Public Participation in Planning

We will look at why you need to bother with bringing the public into the making of your plans. Then we’ll describe some of the ways through which you can get useful participation from local folks. There are many ways to involve the public in plan making. Each community must make up its own program depending on the nature of the community and the resources available – time, money and people.


Q. We want to do a new plan for our community and are taking a look at what it will entail. You tell us that we need to have a lot of public participation. What do you mean by that? The planning commissioners are all volunteer citizens. Isn’t that enough?

A. Public participation, in a democratic society, is the hallmark of government. From voting to running for office, organizing protest groups, or joining activist organizations, most of us either practice or believe in an activist role for citizens in governmental affairs. Public participation has come to define good planning. A comprehensive plan should be one done with the people, not for the people.


Q. That’s all fine sounding and philosophical, but is there any practical value in working hard to get the people’s interest and help in planning? Most persons haven’t the faintest idea what a comprehensive plan is and couldn’t care less.

A. Sure there is. Public participation builds trust and support. Most people distrust any plan done in “secret” by some unknown “experts” and suddenly unveiled. There is little chance of a plan that has no “ownership” by the public of being effective.


Q. I see your point, and I thought of another one. Some folks out there are likely to come up with good ideas, and we can’t get too many of those.

A. You’re right. Who knows the community better than the people who live there? There are things that statistics, surveys and observations can’t tell us, that are only apparent to those who live there day in and day out. You need to find out what they know.


Q. Okay, I’m a believer. But how do we get folks to tell us what they know, what they need and what they want? You know how hard it is to get more than a handful of people to come to most public meetings. Some places are hard-pressed to find enough volunteers to serve on their planning commission and board of adjustment.

A. The first step is to get as much constructive publicity as you can. Explain the need for the plan and ask for ideas and volunteers. Use the news media with articles in the local papers, interviews on radio talk shows, and cable access programs. Keep coverage going as the plan progresses.


Q. Obviously the planning commission should be involved in this. Who else?

A. A citizen planning committee is usually a good idea. It should be big enough to bring in representatives of all geographic, ethnic and economic elements of the community, and you need people to work over the long haul.


Q. What will the committee do?

A. That depends on the staff and money that you have. If you can you should use the planning staff or hire a good planning consultant to advise you, do the research, write drafts of the plan, and conduct public meetings and workshops. The committees can then be a resource for ideas, a source of information on problems, recommend policies and goals, and review the work of staff or consultants.


If you have neither staff nor money, the citizens will need to do it all. It will take longer and work will be demanding, but some fine plans have been done this way. The Local Government Division can help you with coaching and advice. If you have some staff or money, you can have an intermediate approach, dividing the work between planners and the committee.


Q. How else can we get the public to contribute to the plan?

A. There are many ways. Here are some of the more common ones: community surveys using interviews or mailed questionnaires; public meetings and workshops; speeches to service clubs, businesses, schools, church groups, neighborhood associations, and record the ideas and comments that you get. A word of caution: take citizen participation seriously and use it. This is not a place for tokenism. If the people find out that you’re playing games with them you will create such hostility to the plan that it’s likely to be worthless.


Q. Our council ought to be in on this, too. How do we sort out all the groups of players in this planning game and allocate their responsibilities?

A. Good question! Here is a table taken from The Practice of Local Government, showing who has main and supporting roles for each step of the planning process.


Planning Process Steps Citizens Planners Officials
1. Assessing community values
X O  
2. Determining goals and objectives
3. Data collection
4. Design of criteria and standards
5. Developing alternative plans
6. Choosing an alternative
7. Detailed design of operational plan
8. Modification/approval of plan
9. Implementation
  X X
10. Feedback
X= Major role O= Facilitating or supporting role
[Adapted from newsletter #6, June, 1993, Arizona Department of Commerce, Community Planning Assistance Program]