What has happened to 'having a say'?

Lucy Natarajan
13 Apr 2019

50 years of having a say…

Built Environment is publishing a special issue that marks a half-century of public participation in planning and place-making. It comes at a time when democratic systems of governance have opened up to public participation, but face increasing criticism. We offer a series of articles, with new research and debate, to ‘take stock’ of public participation.

Image 1: Les Gillets Jaunes

2019 is an import moment for participatory research and practice. It marks fifty years since the publication of two important texts. American academic Sherry Arnstein made it clear, in her landmark paper on the Ladder of Participation, that ‘real participation’ entails citizen empowerment. It remains one of the most highly cited works internationally. In the United Kingdom, an influential government report People and Planning (aka the Skeffington Report) set out how the public might be engaged in the production of local development plans. That work spoke of British plans but the lessons are universal.

People, Plans and Places

After fifty years, the range of engagement techniques has vastly expanded. We have accumulated a wealth of experience, and are now witnessing a wave of technological change. This two part special issue People, Plans & Places reflects the state of the art. Part one is out now and part two that will be available in June 2019.  The articles reflect on how far we have come and where we might go next.

Part one of People, Plans & Places, entitled Outlooks on Participating, examines the current ‘landscape of participation’. It begins by revisiting Arnstein and Skeffington. As Sue Brownill and Andy Inch’s article demonstrates, the fundamental question is still about whether the public can have influence.

Image 2: Arnstein's ladder reimagined

What is citizen control today?

So, this issue keeps on asking about citizen control. It looks at some of the latest technologies of participation. It also looks at some of the oldest participatory techniques that continue to this day.

If money is power, will crowd-sourced funding of urban development empower the public? Raphael Sedlitzky and Yvonne Franz examine the civic crowdfunding examples from North America and Europe.  Likewise if information is power, can citizen science deliver empowerment? Lynda Newnam provides insights from recent Australian experiences with major development assessments.

Image 3: Citizen scientist tours

But what about analogue forms of involvement, aka direct action! Can this offer real influence to the public? Geoff Dudley and colleagues’ work on dockless bike hire and misuse in Manchester demonstrates the power inherent in public protest, which is perhaps the most basic form of ‘having a say’. And Tianyu Zhu’s fascinating ethnographic work in Beijing, demonstrates how choreographed performative action in daily life is both a means to agency and has direct effect on place.

Image 4: Making place and community

It is remarkable how expectations of citizen involvement have changed. In some countries, ‘having a say’ is seen as fundamental and public participation is cemented in policy and laws. This issue celebrates particularly Charter of Participatory Democracy, which is now available in six languages. But as Luc-Emile Bouche-Florin argues, the European Council of Spatial Planning/Conseil Européen des Urbanistes fought hard to place this work as a milestone on the landscape of democratic governance, and the battle continues.

Image 5: Participatory democracy via planning 


As ever further Built Environment blogs & tweets on this theme are welcome, as well as comments and feedback, on this first part of People, Plans and Places. We will share the second part very soon!


Listing / Image 1: Les Gillets Jaunes (Source: Olivier Ortelpa via Flikr, CC BY-SA 2.0https://www.flickr.com/photos/copivolta/45808616985)

Image 2: Arnstein's ladder reimagined (Source: Rob Cowan via UDS, © Alexandrine Press, all rights reserved)

Image 3: Citizen scientist tours (Source: Gary Blaschke via Lynda Newnam, all rights reserved)

Image 4: Making place and community (Source: Tianyu Zhu, all rights reserved)

Image 5: Participatory democracy via planning (Source: Illustration by Yves Fauvel via ECTP/CEU)