“Public participation in the planning process is key to creating successful and implementable plans. Unfortunately, the term often conjures up images of angry residents, stifling-hot rooms in old buildings with dim fluorescent lighting, and a group of people that simply cannot agree.” –ICA Program Director Seva Gandhi, The ToP Focused Conversation: A Facilitation Tool for the Planning Process, APA PAS Report 595
The American Planning Association (APA) is a professional membership organization for planners whose publishing branch, Planning Advisory Service (PAS), releases quarterly reports meant to “deliver authoritative guidance on trending issues and practices.” PAS Report 595, A Planner’s Guide to Meeting Facilitation, includes a piece written by ICA Program Director Seva Gandhi titled The ToP Focused Conversation: A Facilitation Tool for the Planning Process. In the opening lines, quoted above, she evokes a commonly dreaded image among planners of dead-end meetings where their ideas for a community are met with frustrated and angry residents. While residents’ opposition to change may prove challenging to planners, it may be because decisions made about communities historically have not included perspectives of the people most impacted -- local residents. In order to repair relationships and effectively co-design with communities, planners must foster meaningful participation throughout the planning process, a premise central to all of ICA’s Technology of Participation (ToP) methods.
Planners can support such a shift by learning how to facilitate. Seva writes, “In order to elicit genuine participation in plans, policies, projects, or proposals, content-expert planners must be able to pivot and become neutral facilitators.” That neutrality invites residents to speak first and be heard, giving them a degree of power that is lost when planning proceeds without their participation. It opens the door for a focused conversation, a ToP tool designed to “maximize the participation of everyone in the group and to bring people to a new place of awareness at its conclusion.”
Planners cannot accomplish meaningful participation by merely inviting participants into the room without addressing power dynamics and decision-making processes. Rather, there is a range of involvement, as described in Sherry Arnstein’s A Ladder of Citizen Participation, which was published in the Journal of the American Planning Association (JAPA) in 1969. Arnstein’s ladder includes eight rungs representing the increasing levels of power that citizens can hold in public planning. At the bottom are two levels of non-participation and three levels of tokenism. Only the top three rungs, referred to as partnership, delegated power, and citizen control, represent a situation in which power is truly held by citizens. While Arnstein herself admits that this hierarchy is oversimplified, the point is clear: meaningful participation requires a shift in dynamics that centers power among community residents working from the bottom up, rather than planners working from the top down.