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Meaningful Citizen Engagement in Urban Planning

La participación ciudadana significativa en la planificación urbana

Andy McDevitt|

A key part of democracy at the local level is providing citizens with the opportunity to take action on the issues that are important to them. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the area of urban planning. When planning processes meaningfully take into account community perspectives, local governments can better focus on local priorities, ensure that services meet local needs, and build a sense of shared ownership of valuable local assets. 

In contrast, where local communities are excluded from these processes and key planning decisions are made behind closed doors, communities can feel alienated and quickly lose trust in their local elected leaders. 

On behalf of the Northern Ireland Open Government Network, I documented this in the case of two large scale development proposals, one in Newry Mourne and Down District Council and one in Mid Ulster District Council (Northern Ireland). In both cases, the local governments carried out robust consultation exercises with the community but at a time when decisions had already been made and significant funds had already been invested. As a result, strong opposition to key elements of the proposals that emerged from the consultation processes had little influence over the projects. 

For example, in the case of Mid Ulster, despite receiving more than 1300 letters of objection to the business park proposal, with many residents preferring to see the high school grounds transformed into a local park, the local government approved the proposal on the basis that it did not conflict with the existing planning policies or other “material considerations”. In the case of Newry, despite the widely expressed view among consultees that plans to build a new set of local government offices as part of the local council’s regeneration programme was the lowest priority, the offices remain the key focus of the government’s plans. These cases are symptomatic of a planning system that prioritizes economic growth and private interests above community needs or environmental sustainability. Considering the ongoing planning reform efforts and collaboration between government and civil society, our report could help catalyze a constructive dialogue at the local level about what short term improvements could be made, as well as addressing the need for systemic reform.  

What does meaningful citizen engagement look like?

While the experience of the two districts of Northern Ireland provides a cautionary tale, my other research on open government approaches at the local level provides an illustration of the potential of proactive citizen engagement initiatives in urban planning. 

Buenos Aires, Argentina, for example, has introduced a dynamic urban map of the city to help build awareness of the new urban code and planning regulations among citizens living in the area and incorporated user experiences into improvements to the public cycling system in the city resulting in a tenfold increase in the use of bicycles between 2009 and 2020. 

In Kaduna State, Nigeria, the government’s “Eyes and Ears” project has enabled citizens to provide feedback on the quality of government projects and services, allowing the government to better prioritize spending. The share of infrastructure projects completed on time has increased significantly as a result, and contractors are blacklisted based on citizens’ reports of unsatisfactory work.

Both Austin, U.S. and Paris, France have involved citizens in the development of their city’s climate plan and in addressing homelessness.  Austin included the perspective of people experiencing homelessness throughout the contracting process of the Downtown Austin Community Court (DACC).

Paris established a “Solidarity Factory” as a space to facilitate exchanges between citizens and government representatives on issues related to solidarity, homelessness, and COVID-19.

These experiences offer a set of lessons on what needs to be in place to ensure that citizen engagement efforts are meaningful and have more chance of contributing positively to local democracy:

  1. Open government initiatives that address salient problems that are directly relevant to the day-to-day experiences of citizens (such as those that involve citizens in urban planning) are likely to have greater reach and impact and get more traction and support from senior officials and politicians. 
  2. Engaging local communities early is essential, especially at an initial planning stage to let citizens shape the planning vision for their local areas. As the Northern Ireland cases illustrate, citizen input should be sought early on enough to help shape proposals before key decisions have been made. Consultation processes should play a key role throughout the decision-making process.
  3. Embedding government feedback and reasoned response into engagement efforts is critical for these initiatives to gain legitimacy. Where citizens are offered opportunities to monitor government activities, provide feedback on government proposals, or submit complaints, it is essential that the government provides a clear response, closes the feedback loop and demonstrates concrete follow-up action. 
  4. Ensuring that monitoring frameworks for such efforts specifically include benchmarks and targets on the quality of community engagement and not just on the quantity of outputs (e.g. in the case of Northern Ireland, the number of planning applications processed). Measurements which focus too much on quantitative outputs are likely to create false incentives which mean that important but more difficult to quantify metrics, such as community engagement, are neglected.

As experience has shown, the government’s responsibility is clear: guarantee that citizen input makes its way early into the decision-making process, communicate openly about how the input is being addressed and ensure transparency allowing citizens to monitor the process throughout. Meaningful citizen engagement can make a fundamental difference in how public services are provided and the results they yield. It is up to governments to make it happen.

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