Aligning public participation processes in urban development projects to the local context

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Public participation is considered an essential process for achieving sustainable urban development. Often, however, insufficient attention is paid to the design of public participation, and processes are formulaic.

Public participation is considered an essential process for achieving sustainable urban development. Often, however, insufficient attention is paid to the design of public participation, and processes are formulaic. Then, participation may not match the local context of the communities within which a project is conducted. As a result, participation may become co-optative or coercive, stakeholders may lose trust, and outcomes may favor special interests or be unsustainable, among other shortcomings.

In this research, urban public participation is a collaborative decision-making process between residents, businesses, experts, public officials, and other stakeholders. When processes are not attuned with the local context (participant lifestyles, needs, interests, and capacities) misalignments between process and context arise around living conditions and personal circumstances, stakeholder trust, civic engagement, collaborative capacity, and sustainability literacy, among others.

This dissertation asks (1) what challenges arise when the public participation process does not match the local context, (2) what are key elements of public participation processes that are aligned with the local context, (3) what are ways to design public participation that align with specific local contexts, and (4) what societal qualities and conditions are necessary for meaningful participatory processes?

These questions are answered through four interrelated studies. Study 1 analyzes the current state of the problem by reviewing public participation processes and categorizing common misalignments with the local context. Study 2 envisions a future in which the problem is solved by identifying the features of well-aligned processes. Studies 3 and 4 test interventions for achieving the vision.

This dissertation presents a framework for analyzing the local context in urban development projects and designing public participation processes to meet this context. This work envisions public participation processes aligned with their local context, and it presents directives for designing deliberative decision-making processes for sustainable urban development. The dissertation applies a systems perspective to the social process of public participation, and it provides empirical support for theoretical debates on public participation while creating actionable knowledge for planners and practitioners.