Timing the Level of Citizen Participation in Spatial Planning Processes
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Despite the fact that experience has been gained with participatory planning processes since the collaborative turn in planning theory, planning officials still struggle with the timing and level of participation. This research was set up to contribute to a better understanding of the timing of the level of citizen participation. Citizen participation provides citizens influence on a planning project, but the amount of influence is not always the same. From different sources (Arnstein, 1969; Castell, 2016; Leyenaar, 2009), six levels of participation have been derived that correspond with the amount of influence citizens get in a planning project: information, consultation, advising, dialogue, co-production and co-decision. Furthermore, six phases are distinguished in the participatory planning process: agenda setting, analysis, formulating policy, decision making, implementation and evaluation (Howlett & Giest, 2015; Macintosh, 2004). The level of participation can be different for each phase in a planning process. This raises the question how planning officials decide about timing citizen participation and its level in a participatory planning process. To answer this question, it was important to first indicate in which phase planning officials apply which level of participation. To gain a deeper understanding why they choose a certain level of participation in each phase, insight was gain into the considerations planning officials make regarding timing the level of citizen participation. This study qualitatively analyzed the views and considerations of planning officials by interviewing eighteen planning officials that have experience with citizen participation in spatial planning processes. An extensive literature review on citizen participation formed the basis for the semi-structured interviews. Questions were asked on what their experiences are with citizen participation, what their views are on the level of participation in different phases in a planning process and what we can learn from their experiences in terms of timing the level of citizen participation. Besides general questions on their views and opinions on citizen participation, the interviewees were asked to divide points over the different levels of participation in each phase of the planning process. This exercise provided insight into which considerations planning officials make when designing a participatory planning process and how they justify their choices. Throughout the interviews it became clear that participation in a spatial planning project does not exist of single moments, but can be seen as a participation trajectory alongside and connected to the process of a spatial planning project. Three main trajectories have been distinguished by analyzing the results: trajectory I: increasing influence, trajectory II: consistent average influence and trajectory III: consistent high influence. The first one can be described as a participatory trajectory in which the influence of citizens increases throughout the first three or four phases of a planning process. It seems that first an understanding of the context and a relation with the citizens has to be established, after which more attention is given to actual input. The second mentality resembles a more consistent average influence for citizens throughout the planning process, which is mainly based on the context specificity of spatial planning projects. However higher levels of participation are deemed less suitable, due to the power relations in place. In the third trajectory, higher levels of participation are believed to empower citizens within these power relations and are therefore deemed desirable, if the context allows it. However, it remains difficult to provide guidance for the level of participation per phase, due to the context dependency and personal view of the planning officials. It is therefore not possible to establish unambiguously how officials decide about timing the level of citizen participation in a participatory planning process, because the context of the project and personal preferences and reasoning predominate in the decisions they take. In conclusion, this research shows that it is not desirable, perhaps not even possible, to create one clear participation trajectory for all projects. Each project is unique and therefore participation is embedded differently in each project. However, a better understanding of the timing of citizen participation and its level in each phase can contribute to better planning practices. Therefore it is advised to step into the post-collaborative era as described by Castell (2016), in which the potential of participation is still celebrated and utilized, but with a critical look at the level of influence, conditions, forms and outcomes of participatory processes in relation to their context. To further improve participation processes, more research is advised. Further research could zoom in on specific scales of spatial planning to deepen the findings of this research. Furthermore, it would be of interest to ask citizens when and how they want to be involved in spatial planning projects. In this research, we have seen the views of planning professionals on the timing and level of citizen participation with all their experiences, but the subject is still inviting citizens to participate. So it would be of value to ask them at which moment in the process they consider their input to be valuable and how they want to be involved. Besides theoretical or practical guidelines, I believe proper evaluations on the participation trajectory would improve the knowledge of planning officials on how to deal with citizen participation, it’s timing and the level of influence they give to citizens throughout the planning process. They would be able to learn more from their experiences when given time to profoundly evaluate the participatory process. With this research and the abovementioned recommendations, contributions are made to better prepare planning officials for the participation requirements that will be obliged in the Dutch Environment and Planning Act.