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#783 - Public Participation -- Part 2, 21-Jan-2004

January 22, 2004 (published February 5, 2004)

by Maria B. Pellerano*

Three recent reports suggest that communities will be safer,
cleaner, stronger and happier as residents increase their
participation in land use planning, zoning, and other
environmental decisions.[1,2,3] So what tools are out there to
help us?

For the past two years, Environmental Research Foundation
has been reviewing tools to help us participate in civic life.
We post these tools on our web site in a section called
"What's Working Now." (http://www.rachel.org .) Here we
will review the best of them.

First, a word of caution. These are not silver bullets. As
anyone who has tried it knows, community participation is
hard work and, to be effective, must become a regular part of
our civic lives. You shouldn't expect to create change by
spending one evening at a meeting or writing one letter.

Furthermore, effective participation requires organization.
Once in a while, a "lone ranger" makes a difference, but it is
MUCH more likely that things will begin to happen if people
get organized and work together. Community participation is
a long-term process that is most likely to succeed if people
create (or join) organizations whose agenda includes civic

Understanding Your Community

To promote civic engagement, a community group can ask
itself, Who needs to be at the table? And what does the
community want?

Meaningful community input depends on having all
stakeholders represented in discussions. Often we do not
know who all the players are in our neighborhood or
community. We can always round up the usual suspects, but
we really need a full spectrum of viewpoints at the table,
particularly viewpoints different from our own. Learning
about your community will help your organization grow and
develop better relationships with other groups, businesses,
and agencies.

Community Asset Inventory

A good way to learn about your community is to conduct a
community asset inventory.[4] It is best to undertake this on a
neighborhood level with a neighborhood-based group doing
the work. Cataloging a community's assets involves a door-
to-door survey of one's neighbors, in three parts.

1. An inventory of the gifts, skills, and talents of
neighborhood residents is compiled.

2. You locate and list all associations in your neighborhood,
and you need to make this list as broad as possible. For
example you would include social clubs, religious
organizations, sports clubs and teams, PTAs, civic
organizations, gardening clubs, etc.

3. Finally you develop a list of formal institutions; these
might include private businesses, public institutions (libraries,
schools, parks, etc.), and non-profit agencies (hospitals,
community development agencies, etc.).

There are several reasons why community asset inventories
are a valuable first step but the two most important are: 1) it
helps community members identify their local assets and
provides them with a list of all resources that might be pulled
into a process of neighborhood visioning or regeneration; and
2) the very process of creating an asset inventory gets
community members talking to each other about their shared
hopes and concerns.

Participatory Mapping

After you have developed your community asset inventory, it
is a good idea to understand what your community looks like
now and how you want it to look in the future. Again you
want to do this on a neighborhood level because it is much
easier to handle a small area rather than an entire town or
city. The best tool that I know of for doing this work is
participatory mapping[5].

I am going to describe the low-tech version of participatory
mapping not the one using computerized Geographic
Information Systems (GIS) -- see http://www.rachel.org/-
bestPrac/detail.cfm?bestPrac_ID=68 for information on GIS

Community groups can use participatory mapping to involve
a diverse group of residents in future land use planning for
the community. These maps can serve many purposes such as
siting a housing development, planning open space, or
developing better pedestrian and bicycle paths.

I am going to discuss participatory mapping for developing
an ideal overview of your community.

First you have a good local map printed on paper large
enough for a small group of people to work on it around a
table. You might make a number of copies of this map so that
several small groups can work at the same time. Make sure
that the map has all current land features (parks, streams,
roads, etc.), buildings (houses, schools, hospitals, retail
establishments, factories, etc.), and any known contaminated
sites already noted on it. Make sure you use simple icons[6]
to mark features such as existing libraries, schools, hospitals,
etc. First, the participants examine the map and discuss the
primary land uses in the neighborhood (housing, schools,
empty lots, etc.), noting incompatible land uses such as a
metal plating shop in the middle of a residential area.

People should then be given the opportunity to envision what
they want their community to look like. For example, they
might put all the industrial facilities in one area, have a
concentrated shopping corridor, put schools within walking
distance of people's homes, have open space and playgrounds
walkable distances from each house, etc. If you have several
groups working on the same area, each group can make a
presentation and then everyone can decide which ideas are
best and how to develop a single map. This final "consensus"
map can then be used whenever the community is trying to
show local officials how they want their community to
develop. This can be done over a period of months so that
you can get maximum input from your community.

Study Circles

Another great tool for discussing the vision of your
community is "study circles" that are given the task of finding
agreement on an issue[7]. A study circle is a facilitated group
of 8 to 12 people with diverse backgrounds and differing
viewpoints who agree to meet several times to discuss a
specific issue. Each person has an equal voice and people try
to understand one another's different views, share concerns,
and look for ways to make things better.

Study circles can be used for most issues that communities
face including race relations, how different generations can
work together, how to plan for growth in a community, and
how to provide better educational opportunities for our

With the help of the Study Circles Resource Center[7],
communities develop a committee that creates the agenda for
the study circle and helps find the participants. Like the study
circles themselves, these committees need to represent
different backgrounds and interests in the community.
Multiple study circles are held in the community
simultaneously over a period of time culminating in a
community-wide meeting where the individual study circles
report on the action ideas they agreed on. The whole group
then agrees on the actions that the community can take

Local Governments Can Encourage Public Participation

Local governments can take the lead in helping citizens
participate. Here are three ways that governments are
currently aiding public participation: citizen advisory
committees, community or neighborhood councils, and
consensus conferences (sometimes called citizen panels).

Citizen Advisory Committees

Many government agencies use citizen advisory committees
to help with decision-making on a variety of issues
(transportation, environment, education, policing, housing,
art, etc.). These committees are a good idea but historically in
some communities they have been ineffective for various
reasons (such as limits on the issues they can address;
politically appointed membership not truly representative of a
community; rubber stamping decisions already made; heavy
influence from corporations; and limited input from citizens
who are not members of the committee). Government
agencies could work with communities to redesign advisory
committees so that the community gets to appoint the
members, the committee itself gets to decide which issues it
will address, and the committee agrees to engage a wider
public before making final decisions.

Community Councils

Some U.S. cities have developed a system where
neighborhood associations get support from city-funded
agencies on a district level. Called different things in different
communities (for example in Dayton, Ohio they are called
Priority Boards and in Portland, Ore. they are called
Neighborhood District Coalitions) they are designed to
provide support and give a voice to neighborhood
organizations[8]. I call them all "community councils."

In general, community councils begin by having
neighborhood organizations define their own boundaries.
Then the city defines the boundaries of the community
council, whose office and staff serve all the neighborhood
organizations that lie within that council's boundaries. In
general, representatives of the different neighborhood
organizations make up the community council board. The
staff is usually provided by the city and their job is to
facilitate citizen participation by helping associations and
training community members in leadership and civic
involvement. Neighborhood organizations can use
community council space for meetings, and can use office
equipment such as photocopiers.

In general these community councils are hailed as a model of
civic participation but in some cases the membership of the
council may not reflect the general population of the area. For
example, in St. Paul, Minn. some say that the Neighborhood
Councils tend to represent white homeowners, even where
most of the residents are people of color and renters.[9]

Consensus Conferences

Consensus conferences are another way that governments can
get community input on a complex issue[10]. The
conferences were originally developed by the federal
National Institutes of Health to produce consensus statements
on controversial medical topics.

Today consensus conferences are used (chiefly by European
governments) to reach consensus on controversial
technologies (for example, genetically altering livestock,
telecommunications policy, or the use of transplants in
medicine). The conference is managed by a steering
committee that chooses a lay panel of 15 volunteer
participants who lack significant prior knowledge about the
issue. [For details, see 10.] The steering committee also
commissions the writing of a background paper that describes
the pros and cons of the technology under discussion.
Working with a skilled facilitator, the lay panel discusses this
background paper and begins developing a set of questions
that will eventually be answered by a group of experts.

The steering committee assembles an expert panel including
scientific, technical, social, and ethics experts, plus
stakeholders from unions, industry, and environmental

The lay panel reviews additional background papers provided
by the steering committee, refines its questions, and suggests
additions and deletions to the expert panel.

The process ends with a four-day public forum during which
the experts make presentations and answer questions from the
lay panel and sometimes from the audience. The lay panel
deliberates and then cross-examines the expert panel to fill in
information gaps and to clarify areas of disagreement. The
lay panel then writes a report, summarizing the issues on
which it has achieved consensus and identifying points of

The panel's final conclusions are widely distributed to the
media, and local hearings are held to stimulate informed
public debate, help citizens understand the issues, and
influence decision-makers. As with all these processes,
serious effort is needed to insure a diverse lay panel.

The lay panel's recommendations are not binding on anyone,
but they have proven to be very influential on public policy
because of the deliberate and open nature of the process.

A Few Ways Communities Plan for Future Land Use

Austin, Texas has a long history of land use planning and
zoning errors including zoning based on racial segregation [2,
pgs. 89-116]. In 1998, Austin began a program to develop
neighborhood plans -- a program designed to remedy existing
zoning problems and improve community outreach and
communications.[11] Over the course of a year, Austin's
Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department works with
neighborhood residents to address land use, transportation,
services and infrastructure, and urban design issues. The goal
is for diverse interests (renters, residents, property owners,
business owners, community organizations and institutions)
to get together and develop a shared vision for their

Each neighborhood plan has four goals: 1) identify
neighborhood strengths and assets (for example, can a
resident meet all his or her basic needs within walking
distance?); 2) identify neighborhood needs and concerns (for
example, the neighborhood might need more open space); 3)
establish goals for improving the neighborhood (for example,
exclude properties that do not reflect the scale of existing
houses); and 4) recommend specific actions to reach those
goals (for example, develop design criteria for all new

So far, 21 of the 54 plans have been completed and are
available on Austin's Neighborhood Planning and Zoning
Department's web site[11]. The web site also includes an
extensive library of materials that residents can review to
prepare for their neighborhood planning sessions.

Eminent Domain

I have only heard of this tool used by a community group in
one city, but there it has proven to be very powerful. In the
1980s, Dudley Street, a Boston community that straddles
Dorchester and Roxbury, looked like other inner city
neighborhoods -- one third of its land was vacant and it had
become an illegal dumping ground. In 1984, residents took
control, forming the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative
(DSNI), organizing around immediate concerns AND starting
to engage in long-term planning. DSNI's first campaign,
"Don't Dump on Us," cleaned up vacant lots, shut down
illegal trash transfer stations, and served as a community
organizing tactic. DSNI decided Dudley Street needed to take
control of the urban planning process, rather than allow its
destiny to be decided by the City of Boston. Believing in
"bottom-up" development rather than top down planning,
DSNI and its hired planners created a comprehensive plan to
"redevelop" Dudley Street into an urban village. The most
pressing problem was to gain control of the vacant lots so that
the community could guide future development. With free
legal assistance, DSNI became the first neighborhood
organization in the U.S. to win the right of eminent domain
over its vacant lots. Eminent domain is the power of the
sovereign to take property for public use, compensating the
owner at market rates. The power of eminent domain allowed
residents of Dudley Street to acquire valuable assets and gave
them a strong bargaining chip for deciding the future of their
community. To date, more than three hundred of the 1,300
abandoned parcels in the neighborhood have been
transformed into high quality affordable housing, gardens and
public spaces.[12] Eminent domain is a powerful tool indeed.

To many people in the U.S., democracy means not much
more than paying taxes and occasionally voting. However, as
we have seen, it doesn't have to be that way. Using some of
the new tools to enhance participation, citizens can directly
influence many of the decisions that affect their lives.


* Maria B. Pellerano is associate director of Environmental
Research Foundation.

Acknowledgement: Research and writing assistance for
What's Working Now
(http://www.rachel.org/bestPrac/index.cfm?St=1) has been
provided by Allison Freeman, Ph.D. candidate, City and
Regional Planning, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.

[1] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Public
Involvement Policy of the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency [document number EPA 233-B-03-022]
(Washington, D.C.: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,
May 2003). Available at

[2] Philip Rutledge and others Addressing Community
Concerns: How Environmental Justice Relates to Land Use
Planning and Zoning (Washington, D.C.: National Academy
of Public Administration, July 2003). Available at
http://www.napawash.org/Pubs/EJ.pdf and
http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=320 (this is a
long document and takes a few minutes to retrieve).

[3] Cal/EPA Advisory Committee on Environmental Justice
released Recommendations of the California Environmental
Protection Agency (Cal/EPA) Advisory Committee on
Environmental Justice to the Cal/EPA Interagency Working
Group on Environmental Justice (Sacramento, Calif.:
California Environmental Protection Agency, October 2003).
Available at
Report. pdf and
http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=317 .

[4] You can learn more about community asset inventories at
in Kretzmann, John P. and John L. McKnight. Building
Communities From the Inside Out; A Path Toward Finding
and Mobilizing a Community's Assets. Evanston, Ill.:
Northwestern University, Institute for Public Research, The
Asset-Based Community Development Institute, 1993. This
publication is only available from ACTA Publications, 4848
North Clark Street, Chicago, IL 60640; phone: (800) 397-
2282. See the write up on community asset inventories in the
"What's Working Now" section of the Rachel web site at
http://www.rachel.org/bestPrac/detail.cfm?bestPrac_ID=56 .
You can also read about Asset Inventories at the Asset-Based
Community Development Institute web site at
http://www.northwestern.edu/ipr/abcd.html .

[5] See the write up on participatory mapping in the "What's
Working Now" section of the Rachel web site at
http://www.rachel.org/bestPrac/detail.cfm?bestPrac_ID=65 .
You can learn more about participatory mapping on the Local
Government Commission's web site at
use _mapping.html and
ping _exercise.html. You can read about a slightly different
variation of this process in Connie Bodeen and Mark Hilliker,
"Community Mapping Exercises Provide Enhanced
Participant Interaction in the Visioning Processes." Journal of
Extension vol. 37, no. 6 (December 1999) found at
http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=351 and
http://www.joe.org/joe/1999december/tt1.html .

[6] A good source of icons is the Green Map web site; see
http://www.greenmap.com/home/downpost.html . They have
icons available in eight languages, for example you will find
the icons in English at
http://www.greenmap.com/images/gmsicon2.pdf . You can
also use color codes to indicate land uses (for example,
yellow for single family homes, orange for multi-family
homes, purple for industrial, etc.). Austin, Texas uses this
system and includes a photograph of each type of land use so
people can see what they are talking about. See
f .

[7] To learn more about study circles, see the Study Circles
Resource Centers web site at http://www.studycircles.org/ .
Particularly see Smart Talk for Growing Communities:
Meeting the Challenges of Growth and Development at
http://www.studycircles.org/pdf/growth.pdf . See the write up
on study circles in the "What's Working Now" section of the
Rachel web site at
http://www.rachel.org/bestPrac/detail.cfm?bestPrac_ID=62 .

[8] To learn about Dayton, Ohio's Priority Boards see
p and to learn about Portland's Neighborhood District
Coalitions see
ml . See the write up on community councils in the "What's
Working Now" section of the Rachel web site at
http://www.rachel.org/bestPrac/detail.cfm?bestPrac_ID=66 .

[9] See Anna Carpenter, "Interview with Roger Meyer from
St. Paul Minnesota," undated, available at
http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=352 and
C-St-Pa ul-input.htm .

[10] See the write up on consensus conferences in the
"What's Working Now" section of the Rachel web site at
http://www.rachel.org/bestPrac/detail.cfm?bestPrac_ID=67 .
See also Sclove, Richard E. "Town Meetings on
Technology." Amherst, Mass.: The Loka Institute, 2001.
Available at
http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=353 and
http://www.loka.org/pubs/techrev.htm or from The Loka
Institute, c/o ICTA, 660 Pennsylvania Avenue, S.E., Suite
302, Washington, D.C. 20003.

[11] To learn more about Neighborhood Planning in Austin,
see http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/zoning/default.htm . See the
write up on Austin's participatory neighborhood planning
process in the "What's Working Now" section of the Rachel
web site at
http://www.rachel.org/bestPrac/detail.cfm?bestPrac_ID=60 .

[12] To learn more about the Dudley Street Neighborhood
Initiative, see http://www.dsni.org and see the write up on the
Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative in the "What's
Working Now" section of the Rachel web site at
To learn more about their campaign for the right to eminent
domain see Peter Medoff & Holly Sklar, Streets of Hope: The
Fall and Rise of an Urban Neighborhood. Boston: South End
Press, 1994, pgs. 115-144.

Rachel’s Environment & Health News is a publication of the Environmental Research Foundation (ERF), Peter Montague,
editor. Contact ERF at P.O. Box 160, New Brunswick, NJ 08903-0160; Phone: (732) 828-9995; Fax (732) 791-4603; E-mail:
erf@rachel.org; http://www.rachel.org. Unless otherwise indicated, Rachel’s is written by Peter Montague. The paper edition
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