HOW TO MAKE PUBLIC PARTICIPATION MEAN SOMETHING

Show the public that it’s more than just a numbers game

Public processes can have diminishing returns so long as the public fails to see any response to its input. Photo by Robin May

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Picture this: A nearly empty, dimly-lit city-council chamber in the middle of Anytown, USA. It’s 10 p.m. when a zealous woman, having patiently waited her turn for hours, steps up to the microphone for her mere three minutes of input and asks the council, “Will there be any real opportunity to weigh in on this issue?” The council chairman somewhat confusingly responds, “I believe that’s what you are doing right now.” She hastily shoots back, “With any power?” to which a roar of applause erupts from the resolute few who remain.

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Participation, that candy-coated buzzword, has become the ubiquitous theme in city-making processes, with local governments and city dwellers everywhere vehemently championing the need for citizen engagement. While it comes in many shapes and sizes and with diverse goals, participation generally promises to spur two primary aims — improving socio-economic realities and empowering people.

Throughout the country and the world, participatory actions are now widely expected to enhance civic capacity while increasing government accountability.

Lafayette has unveiled a string of recent city-wide programs (Project Front Yard) and neighborhood-level promotion (Better Blocks) linked to the largely participatory roll-out of its new Comprehensive Plan. These efforts, as well as Lafayette Consolidated Government’s ongoing Evangeline Corridor Initiative, are signaling new attention from energized administrators who seem keen on putting the community’s voice front and center.

The general logic behind these actions should sound appealing enough. Participation attempts to bring people closer to decision-making processes. And local government appears more accessible and less prone to public pressure or mistrust. Yet, underneath the accepted benefits of civic inclusion lies an uncertainty about what exactly participatory planning means or what it can achieve.

Lafayette residents who have attended any sort of community workshop, especially those in disenfranchised neighborhoods, may often find themselves asking what they get in return when showing up, time and again, to give feedback on a new city initiative. Searching for connections between their input and tangible outcomes can put a strain on people’s trust. Meanwhile, officials are under constant pressure to elicit robust engagement that keeps projects moving forward.

If we understand that participation isn’t simply about giving the public a chance to talk, then we can shift the dial toward empowerment. Photo by Robin May

One of the biggest misconceptions in these processes is that participation is unequivocally positive and, alone, will inspire people to take control of their fate. This perspective — which we are all guilty of — reveals a serious barrier to effective collective action. Participation should be confrontational by nature, to the degree that it coaxes truth and reveals underlying issues that have lain dormant for too long. When it derails or diverts plans, participation is perhaps working its best.

Mainstream methods from even the most benevolent professional tend to forget that participation as an ideal manifested from an oppositional, sometimes forceful response to top-down control. Local officials and planning departments often fail to see the irony in expecting that institutionally led participatory initiatives will have the same empowering effects as truly organic, community-driven social movements, where people build capacity to act independent of government.

Still, inducing participation and encouraging people to engage is very necessary, especially in areas that lack a true public arena and where politics plays out largely behind closed doors, as it often does in Lafayette. The challenge with induced participation is to welcome confrontation and to purposefully bring people face to face with elected representatives and city staff in an effective manner that requires a true eye for change.

If we understand that participation isn’t simply about giving the public a chance to talk, but ensuring the feedback is used to construct meaningful policies that impact people’s lives, then we can shift the dial toward empowerment. This is what people are demanding when they show up at a charrette or workshop, attend a council meeting or go to the polls.

Unfortunately, efforts designed to embrace participation, despite their best intentions, are often machinations of existing power relationships masked behind the jargon and techniques of inclusion. This is what some critics deem the “tyranny of participation.”

When practices are implemented to pad agendas, or when citizen input is gathered after objectives are already decided, the system breaks down. In Lafayette, we need look no further than the episodic process and recent decisions carried forth on the I-49 Connector project.

Time will tell for the Evangeline Corridor, but there’s a risk that the participatory smoke screen used will do little to avoid a devastating impact on the Evangeline neighborhoods, with residents’ effectively signing up for bulldozers when penning their names on sign-in sheets. This can be avoided in our local neighborhood planning efforts by entering into processes of participation with less imposing pre-determination.

The public won’t always see the “tyranny” unfolding in real time. Yet, the methods and actions of local governments and hired consultants can easily tend to be constructed from the need to show numbers and prove diligence to the public’s trust.

A misguided proof-by-numbers largely ignores prior engagement efforts — the aim is more about validating the process than it is about empowering the public. In doing so, the process often finds itself in a repetitive cycle of activity that moves forward with a lot of interaction and few productive outcomes.

We call this phenomenon “engagement fatigue” — a malaise of regurgitated input from otherwise devoted participants, worn out by too many public meetings and comment cards. The longer people are strung along with the same questions and activities, with little constructive dialogue or progress, the more reluctant they will be to participate in the future.

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So why should you participate? First and foremost, it helps if people realize their right to the city and its future by rolling up their sleeves and holding officials accountable. If heeded appropriately, citizen input is a crucial piece of the planning puzzle — people must have faith that they can steer development. Community organizations, such as the neighborhood coteries in Lafayette, can pick up the slack and play a large role in citizen mobilization, representing local voices where institutional protocols can’t or refuse to.

We should always be considering new ways of engaging. Embracing social media and online engagement early in the process offers interesting technology to collect and archive community data that can be used across a range of parallel planning efforts. Another emerging example being tested around the country is “citizen academies” that seek to educate people on the inner-workings of local government toward creating a more involved and informed public. Evolving proven models with the adoption of methods that reflect new societal norms can help streamline future processes and avoid unnecessary fatigue-inducing activity.

As Lafayette moves forward on multiple large-scale urban planning projects along the Evangeline Thruway and University Avenue, or wrestles with the future of Downtown nightlife, local government has an opportunity to create lasting community transformation. Participatory processes, especially those aimed at empowering citizens, may not show immediate results. If actions can reveal incremental benefits, then perhaps people will quickly recognize the worth of their input. Handing over meaningful power to participants will demonstrate that they have real skin in the game.  

William Hunter is an urban designer at Architects Southwest and serves on the Lafayette Historic Preservation Commission.

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