Despite increasing focus on participatory and bottom-up approaches in urban planning, our understanding of the dynamics and complexity of public participation remains weak. This is especially true in many parts of the developing world, where a tradition of top-down and technocratic planning has left a strong legacy in city and national governments. The result, many argue, has been a tendency towards superficial models of participatory planning and development.
Overly simplistic applications of participatory approaches — as documented perhaps most powerfully in Cooke and Kothari's book Participation: The New Tyranny? — are problematic for two reasons. First, because the mixed outcomes that often result can hinder community development efforts; and, second, because these same outcomes can provide ammunition to those who hope to roll back the current move towards greater community engagement in the design of cities and the built environment.
As an example of this sentiment, a recent article in the online journal Places noted that the evidence on participation suggests "it's a fool's errand to rely upon citizens to guide the planning process." If we hope to defuse such criticism and build on the powerful rhetorical momentum that currently exists for participatory planning and development, we will need both a stronger understanding of the hurdles that confront communities engaged in participatory planning and a better sense of how to avoid these pitfalls.
Other groups considered renters to be second-class citizens ... perhaps more disturbingly, renters shared this perspective and felt that their voices were of little consequence to decisions about the future of their homes, community and livelihoods.
The microdynamics of public participation
Recently, Stanford's Leonard Ortolano and I examined the microdynamics of public participation in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The research sought, first, to investigate what motivates grassroots participation in mobilisation efforts around built environment conflicts, in this case a forced eviction. Second, it studied the consequences of this participation on participants themselves. (See the full papers on these two dimensions of the research in Environment and Urbanization and the Journal of Planning Education and Research respectively.)
By focusing on the microdynamics of participation, we departed from the norm of social movement and civil society research, which has generally concentrated on the broader emergence of movements rather than the kinds of individual decisions that shape participation and its outcomes.
The research was based on extensive interviews with participants in a grassroots slum dweller movement, which in 2007 was responding to an eviction of residents from lands adjacent to Dar es Salaam's port. While based on a single case study, the findings are relevant to community organisers, planners and policy makers more broadly. In part, this relevance is due to the increasingly widespread hope that grassroots mobilisation of the kind undertaken by residents in Dar es Salaam can serve as a means for marginalised groups to address development-related challenges. Also, the kinds of challenges communities confront in Dar es Salaam bear many similarities to those faced in other cities in the developing world, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa. Not least among these is the increasing demand for marginal land within the city, which is so often where the poor reside and engage in essential livelihood activities.
Before the eviction, the main mobilisation effort undertaken by residents was a grassroots enumeration, which consisted of a population census and comprehensive mapping of plots and households, based on methods used in India and Kenya by Slum Dwellers International. Enumerations are an increasingly common approach employed by residents of informal settlements and other marginalised communities to generate data that gives them a tangible identity and demonstrate they have the capacity to self-organise. They also serve as the basis for lobbying for policy change on behalf of evictees. Accepting that the Dar es Salaam eviction would take place, the movement hoped to use the data from the enumeration to lobby government for a grant of land for community resettlement.
Residents who participated fared worse in terms of some post-eviction resettlement outcomes than those who did not ... participants spent their already limited time engaged in group mobilisation activities rather than securing their own new, post-eviction homes.
Six practical insights for participation
The experience in Dar es Salaam highlighted six lessons that frequently foil participatory planning and provide some helpful insights that can strengthen grassroots participation efforts.
The first lesson is that politics and power can strongly influence participation dynamics and outcomes. Renters were seldom found to participate in mobilisation efforts. The fundamental power differential between owners and renters in Tanzanian informal settlements is at least in part responsible for this difference. Other groups — including owners, policy makers and planners — considered renters to be second-class citizens when it came to the impacts of eviction and displacement. Perhaps more disturbingly, renters shared this perspective and felt that their voices were of little consequence to decisions about the future of their homes, community and livelihoods. These perceptions fundamentally affected renters' willingness and ability to mobilise around the threat of eviction.
In the absence of a concerted effort to overcome the profound power differential between owners and renters within the community, it was unlikely that renters could be motivated to participate. While renters made up approximately 60% of the population, only 10% of participants were renters. This finding serves as a stark reminder to carefully interrogate how internal power differences within communities are likely to shape the dynamics of participation. It also highlights that tenure status is often associated with power and that renters can be all too easily overlooked in mobilisation efforts.
The second lesson, related to the first, is that communities are more heterogeneous than we frequently assume. While this has been shown in many contexts, it is frequently forgotten by practitioners and policy makers in their enthusiasm for "community" participation. While organisers in Dar es Salaam focused their attention on the community writ large, albeit making efforts to include both women and men, the divide between owners and renters escaped notice. A fundamental cleavage in the community went unaddressed in the participation strategy and renters were largely left out of mobilisation activities.
The third lesson is that it is important not to assume that everyone in a community will participate; only some will and it is vital to understand what motivates that participation. There are a wide range of factors held by scholars from different disciplines to influence decisions to participate in mobilisation efforts, including economic payoffs, social networks, group identification, political opportunity, relative deprivation, connection to place and even genetic and hormonal factors. The great range of possible motivating factors implies a complex decision calculus for individuals weighing the choice to participate.
The breadth of possible explanations for decisions to engage in mobilisation indicates that there is likely no silver bullet that can be assumed to drive participation in all cases. Instead, as seen in Dar es Salaam, a variety of factors will likely be at play and lead to highly nuanced patterns of participation. For practitioners and organisers, this suggests that adopting a single, best-practice approach to participation is unlikely to be successful, and that engaging in a deep, context-rich study of potential participants and their social, economic, political and cultural circumstances will be essential to understanding how to mobilise individuals and shape participation outcomes (whether seeking representative participation, specifically targeting neglected groups or some other goal).
The fourth lesson is that it is essential to understand what the possible consequences of participation might be and whether these could have negative implications for participants. In Dar es Salaam, residents who participated fared worse in terms of some post-eviction resettlement outcomes than those who did not. The reason for these differential outcomes rests on the fact that participants spent their already limited time engaged in group mobilisation activities rather than securing their own new, post-eviction homes. This reveals that practitioners and policymakers need to be very careful when they draw on the limited time and resources of the poor in participation efforts, as this can have unintended, potentially negative, consequences. The fifth, related, lesson is that it is vital to manage expectations associated with participation efforts. Where expectations are unrealistic, individuals who choose to engage may be left worse off than they might otherwise have been, which may leave them jaded and suspicious of future participation efforts.
Finally, the research shows that, in spite of the increasing enthusiasm (rhetorically at least) for participation and the outstanding work that many community groups have done to improve development outcomes, there is nonetheless a strong need for formal planning processes that can support, empower and protect vulnerable groups. There is considerable risk in the current climate of heightened, but sometimes shallow, support for community participation that communities will be burdened with managing problems of a scale that are simply too immense for them to act on alone. Forced eviction and resettlement may be a case in point. While some communities may be able to effectively cope on their own with extreme challenges such as forced eviction and resettlement, many if not most others will require the support of planners and policymakers and a backdrop of enabling policies and transparent public administration. Rhetorical support for participation does not absolve government of the responsibility to protect the vulnerable from harm and act positively to lay the institutional foundations for effective community action.