Moving Hamilton Up the Ladder of Citizen Participation

What would plans such as GRIDS, the Cycling Master Plan or the downtown urban plan look like if they if they had been designed and, most importantly, implemented, using a Citizen Power model?

By Nicholas Kevlahan
Published April 23, 2009

Regular readers of Raise the Hammer will have noticed that Hamiltonians are disappointed with how the City gathers and uses citizen input. The City is constantly soliciting public input on every minor and major issue under the sun, only to ignore or forget what those who took the trouble to participate actually said.

Sometimes it appears that the views of those "activists" who express themselves are actually discounted in favour of the perceived views of the "silent majority" (e.g. in balancing the competing interests of cyclists, pedestrians and motorists when re-designing streets).

In other cases, such as Vision 2020, citizen input does inform a City policy, but this policy is routinely ignored when decisions are actually made.

Forty years ago, Sherry Amstein made an excellent analysis of the effectiveness of different forms of citizen engagement. Her article (Journal of the American Institute of Planners, Vol. 35, No. 4, July 1969, pp. 216-224) defines a "Ladder of Citizen participation" which moves up the rungs from "non participation" to "tokenism" to "citizen power".

This paper has become a classic guide on how to understand citizen participation.

Our frustration with how citizen input is used is not surprising when we see that essentially all participation solicited by the City stays at the "tokenism" rungs on the Ladder of Citizen Participation: "Informing, Consultation and Placation". In this mode,

citizens may indeed hear and be heard. But under these conditions they lack the power to ensure that their views will be heeded by the powerful.

The problem is that in Hamilton, as in most other Canadian cities,

People are primarily perceived as statistical abstractions, and participation is measured by how many come to meetings, take brochures home, or answer a questionnaire. What citizens achieve in all this activity is that they have "participated in participation." And what powerholders achieve is the evidence that they have gone through the required motions of involving "those people."

Indeed, the provincial planning act requires cities to provide evidence that residents have been informed or consulted. Unfortunately, there is no requirement that the views and preferences of those who participated are actually heeded!

What Hamilton (and other cities) must do is move up the Ladder of Citizen Participation to the level of Citizen Power: "Partnership, Delegated Power and Citizen Control". At this level decision making power is actually

redistributed through negotiation between citizens and powerholders. They agree to share planning and decision-making responsibilities through such structures as joint policy boards, planning committees and mechanisms for resolving impasses. After the groundrules have been established through some form of give-and-take, they are not subject to unilateral change.

It is only at this level that the views and preferences of citizens actually inform real-life decisions.

The most illustrative local example is the "Growth Related Integrated Development Strategy" (GRIDS) planning consultation process. There was no sharing of decision making power with citizens and no undertaking to actually take participants' preferences into account. The most revealing aspect of this process was the fact that the most controversial project (the "Aerotropolis" and associated urban boundary expansion) appeared in all options presented to the public!

Clearly, the City didn't even want to know what citizens thought of the biggest and most expensive development proposal!

What would plans such as GRIDS, the Cycling Master Plan or Putting People First (downtown urban plan) look like if they if they had been designed and, most importantly, implemented, using a Citizen Power model?

The Ladder of Citizen Participation provides an excellent framework for designing effective ways of bringing the general public into the decision making process. It also helps us decide whether the City is simply going through the motions so they can check the box saying that the "participants participated".

Nicholas Kevlahan was born and raised in Vancouver, and then spent eight years in England and France before returning to Canada in 1998. He has been a Hamiltonian since then, and is a strong believer in the potential of this city. Although he spends most of his time as a mathematician, he is also a passionate amateur urbanist and a fan of good design. You can often spot him strolling the streets of the downtown, shopping at the Market. Nicholas is the spokesperson for Hamilton Light Rail.


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By Saul Alinsky Wannabe (anonymous) | Posted April 24, 2009 at 08:51:25

This will never come from the top down. Hamilton's got some good citizen groups that achieve good things in scoped domains, but we really need something like the Industrial Areas Foundation in the USA - real broad-based community organizing to force governments to LISTEN to us and not just "tokenize" our "feedback".

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By King Sol (anonymous) | Posted April 27, 2009 at 11:06:04

So nice to see a reference to Saul Alinsky. I was beginning to think the world had forgotten him.

This situation seems to me to reflect the constant flux between the centralization and decentralization of power. Much more can be accomplished, and with greater ease, when decision making is centralized, and when accomplishments are seen as positive more centralization is inspired. The problem is that humans don't have an inevitable history of positive achievements. Sooner or later everyone screws up, and then the more eggs there are in the basket, the bigger the mess.

We're at a cross-roads. The mass-culture, industrial-based economy is in recession and inclined to shore up its powers to endure what it sees as a temporary glitch. The newer, information-based economy is still testing and developing its tools that enable more individualized media empowerment.

Larger, more directly powerful municipalities have evolved throughout Ontario in recent decades, and we're now building intra-municipal structures to co-ordinate regional transportation systems, etc. This was to have been accompanied by neighbourhood councils, which has happened, I think, only to a small degree. Such neighbourhood groups are seen as "legitimate" and empowerment by the larger, municipal bodies, when in fact the reverse should be the case. Municipal politicians should be empowered by their neighbourhood constituencies.

To me, the greatest success of democratic capitalism (when it occurs) is that it disperses power, allowing a lot of people to try a lot of different ways of doing a lot of different things. Some work, many may fail but most survive to try again, learning from the success of others. It's called hard work and has to be undertaken by significant numbers of people in their own communities. Success depends more upon broad and diverse educational resources than upon the political skills of a few community "leaders."

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