Commit to a meaningful participation process

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Commit to a Meaningful Participation Process

❖ “Don't get *them* to come to *us*, we need to participate in the work of the people we are trying to work with.” ("Berlin" Arena, 03.2021)

❖ In reference to Lisbon: “There is lots of experience with participatory systems and processes, [but they are] never imported into governance. They remain in the experimental realm. We ask communities to participate, give their time, and then [there is] lack of inclusion in the actual process. There are no consequences for failing to follow through. We lose believability.” ("Berlin" Arena, 03.2021)

General ambition

Meaningful participation values inclusivity and diverse perspectives to inform urban sustainability and justice in-practice, rather than merely “on paper”. In other words, participants’ inputs visibly shape initiative outcomes, and thus influence the status quo in urban sustainability and justice. Attention to inclusivity and diversity is needed throughout the process and is supported by consideration for race, gender, age, and class among others ("Berlin" Arena, 03.2021). It can require confronting and accepting multiple points of view and listening to people’s issues, concerns and experiences, thus avoiding feelings of tokenization ("Berlin" Arena, 03.2021).

Here, it can also be key to “do rather than say” ("Berlin" Arena, 03.2021). Practical, ‘hands on’ participation opportunities can help make projects more inclusive as they allow for people from diverse backgrounds to contribute. Public participation in the form of volunteering can be crucial for the initiative’s operation and legitimacy. Fun and creative participatory mechanisms such as art, music or games can bring different people together and build trust in a common endeavor ("Berlin" Arena, 03.2021). This may be especially true for engaging children and teenagers who can make a powerful contribution ("Berlin" Arena, 03.2021) and potentially ensure the sustainability of an initiative with their ongoing participation ("Berlin" Arena, 03.2021).

Meaningful participation nurtures communities in all kinds of ways, but can also take a lot of time and energy. There should be a clear benefit to those taking part. To maintain enthusiasm and engagement, participation processes can arrange for sharing a meal together ("Berlin" Arena, 03.2021), learning useful skills together ("Berlin" Arena, 03.2021), keep a positive outlook, and produce concrete and tangible outcomes (e.g., tactical urbanism) ("Berlin" Arena, 03.2021).

Municipalities require a culture of participation across municipal departments and councils("Berlin" Arena, 03.2021). This type of collaborative governance entails a clear definition of roles, responsibilities and mutual respect as project partners (e.g. between municipal actors, councils and residents). Depending on the issues, participants may be empowered to shape outcomes in various ways. For technical endeavors (e.g building a storm-water system), for example, residents can share their concerns, clarify understandings and possibly take on shared responsibility for specific aspects. An especially meaningful participation process may include giving decision-making roles to affected groups ("Berlin" Arena, 03.2021), for example, as in participatory budgeting processes ("Berlin" Arena, 03.2021). It is important that people feel a sense of empowerment and ownership of an initiative ("Berlin" Arena, 03.2021).

Finally, trust is strengthened through meaningful participation. It can be supported through long-term, steady processes, transparency, clear responsibilities and expectations and a culture of admitting mistakes("Berlin" Arena, 03.2021). Time pressure, among others, is a barrier to building trust ("Berlin" Arena, 03.2021). A long-term commitment to community engagement (i.e., beyond a short project lifespan) builds up trust and conveys that inclusivity is essential to envisioning and making positive changes ("Berlin" Arena, 03.2021).


Co-creation of a sustainable neighborhood in Freiburg

The citizen-led Vauban Forum was invited to participate in the “Working Group Vauban” (a consultative committee within the city council) making residents legitimate partners in the project development (Q15 & Q22).

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Holistic neighbourhood development Augustenborg

Plans were discussed in advance with residents, giving them the chance to comment and agree on next steps together with the municipality. Municipal authorities and 20% of all the residents collaborated together on plans for developing the area including tapping into the knowledge and experience of particular residents. Several of their ideas were implemented into the neighbourhood, such as developing the open storm water system in a more natural process that enhances the area’s urban biodiversity (Q14). Key here was to strike a good balance between short-term change of the area (where residents see fast changes as a result of their own participation) and the long-term commitment of institutions (so residents gain access to the bigger vision behind the project and feel like their time and energy will contribute to something greater) (Q23).

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Inner-city community energy in London

From the very beginning, community members have been the founders and drivers of a cooperative structure that relies upon community engagement in order to function (financial investment, regular meetings, decision-making etc.) and the intervention engages with the wider community to address energy poverty and provide opportunities for employment and learning (Q14). Additionally, further consultation with local residents informed the initiative’s problem definition (deliberative approach), and hands-on involvement (practical approach) in the creation of solar panels and internships led to increased interest and participation (Q24).

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Community Land Trust Brussels

From a very early stage, future building residents participated in visioning and realizing the creation of their future community land trust home. Furthermore, residents make up one third of the Trust’s board members (Q.14).

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Regeneration of a deprived neighborhood in Rotterdam

To make the project more inclusive, project proponents developed two types of participation methods and invited residents to engage in a more deliberative one (e.g. visioning the district) and more practical one (e.g. developing activities in the community center and community garden).

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BürgerEnergie Berlin

Based on the participation of volunteers including students (mainly graduates from the field of renewable energy) and retirees, this initiative was able to flourish. According to an interviewee, “Among the most important factors for the cooperative being alive and working to realize its goals is that we have a lot of people as volunteers giving their time and putting in their efforts.” (Interview with practitioner).

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Some action idea(s), examples, and resources from UrbanA’s "Berlin" Arena (03.21)

➔ Build relationships and trust by finding an organization already working with marginalized communities. Participate in their projects before asking them to participate in yours. In doing so you create a mutual relationship where you can learn from each other.

➔ Institutionalize and promote civil society participation in local government.

➔ Transferable structures such as the Public Participation Networks in Ireland, bring together community and voluntary, environmental and social inclusion groups in local settings:

➔ A low-barrier, inclusive community initiative such as the ‘Zusammen Leben’ (Living Together) garden in Freiburg, engages people from 20 different countries:

➔ An initiative that supports engagement in sensitive areas, such as the Lisbon City Council’s BipZip program, is a “fantastic tool for change”:

That is not all! Additional insights from the “Berlin” Arena are included throughout this Enabling Governance Arrangement.

Relation to justice in urban sustainability governance

Committing to a meaningful participation process should help overcome two drivers of injustice: Limited citizen participation in urban planning and Lack of effective knowledge brokerage and stewardship opportunities.

‘Limited citizen participation in urban planning’ refers to the limited involvement and engagement of urban residents in decision-making around the planning, design, implementation and/or evaluation of urban sustainability-oriented interventions. By increasing the serious consideration of residents’ needs and desires and the chance to take an active part in shaping initiatives, the status quo of urban sustainability and injustice can be called into question. Reducing barriers to participation for specific marginalized groups, such as single parents or low income individuals, and providing childcare options or some form of financial compensation for their time can enhance procedural and representational justice in urban sustainability governance.

‘Lack of effective knowledge brokerage and stewardship opportunities’ means that knowledge is not shared effectively or equally across social groups, sectors or disciplines, making it difficult to improve urban sustainability and justice. Providing low-barrier participation opportunities, and knowledge on how to participate is one channel for giving equal access to such information.

Critical reflection

Participation processes can be a driver of injustice if they are not planned very carefully to foster inclusivity and diversity. If participatory processes do not include marginalized voices and priorities, outcomes will not be socially just. In some cases, participation is reliant on the capacity of citizens to self-organize and advocate for their interests. Project coordinators may need to straddle power differences as not all stakeholder groups have the same capacity, time, knowledge, or accessibility to access or fully engage in such processes ("Berlin" Arena, 03.2021). Better accessibility through clear information and low entry barriers will help engage new people ("Berlin" Arena, 03.2021). However, “checking power” extends beyond the immediate participation process itself, where often neighborhood-level conversations get co-opted by bigger actors with a louder voice ("Berlin" Arena, 03.2021).

Projects are challenged to reconcile diverse perspectives and be mindful of initiatives that involve trade-offs across interest groups (for example reducing car traffic in cities could result in accessibility challenges for those who rely on it) ("Berlin" Arena, 03.2021) or polarized societies where people have very different ideas ("Berlin" Arena, 03.2021).

Finally, there are several reasons why those responsible for organizing participation processes might actively avoid more inclusive and diverse participation. From a logistical perspective, meaningful participation processes can be costly and time intensive. Furthermore, some believe that politicians are not genuinely open to listening and acting based on what people or civil society has to say ("Berlin" Arena, 03.2021). Likewise, public actors may avoid meaningful engagement in anticipation of input or feedback that is inconvenient or seemingly undesirable - for example, “if we consult people they will say no” ("Berlin" Arena, 03.2021)


Co-creation of a sustainable neighborhood in Freiburg

In Vauban, housing is primarily accessible to homeowners rather than to tenants. About 76% of the district is dedicated to homeowners (including cooperatives). However, despite having a highly participatory approach, becoming an owner is not accessible to everyone because it entails very high entry costs (Q14).

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Covid-19 connection

Under Covid-19, in-person activities have been severely restricted, which naturally limits or digitalizes participation processes. Online methods such as participation apps, surveys, and video conferencing may make up for some of the loss, and possibly make participation more accessible for some (e.g., mobility-impaired individuals). However, the lack of in-person gatherings makes meaningful and truly inclusive participation processes more challenging. This is especially true for participatory initiatives which include, and/or rely on, collective in-person involvement from volunteers. In some cases, public health measures to combat Covid-19 serve to justify poor public consultations, for example, simply sending out surveys to “check off a box” ("Berlin" Arena, 03.2021).