Public Participation for More Sustainable Solutions

Since sustainability is intertwined between numerous entities. There’s no way that a sustainable solution can be optimized without understanding how the solution will affect a city’s inhabitants.  Public participation, in response to this assertion, is a field within urban planning that aims to incorporate public input into private and government decisions.

With the incorporation of public input, sustainable solutions can be specially tailored towards providing public needs as it pertains to sustainability.  If done correctly, solutions implemented will be implemented in order to help. As a result, the city will utilize sustainable methods in a way that maximizes the methods’ benefits towards the public.

The Benefits of Public Participation

Public participation is defined by the University of Washington as the following:

“Public Participation is based on the belief that those who are affected by a decision have a right to be involved in the decision-making process. Public participation is the process by which an organization consults with interested or affected individuals, organizations, and government entities before making a decision. Public participation is two-way communication and collaborative problem solving with the goal of achieving better and more acceptable decisions.“

The benefits of public participation, specifically, are unique to each department, but there are benefits that are widely considered to be universal, no matter what the specifics of the problem that needs to be solved.  These universal benefits include:

  • The reliance on stakeholders, individuals who are interested in the outcome of a project, calls on the need for public participation.

Stakeholders are going to be interested in the project and how the project will affect them.  Idealistically, stakeholders are going to want to have their needs met, and sustainable solutions can make that ideal become a reality.  Since stakeholders are willing to work with government and private entities to help realize their visions and goals, effective public participation is a must in order to communicate two way and help realize the visions of both the stakeholders and those responsible for implementing solutions.

  • Effective public participation techniques are the only way in which conflict between sides can be minimized.

Due to the nature of decision making moving towards just one solution, there will never be a solution that satisfies every single individual in a city.  However, with effective public participation, there will be a solution that is perceived as fair to the city overall.

  • Economic insight.

Stakeholders include individuals and groups within the business field.  Implementing sustainable solutions has shown to have a positive economic effect on business, including such fields as real estate.  Public participation allows businesses to gain access to resources that will allow them to implement sustainable solutions into their businesses.

  • Public participation.

By utilizing the public to find out how potential solutions can affect their lives for the better, will help tailor sustainable solutions in a way that they will benefit the public. The International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) is the premier organization for providing information and guidance about effective public participation.

Through their expertise, they have provided tools and information and these resources have worked for government and private entities.  Their information and insight can help any organization utilize their public participation needs in a far more useful way.

IAP2 Logo

Image via IAP2 Australia.

Five Levels of Public Participation

The International Association for Public Participation provides five levels of public participation as part of its IAP2’s Public Participation Spectrum.

What does the spectrum say in regards to public participation?  It provides guidance on properly utilizing public participation techniques to fit the level of potential influence the public should have on decisions. Since each sustainable problem is unique, the steps to finding a solution will provide for different levels of technical expertise.

Choosing the right level can help make sure that public opinion does not override better insights made by experts within relevant fields, but at the same time makes sure the solution will help meet public needs.

This guide is useful due to the fact that it helps allocate the right level of public participation needed.  Depending on the issue’s reliance on expert, technical opinion, the intensity of public participation matters relative to the reliance.

If finding a solution for an issue rests on utilizing niche technical fields, a lower level via the IAP2 spectrum is recommended.  On the other hand, if a solution to issue does not rely on specific expertise, then the public’s input is far less likely to be a detriment.

It is up to public policy makers to determine what level is best for the implemented solution.

Featured image: A public meeting and method of public participation. Image via Michael Rieger/FEMA and Wikimedia Commons.

About The Author

Alex Ageno earned his degree in Urban Planning in 2013 from Arizona State University. Alex's interests in Urban Planning include Urban Design, Sustainability, Form Based Codes, Zoning, and Environmental Planning. He resides in Arizona.