Politics & Policy

Public Participation:  More than an “Orgy of Public Process”

Over the past two years, a growing number of voices have criticized the role of public participation in urban planning. These voices include Andrés Duany, the architect and New Urbanist, who has decried America’s “absolute orgy of public process.1 They also include Tom Campanella, who argues in essays in Planning magazine and the journal Places that, “it’s a fool’s errand to rely upon citizens to guide the planning process.”2, 3 A position justified, Campanella claims, because, “most folks lack the knowledge to make intelligent decisions about the future of our cities.” Criticism of participation is not new, but the increasingly strident tone of anti-participation sentiment should worry citizens and policy makers alike. In fact, there are good reasons to encourage participation in public processes, perhaps now more than ever.

Recent criticism of participation comes at a time when comparisons between American urban development and other models are particularly stark. This is especially true when looking at the speed and scale of new construction. Highlighting the contrast between American and Chinese cities, Thomas Friedman noted in a 2010 New York Times article that, “the comparisons start from the moment one departs Beijing’s South Station, a giant space-age building”.4 In his article, he notes: “With enough cheap currency, labor and capital – and authoritarianism – you can build anything in nine months.” Friedman’s argument is that the status quo approach to development in America isn’t working, a sentiment shared by Duany and Campanella, as well as a large number of other commentators. As Campanella stated in a talk at Harvard: “Just as China could use more of the American gavel of justice and democratic process, we could certainly use a bit more of that very effective Chinese sledgehammer.”

Contemporary concerns that public participation slows development bear similarity to arguments voiced in the 1970s, during the Cold War. Then, the rival economic superpower was not China, but the Soviet Union. As Joseph Stiglitz points out: “In the years immediately following World War II, there was a belief…in a tradeoff between democracy and growth. The Soviet Union, it was argued, had grown faster than the countries of the West, but in order to do so had jettisoned basic democratic rights.”5 Stiglitz continues by arguing that such a tradeoff, between participation and growth, does not exist and that, in contrast, participation is a key element of sustainable economic development. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see that American competitiveness has been more sustainable than the Soviet Union’s over the long-term, in part due to the country’s robust democratic norms. Keeping this history in mind, is it any more prudent in the current recession to think that rolling back participation will be a boon for American cities over the long term?

Critics of participation generally focus on its procedural dimensions. They suggest that an excessive focus on process slows projects. In Duany’s case, he argues that the procedural requirements of participation have gone too far. He says: “basically, we can’t get anything done.” What is needed, Duany argues, is a return to a time when decisions were made more quickly. In making his case, he cites the example of John Nolen’s plans for San Diego. Nolen, he says, “visited the city for a couple of weeks, spoke to whomever he needed to, then got back to Boston, prepared the documents, and mailed them back to San Diego.” Of this era, Duany says: “planners were still considered demigods.” For Campanella’s part, his essay bemoans planners’ focus on process, saying that, once Jane Jacobs’ revolution took hold, “Instead of setting the terms of debate or charting a course of action, planners now seemed content to be facilitators.”

In their comments on participation as process, critics seldom mention the well-established instrumental benefits of participation. These are the benefits of participation that go beyond the idea that stakeholders should or must be consulted due to ethical, legal or social obligations. While there are powerful arguments for participation on these terms, there is also strong evidence that participation actually improves project outcomes and the likelihood of project success. These outcome-oriented aspects of participation are seldom mentioned by critics and so are worth reiterating. Before doing so, it should be noted that participation is also important as an outcome in its own right. Participation not only has the potential to improve project outcomes, but is itself an outcome. Participation has been shown to have positive spillovers through fostering democratic norms and development of social capital, both of which are important societal objectives.

One early systematic study showing the benefits of participation on outcomes was conducted by Richard Ellis and coauthors in 1981.6 Based on data collected from 1965 onwards, they examined 105 wastewater projects and found that participation and project outcomes were positively correlated. A 2000 study by Beierle, of 239 environmental projects, showed that stakeholder participation improved decisions and outcomes.7 Similarly, in a study of 121 water projects across 49 countries, Jonathan Isham and colleagues at the World Bank demonstrated that participation was associated with improved project outcomes.8 Similar results have been found in other contexts, as diverse as environmental policy making in the United States and water provision in India.9,10,11 Importantly, these studies look at project success in broader terms than simple speed of implementation or construction. They also look at issues such as user satisfaction and the long-term economic and social sustainability of projects.

Duany and Campanella have arrived at their criticisms of participation in part by focusing on the construction phase of projects – whether they are built and how quickly. While not an unimportant metric, speed of construction is hardly the only measure of project success. Although construction is important, and certainly the phase that is of most interest to many architects and planners, it is only a narrow part of the overall life of a project. By expanding the terms by which we measure success to include longer-term economic and social outcomes, participation begins to look less like a burden and more like an asset. The current recession was in part created through construction of buildings that were unnecessary and not financially viable. Surely what we need now are a set of broader metrics for assessing the economic and social health of our cities, not ones that prioritize speed and scale of construction over all else.

An exciting development in the world of participation is the increasing use of new technologies for citizen engagement. These include social networking and other digital applications that expand opportunities for the solicitation and sharing of community input on projects. For example, the Brainstorm Anywhere web application developed by PlaceMatters is one of several new tools that seek to increase planners’ capacity for collecting, organizing and acting upon public opinion. New participation technologies also include innovative web platforms – such as the ExtrAct website developed by MIT’s Center for Civic Media – that allow citizens to identify and monitor emerging spatial issues in their communities, such as the presence of unscrupulous oil and gas developers. While new technologies have considerable promise to change the way participation works, an important shift in mindset will be needed to capitalize on these innovations. New technological approaches to participation will only have a meaningful impact if policymakers, planners and developers start to recognize that participation has instrumental benefits – that community input can and does improve project outcomes. If participation continues to be seen as a procedural hurdle and thorn in the side of development, no amount of technological innovation will overcome the divide that continues to separate communities from those that plan for them.

This is not to say that participation is a panacea or that the participatory processes currently in use are ideal. But, it is a mistake to broadly criticize participation as an impediment to progress, without recognizing that it also is one of the most important elements in ensuring the success of both the projects that architects and planners want so badly to build and of our cities over the long-term.

Michael Hooper is an Assistant Professor of Urban Planning at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design.


  1. Halbur, Tim. 2010. “Andres Duany Wants to Reform the Public Process.” Planetizen. 26 April 2010.

  2. Campanella, Tom. 2011. “Jane Jacobs: Planners Best Frenemy – Exerpts from Reconsidering Jane Jacobs.” Planning April 2011.

  3. Campanella, Tom. 2011. “ Jane Jacobs and the Death and Life of American Planning.” Places website, April 25, 2011.

  4. Friedman, Thomas. “Too Many Hamburgers.” New York Times. September 21, 2010.

  5. Stiglitz, Joseph. 2002. “Participation and Development: Perspectives from the Comprehensive Development Paradigm.” Review of Development Economics 6(2): 163–182.

  6. Ellis, Richard, and John Disinger. 1981. “Project Outcomes Correlate with Public Participation Variables.” Journal of the Water Pollution Control Federation 53(11): 1564

  7. Beierle, T. 2000. The Quality of Stakeholder-Based Decisions: Lessons from the Case Study Record. Discussion Paper 00-56. Washington, D.C: Resources for the Future.

  8. Isham, Jonathan, Deepa Narayan and Lant Pritchett. 1995. “Does Participation Improve Performance? Establishing Causality with Subjective Data” World Bank Economic Review, 9(2) 175-200

  9. Langbein, L. 2005. Negotiated and Conventional Rulemaking at EPA: A Comparative Case Analysis. Paper prepared for the National Research Council Panel on Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making, January, National Academy of Sciences, Washington, DC.

  10. Lubell, M., and W. Leach. 2005. Watershed Partnerships: Evaluating a Collaborative Form of Public Participation. Paper prepared for the National Research Council Panel on Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making, Feb. 3-4, National Academy of Sciences, Washington, DC.

  11. Prokopy, Linda. 2005. “The Relationship Between Project Participation and Project Outcomes: Evidence from Rural Water Supply Projects in India.” World Development 33(11): 1801-1819.

Tags: culture, governance