by Isabel Wetzel and Junnan Mu.

“Social animals like bees and ants build their habitat by instincts but humans don't build their cities by instincts, but through political relationships with different stakeholders.”

-Dr. Joan Clos

In the field of urban planning, politics have been long-discussed among practitioners and academic scholars. Especially when looking at the changing environmental context from a political lens, public participation and stakeholders’ participation cannot be ignored. At the United Nations, the value of participation is clearly outlined in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly in Goal 11.3 , which refers to enhancing the capacity for participatory, integrated and sustainable urban planning and management. Target 11.3.2 hence clearly lays out the need to create and preserve civil society structures of direct participation in urban planning. While the SDGs are global, their achievement will depend on our ability to make them a reality in our cities, regions and countries. In this article, we will discuss the factors that influence the implementation of participatory methods. How can participation affect environmental decision-making in cities? And how can cities ensure and conduct efficient and successful participation?

Policies, Economy and Social Factors

Participatory methods are those that seek to increase democracy in planning. In practice, the level of engagement depends on the negotiation with countries and cities. At the same time, the state of participation usually decreases with the incomes of countries. One reason is the institutional system. In those countries, their different administrations seldom talk with each other, even if they take respective responsibility for the same goal such as building resilient communities or tackling air pollution. Apart from that, discussions between local and national governments often do not take place. There are not sufficient dialogues between the government bodies and civil society. In consequence, the low level of interactions among administrations and stakeholders directly result in limited or no budget for participation in urban planning.

The challenges also show in policies and regulations. Although the realization of the transformative commitments on participation that are laid out in the New Urban Agenda will require an enabling policy framework at the national, sub-national, and local levels , the road map towards this remains unclear. For example, many African countries and cities lack clear climate change action plans and guidelines. Oftentimes, existing environmental laws are not correspondent with environmental planning projects. Therefore, these complex issues cannot be addressed appropriately, causing a vicious cycle of worsening circumstances. Even if the environmental projects have the aim to generate more awareness on topics of the environment and climate change, eventually fueling the discussions on policy reform, they cannot guarantee the democratic involvement of relevant communities and stakeholders in the decision-making processes.

Ensuring appropriate education of participants is one of the main criteria to measure the success of participation. If the stakeholders are not informed correctly about the planned actions of an urban planning activity, they cannot participate in the right manner. Giving the communities their voices to speak up, and empowering them, will shed light on what they know best: the stakeholders are the ones with the most detailed knowledge of the local environment, as well as how the communities use the land in their neighborhood. Therefore, listening to the citizens in order to conduct better urban upgrading activities remains a challenge for many international organizations, but if done correctly and relying on the knowledge and education of stakeholders during the project design, will turn out to have more resilient and fruitful outcomes in the long run.

Good and bad participation
There are at least two normative and pragmatic benefits of participation in the context of urban environmental planning:
1. The complex and dynamic nature of environmental problems requires flexible and transparent decision-making that embraces a diversity of knowledge and values.
2. The benefits of participation will be seen through two ways: firstly, how it is conducted will play a major role in the success of the implementation; secondly, evaluating the effectiveness of certain solutions will be crucial to success.

In most cases, whether participatory planning is efficient or not depends on the scales and the contents. If the context of a project does not allow participation, it may be a waste of money. Participatory methods in low-democracy systems usually turn out to be “bad participation”: it may seem that participation is practiced, however a lot of times the decisions have already been taken beforehand. The practice of “participation in disguise” allows project managers to avoid persecution for unfavorable projects that oftentimes negatively affect the most vulnerable: the poor, or the environment. In the environmental context, therefore, participatory can also fail. One example is that of urban density. An Urban Planner at UN-Habitat explained this scenario in the following way: “If you ask people how they want to live, everyone will respond that they want space. They may not consider the fact that sprawl can have a huge negative environmental impact. You will have to know where to stop the questions and community engagement, because in the end, the planning practitioners are the experts, not the population”.

Meanwhile, research has also shown examples where participation does not apply. In environmental planning, for instance, participatory exercises can potentially affect large sections of the population. One example would be urban air pollution: The benefits of a strategy to improve air quality fall on all residents of a city, irrespective of whether citizens participated in the formulation of the strategy or not. Hence, there may be little incentive to participate.

Participatory Method: Innovation and Tradition

UN-Habitat’s actions at the Kalobeyei Refugee Camp may be a good example to explain the traditional participation methods. Here, urban planners have interviewed the target group: the newcomers and other Kenyans who live in rural areas. Firstly, the practitioners will conduct interviews to find out what the priorities of the local communities are. It is common to ask questions such as “what does your day-to-day life entail?”, or “what do you do after getting up?” This determines the day-to-day spatial, infrastructural and urban basic services needs of the people. After the interviews, a meeting would be set with a larger group of the community. Here, the participants would be asked to list their priorities within the budget like a “shopping list”. This will give the experts a sense of urgent needs of the whole community. At a second meeting, they will gather all of the resources in a revised “Master Plan”, and present it to the community for further discussions. At the end of this process, the project would be proposed to relevant stakeholders to make the final decision.

There are other forms of participation that engage tech, media and the internet. UN-Habitat’s Participatory Slum Upgrading Program (PSUP) has innovated on participation methods in different slum areas. One example is the E-Participation platform employed in Mtwapa Township, Kilifi County, Kenya. Here, the team helped to establish a blog and a Facebook page for the residents and the public at large, in order to facilitate public engagements through regular forums and meetings publicized on those media platforms.

The role of Participatory Methods for the Greener Cities Partnership:

The aim of the Greener Cities Partnership is to mainstream environmental considerations into local, national and global urban policy-making, as well as to highlight local-global linkages of environmental issues. Participation plays an important role in informing policy- and other decision-making. Which method to use traditional or more innovative depends on the context. There is no best methodology in urban environmental planning; similarly, there is no best type of participation. Every community operates differently with different levels of autonomy, engagement and education. Participatory methods are a great way of involving the public, but the working model has to be adapted locally each time. What is most important is to study and know the local context, before deciding which method will prove to be most fruitful.

[1] Goal 11.3 reads the following: “By 2030, enhance inclusive and sustainable urbanization and capacity for participatory, integrated and sustainable human settlement planning and management in all countries”. Specifically, target 11.3.2 addresses this: “Proportion of cities with a direct participation structure of civil society in urban planning and management that operate regularly and democratically”

[2] UN-Habitat (2016): The New Urban Agenda.

[3] Rydin, Yvonne and Pennington, Mark (2000). “Public participation and local environment planning: The collective action problem and the potential of social capital”. Local Environment, 5:2, 153 – 169.

[4] UN-Habitat (2016): Participatory Slum-Upgrading Programme, Implementation Report, Kenya Mtwapa

"This article is part of a series about the importance of Greener Cities and what we need to address to achieve them. This series is produced by the Greener Cities Partnership, a joint initiative between UN-Habitat and UN Environment to strengthen environmental policy-making in cities. "