PARTICIPATORY PLANNING FOR ECONOMICALLY, SOCIALLY, AND ENVIRONMENTALLY SUSTAINABLE URBAN ENVIRONMENTS

by Dr. Darragh O'Brien, President of IMPA

Social research is about people, and how they live their lives. Researching beyond the mainstream is part of a continuous process of learning how to create knowledge as the process is experienced. It is a dynamic and emergent process.  
(Kirby et al, 2006:64)

The city is like a neural network, a place of encounter that connects the architect, planner, developer and resident, yet our current planning mechanisms do not reflect the complex, symbiotic nature of these relationships. Despite the existence of lengthy consultation processes, large segments of the population are in reality powerless to significantly affect the planning decisions that are made on a daily basis—decisions that affect us all greatly.

Architect and Sociologist, Phillip Thiel argues that to take responsibility for “the consequences of our environmental interventions we must inform ourselves in more substantive ways” (Thiel, 1996). Ongoing, research is now required, where data is continuously gathered in occupied environments that are themselves continuously transformed. The city is both permanent and mutable; it is never complete and the occupants become participants in an adaptive design process. In that context, the knowledge that we need must be contributed equally by all stakeholders.

Participatory Planning is based on the principle that environments work better if the people affected by change are actively involved in its creation and management, instead of being treated as passive consumers. However, this does does not mean that everything has to be checked with everyone, before any decision is made, through public hearings and constant meetings. The decision-making process is not handed over to the community, as has been tried before in the 1960s, when it was thought the process of advocacy planning would let the community produce schemes that somehow lay perfect in their heads, and planners might perform “like midwives, ready to help pop whatever kind of Minerva out of the head of Zeus”1. For the most part, these projects were a complete failure.

According to Professor Henry Sanoff, of North Carolina State University, participation does not imply that there is no longer a role for planning authorities 2 . It only means that a dialogue is necessary between citizens and public officials regarding needs and resources to meet needs; this dialogue may take the form of a visioning process where participants are asked to contribute ideas at the beginning, before experts and administrators narrow the range of options. Professor Sanoff argues that participants should be provided with the information they need to contribute to the planning process in a meaningful way and, most importantly, be informed how their input affected the decision. Experiences in the participation process show that the main source of user satisfaction is not the degree to which a person’s needs have been met, but the feeling of having influenced the decisions. (Sanoff 2006).

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According to the sociologist, Sandra Kirby, a participatory approach combines three activities: research, education, and action. Participatory planning works with rather than for the community, breaking down the traditional, linear consultation process while legitimizing the knowledge people are capable of producing and fostering a sense of identification and shared fate. Together, planners, developers and community members strive to increase the knowledge and understanding required to produce a socially, economically and environmentally sustainable urban environment and the validity of that knowledge is measured according to whether actions that arise from it “solve problems and increase participants’ control over their own situation.” 3

It has also been argued that a participatory approach to planning leads to persistent conflict and unnecessary and expensive delays. However, one study of seventy participation projects, undertaken over a two year period throughout the US, revealed a positive relationship between participation and support of the system, trust in government officials, and tolerance toward other’s points of view. 4

Arden Macaulay Planning Workshop Photo: IMPA

Arden Macaulay Planning Workshop
Photo: IMPA

For community participation to work, a commitment is required on the part of the planning authorities to accept the input of that community in a meaningful way. A similar commitment is required from the community to take responsibility for decisions which they may not always find agreeable. Participation is, after all, about shared responsibility and when it is successful, research indicates the following are some of the resulting benefits:

  • Improved quality of decisions
  • Minimizing cost and delays
  • Consensus building
  • Increased ease of implementation
  • Avoiding ‘worst-case’ confrontations
  • Maintaining credibility and legitimacy
  • Anticipating public concerns and attitudes
  • Developing public expertise and creativity.

(Sanoff 2006, Moore and Davis, 1997, Creighton, 1994).

When faced with complex problems and diverse interests, participatory planning embraces face-to-face interaction and encourages creativity, open communication, broad participation and agreement. IMPA strongly supports an evidence-based approach to adaptive planning—one that encourages participation from all stakeholders—because a new culture of open dialogue, education and ongoing research is essential for the sustainable growth of Melbourne, as an evolving city in the 21st Century.


1. Thiel, P. (1996) People, Paths, and Purpose: Notations for a Participatory Envirotecture. Washington: University of Washington Press.
2. Sanoff, H. (2006) Multiple Views of Participatory Design METU JFA 2006/2 (23:2) 131 - 143
3. Kirby, S.L., Greaves, L., Reid, C. (2006) Experience Research Social Change: Methods Beyond the Mainstream. Canada: Broadview Press.
4. Thomson, K., Berry, J.M., and Portney, K.E. (1994) Kernels of Democracy, Lincoln Filene Center at Tufts University, Boston, MA.