Public Participation as an effective tool for addressing the challenges facing our urbanism

Today’s world is more global than previously considered. As we move into the third decade of the 21st century, the issue of globalization affects urbanization more critically, most importantly, the issues of immigration and climate change. Our urban centers are coming under increasing stresses due to economic volatility and political pressures that are compounded by the need to integrate new migrants and mitigate the effects of climate change. The need to adapt our societies towards equitable and sustainable places to live, work and play and respond to these stresses has never been so important and urgent. Urban planning theorists and planning professionals have a task cut out for them to move away from the business as usual scenarios that lead to an ultimate doom and gloom and to find meaningful alternatives that can save us all.

One of the tools that planners utilize as part of their profession is community engagement and public participation, more often as a necessity to reach a favourable outcome for a project rather than truly understanding the needs of the people. It is essential to know that our cities are for people, and the ultimate goal of creating sustainable and equitable places is but for the people. Involving people in these critical discussions from the beginning will lead to the creation of more inclusive and sustainable urban futures. 

The ladder of citizen participation in planning processes by Sherry Arnstein (Arnstein) is a guide to emphasize the relationship between government and community for increasing access to decision-making power. As the planning profession continues to deliberate over the ever-increasing complex problems of urbanism and climate change, it becomes quite evident that involving the citizens in these crucial issues becomes not only essential but imperative. It is an argument that citizen participation should be at the top rungs of Arnstein’s ladder (Arnstein) for partnership building and delegating the power that ensures citizen control for most of these urban issues that directly or indirectly affect the citizens of any city. It might be easier said than done; public engagement can be attributed to any stages of the Arnstein’s ladder (Arnstein)as long as the goal is for the benefit of the public and not merely for a project’s approval. 

Many theories help guide the practice of public engagement and most of them emphasize the importance of active engagement and provide valuable tools that can be useful for a successful outcome. It is important to note that theories are guides and not sacrosanct that, if followed to the letter, will guarantee a successful outcome. Rather than focussing on the decision-making power and trying to achieve citizen control, it would be more reasonable to use some of these theories to improve the outcome of a public engagement exercise. It may be challenging to identify the best theories that can inform any successful practice of public engagement, as each exercise is quite different from others. A few of these theories from selected articles can be considered as outliers and are worth mentioning, and may provide the required tools for engaging the public towards a sustainable and multi-ethnic, multicultural urbanism. 

The article “Make Kin, not cities!” (Houston et al., 2018) makes a compelling argument about giving voice to the voiceless. The theory suggests the need for better engagement due to the overlapping nature of humans and nonhumans. Developing planning processes that acknowledge as well as respect multispecies entanglement is necessary for a sustainable future. An opportunity exists for planners to think beyond a human-centric society and plan for multispecies urban futures. Engaging with the local communities, including indigenous members, and acknowledging while respecting their knowledge and world views will be the first step towards this engagement process. Identifying ways and methodologies, creating new relationships with nature and identifying ways to interact with nonhuman stakeholders will go a long way in creating a sustainable future for our planet. If not more, this theory can, in the least, guide us in being more sensitive towards our environment and acknowledge that this planet does not solely belong to us and collectively, we all contribute towards its future. 

Future cities will be more global with multicultural and multi-ethnic communities, not to speak of citizens or minority groups that feel disempowered, it becomes essential that every individual has a voice even if it appears incoherent or insignificant at the beginning. The importance of stories is described as a catalyst for change in the article “Out of the Closet: The Importance of Stories and Storytelling in Planning Practice” (Sandercock, 2003). Sandercock expresses the idea that stories can work in three distinct ways for planners, such as by expanding our practical tools, by sharpening our critical judgement and by being more inclusive in our democratic discourse. Storytelling is an art form that can be quite useful in engaging with the communities, to learn more about each other or to educate them and sometimes even can be used as a tool to mediate or convince people. Stories can help us understand the spatial composition of the same city or neighbourhood from various perspectives, either as a theory or via immersion, as mentioned in the article by giving a glimpse of London from two different dwellers. However, it is vital to examine our preconceptions while working in a multicultural environment and be aware of our limitations. It is a useful tool for planners to try and create a socially equitable & inclusive multicultural urbanism. 

Democratic processes and participatory planning are essential for equitable and inclusive urbanity. The learning environment through which these engagements occur also plays a crucial role in the outcome of such exercises. The location of the community engagement exercise and the structure of these meetings impact how these processes materialize over time through individual enactments. Designing these environments where learning takes place enables deeper participation and civic skill acquisition. Strategies that allow for dissent help in avoiding the possibilities of manipulation, either intentional or unintentional. (Melendez, et al., 2019) The structure and location of such engagement processes can either promote or prevent full public participation. Some citizens may be more apt at participating despite the design, whereas marginalized community members may lack the necessary skills to contribute to a sophisticated environment. Some members may find it challenging to understand hierarchy and power structure and will find it difficult to voice their concerns and influence decisions that concern them. With proper planning and design, these engagement exercises can leverage equity and inclusion and help marginalized community members to acquire the required skills and tools for proper engagement. It might be wise to hold people with influence more accountable and pushed to reflect, learn and adapt in ways that can promote democracy. The designed learning environment can be a valuable tool in our vision for an equitable and multicultural multi-ethnic community. (Melendez, et al., 2019)

Another quite important tool for engaging with the public and providing an opportunity for the community members to express themselves is via forum theatre process. The forum process is both educational and performative. (Sullivan et al., 2006) The engagement exercise is a  practice of Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed. It comprises consecutive acting games and structures, image-making exercises and scene improvisations. (Sullivan et al., 2006) The workshop begins with an introduction to the theatrics, creating visuals of actions and conflicts followed by learning the concept related to the issue at hand, creating community power dynamics, perceived problems, risks and attitudes of the members towards the problem. These images are either still photos or short animations that are used by the group to improvise the scenes that depict the problem in real-life situations. These scenes and the images become part of the performance during the production stage of the project. The all-community forum theatre follows a simple sequence of introduction and assessment of the audience, followed by a demonstration on the mechanics of ‘spect-actor.’ The group performs the scene and the community audience votes on which scene connects most significantly with the issues. The voted scene repeats multiple times, while the audience is encouraged to stop the scene and replace the main character to propose a more favourable or desirable outcome. The scene is played several times while recording the process taking notes to capture the proposals and outcomes. The performance concludes with the facilitator harvesting single words or short phrases from the audience that describe the feelings and ideas floated during the performance. Boal calls this process a ‘rehearsal for the rest of your life,’ a necessary precursor to effective action in and on society. (Sullivan et al., 2006) In Freirean terms, the Forum Theatre process addresses the need to allow marginalized and oppressed communities to express their opinions while learning the skills needed for the participatory planning process. Forum participants can agree on issues that concern them and develop a sense of a community. Applying Boal’s rhetoric of image-making helps in the understanding of local and regional power dynamics, provides opportunities to learn about their attitudes, beliefs and aspirations and can help their communities regain the strength required for an equitable society.

One of the leading and quite successful examples of the Forum Theatre process is its use by the Community Environment Forum Theatre (CEFT) developed through the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Center in Environmental Toxicology at the University of Texas Medical Branch/Galveston TX. CEFT uses this form of interactive workshops throughout Texas petrochemical belt to increase the knowledge of community members, develop risk awareness, extend and strengthen coalitions, create action agendas and promote community advocacy skills. CEFT has been quite effective in encouraging honest dialogue and mutual education on the issues of environmental health among the stakeholders. The forum is a primary outreach tool in major environmental justice projects, and it is generating awareness in a major Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Problem-Solving Project collaboration with Mothers for Clean Air centred in the Milby Park neighbourhood of Houston. (Sullivan et al., 2006)

Empowering the community which works together for a common cause and resolving issues that are most pertinent to them is seen in the various programs run by the Seattle Department of neighbourhoods. At the heart of these programs lies the practice of community engagement and public participation. Programs such as heritage preservation, which works with community members to strengthen the cultural and economic values and the P-Patch community garden program that encourages organic urban farming within the communities, are good examples of community members coming together for a common cause. 

The neighbourhood matching fund program helps communities to identify critical issues and work towards finding solutions while being given a matching fund. These successful programs incorporate many approaches, tools and ideas in public engagement exercises. It is safe to perceive that quite a few of the theories of public engagement are in use in these exercises. These examples illustrate the need for the exercise to be adaptable, honest and not lose its focus. The intention of achieving the goal is important, but the process of engagement is essential and should be as fair and as inclusive as possible. 

Few definitive methods are employable towards a successful public participation exercise. All public engagement session starts with developing trust, which is quite challenging to achieve, but once trust establishes, it is crucial to continue developing on it.  The environment in which these interactions occur is equally important. A well-designed process will help in creating an inclusive exercise while imparting the necessary skills to marginalized members to assert their views. Meeting people where they are, helps in establishing connections and understanding them and their needs. Provisioning for ample time for meaningful interactions and not rushing through the process will allow for increased awareness and participation. Once the process commences and the members are on board, keeping short and achievable goals for the outcome will help the community realize their potential. Seeing their efforts bear fruits will empower the community in gradually strengthening their efforts towards more complex issues. Nothing succeeds like success. It is vital to actually involve people in the engagement exercise and not just to complete the task of involving the people. As a professional public engagement practitioner, it is essential to be honest and care about empowering the citizens to make meaningful decisions. From the theories of giving voice to voiceless to using storytelling as a tool to engage with the public, the exercise of public engagement with multicultural and multi-ethnic communities will lead towards the creation of an equitable urban future. 

Some theories of public participation may appear impractical but carry invaluable insights into engaging with the people and holds the key to finding meaningful solutions to the issues facing our globalized urban world. Public participation is a potent tool, and its practical use is the need of the hour in creating our sustainable future.

About the Author

This article is written by Ravi Siddhartha while studying Masters in Planning at the University of Calgary in the year 2019.


Arnstein, Sherry R. “A Ladder Of Citizen Participation.” Journal of the American Institute of Planners 35.4 (n.d.): 216.

Boal, A. Games for Actors & Non-actors (London, Routledge) (1993).

Freire, P. Pedagogy of the Oppressed, rev. edn (New York, Continuum International). (1970, 1993) 

Freire, P. Pedagogy of the Heart (New York, Continuum International). (1997)

Houston, Donna, et al. “Make kin, not cities! Multispecies entanglements and ‘becoming-world’ in planning theory:.” Planning Theory 17.2 (2018): 190-212.

Sandercock Leonie Out of the Closet: The importance of Stories and Storytelling in Planning Practice: Planning Theory & Practice, Vol. 4, No. 1, (2003): 11-28.

José W. Meléndez & Brenda Parker Learning in Participatory Planning Processes: Taking Advantage of Concepts and Theories Across Disciplines, Planning Theory & Practice, 20:1, (2019) 137-144

J. Sullivan & R. S. Lloyd The Forum Theatre of Augusto Boal: A Dramatic Model for Dialogue and Community-Based Environmental Science, Local Environment, 11:6, (2006) 627-646,