One of the most cherished realms of contemporary planning is the allowance for public participation, a tool often embraced for fostering democratic processes at the most local level of civic engagement. It also happens to be one of the most contentious aspects that planners and policymakers face. Borne out of a certain necessity in reaction against the top-down planning fiascoes of urban renewal, public participation has yielded issues of its own, often wielded as a tool for obstructionism and calling into question the distribution of citizen power.
Will Doig at Salon has an excellent article on how the public participation has been misused and abused over the years, allowing a disproportionate amount of power to be consolidated into the hands of a few:
These rules, designed to check the power of city officials, now perversely consolidate immense power in the hands of a few outspoken “concerned citizens.” By dragging out the building process indefinitely, these people can make it so expensive that deep-pocketed luxury developers have a better chance of surviving it than anyone actually building affordable housing. Worst of all, these rules have created a new norm in which individual residents just assume that their personal opinions should carry great weight in routine planning decisions.
More below the jump.
I don’t think there’s any question that our current system of public participation is very flawed, whichever angle you come at it from. Not only does the public process fail to be truly representative of the community at hand, it can often also be used more as a political flag than an actual participatory planning tool. Nonetheless, I do think there is particular value to outlets that engage community input, some of which have yielded fruitful and creative ideas over time.
Doig goes on to talk about different ways in which jurisdictions are considering limiting citizen power. I’m not entirely convinced this kind of one-size-fits-all approach is the right antidote for NIMBYism and am more of the opinion that doing so doesn’t really solve the issue. Certainly, there are a number of valid critiques of the system that need to be addressed, but I think the fundamental flaw behind our public process is that opposition usually sprouts from either 1) lack of full understanding of a project, 2) advancement of one particular narrow interest, or both.
Instead of reforming the way we structure the institution of public participation, I’m a firm believer that there simply has to be better transparency and communication from the project sponsors. Beyond simply raising mitigation as a consolation prize to NIMBYs, lead agencies and developers need to do a better job at defending their projects from oft-misguided critiques. Often times, opposition seems to stymie a project’s progress simply because obscured information leaves supporters with little ammunition to go off on.
Contrary to rolling back citizen power, this actually gives an opportunity to make the public process far more robust than the typical oral testimony taken at at council/commission/review board meetings, through which input is often skewed anyway. Done right, proper communication and transparency can actually deplete the bargaining power of NIMBYs, not because their say is diminished, but because there are stronger grounds for competing information.
Though pluralism, by definition, dictates that there is an impossibility in satisfying everyone, maintaining equity in the process can establish a consensus that the project must be driven by the overall benefit to the community, not just how it will impact one party. Matt Yglesias has a good quote on the subject from a Greater Greater Washington livechat: “It’s good to listen to everyone, but that doesn’t mean you have to do what they want.”