D) Commit to a meaningful participation process

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Examples from real world governance interventions:

General ambition

Meaningful participation means that citizens’ inputs are seriously considered in inclusive design and governance processes, that they visibly shape initiatives’ outcomes, and thus can influence the status quo in urban sustainability and justice. Such a process is also cognisant of who is invited and capable of participating, since otherwise it runs the risk of becoming a further driver of injustice. Committing to a meaningful participation process is important for both municipality-led and community-led initiatives.

  1. On the side of municipalities: Municipal actors need to acknowledge and embrace the value of citizen participation in project development and trust civil-society in visioning and implementing projects. This entails a clear definition of roles and responsibilities and could even mean seeing each other as equally legitimate to engage in the project as partners (e.g. between municipal actors and citizens).
  2. On the side of civil society: Committing to a meaningful participation process in bottom-up initiatives can also entail a thoughtful mix of deliberative and practical approaches to citizen participation. Public participation in the form of volunteering can be crucial for the initiative’s operation and legitimacy.


1. On the side of municipality

Vauban neighborhood, Freiburg

The citizen-led Vauban Forum was invited to participate in the “Vauban city planning council” (a consultative committee within the city council) which indicates that the municipality recognizes citizens as legitimate partners in the project development (Q.15 & 22).

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Superblocks, Barcelona

While establishing Superblocks, the municipality of Barcelona developed a standard procedure for participation in each block. Over the course of the project, this procedure became increasingly open putting responsibilities and decisions into the hand of formalised local working groups consisting of diverse local stakeholders (e.g. local businesses and residents) (Q14).

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2. On the side of civil society

Brixton Energy, London

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 (Q.24).

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Community Land Trust, Brussels

Future building residents are essential actors in the planning process. From a very early stage they are central in visioning and realizing the creation of their future community land trust home (Q.14).

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Carnisse neighborhood, 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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Büger Energie Berlin, Berlin

BEB would not have been able to establish and grow the way it did without the contribution of volunteers. Most are students, mainly graduates from the field of renewable energies, but there are also retirees who want to use their free time to help the cooperative. 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 [...] The two general managers are essentially doing what needs to be done from coordinating all the activities to implementing new ideas and doing all the nitty gritty and everything. However, that wouldn’t have been possible without the larger membership base that is gradually increasing”.

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Relation to justice in urban sustainability governance

Committing to a meaningful participation process should help overcome one driver of injustice previously explored by UrbanA, Limited citizen participation in urban planning. This refers to the limited involvement and engagement of citizens and citizens’ initiatives in decision-making around the planning, design, implementation and/or evaluation of urban sustainability-oriented interventions. By increasing the opportunity for serious consideration of citizens’ needs and desires, as well as providing the chance to take an active part in shaping initiatives, the status quo of urban sustainability and injustice can be called into question. This also means reducing barriers to participation for specific marginalized groups, such as single parents or low income individuals, by providing childcare options or some form of financial compensation for their time. This effort can help increase procedural and representational justice in urban sustainability governance.

Critical reflection

Participation processes can be a driver of injustice if they are not planned very carefully around fostering inclusivity, but are, for example, ignorant of who is invited and capable of participating. They also can risk placing extra burden on those who take part and shift responsibilities from the public to private realms. From a logistical perspective, participation processes can be costly and time intensive, and therefore not feasible for initiatives with limited financial resources. In some cases, citizen participation may also risk the achievement of ecological goals, if they conflict with social priorities (like e.g. at Barcelona park, where citizens wished for recreation which conflicted with ecological preservation goals). In such a case, project managers would be required to avoid a zero-sum game situation and instead work towards a solution that addresses social priorities without compromising ecological sustainability.

Covid-19 connection/How does this enabling arrangement play out under the conditions of a pandemic?

Under Covid-19, in-person activities have been severely restricted, which naturally limits participation processes. While online methods such as participation apps, surveys, and video conferencing may be able to make up for some of the loss, and possibly make participation more accessible for some, like for example, mobility-impaired individuals, 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.