. Using the outline here and some of the tools and techniques that apply to your own situation, you can improve the quality of life for everyone. A detailed guide with more case studies from the U.S. can be found here.

For more information contact Jeffrey Soule, FAICP, Director of Outreach and International Programs, American Planning Association.