Fifty years have passed since Sherry Arnstein developed her famous Ladder of Citizen Participation. Instead of increased public involvement, participation, and satisfaction in government affairs, however, tensions and criticisms often remain high.
Graham Haughton and Phil McManus in their article "Participation in Postpolitical Times: Protesting WestConnex in Sydney, Australia" in the Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 85, No. 3) ask the question, “What happens when public participation is used to finesse existing plans and policies rather than provide opportunities to challenge them”?
Through interviews and attendance at public consultation events and protests, the authors analyze WestConnex, a controversial motorway in Sydney, Australia. They pair the post-politics literature with Arnstein’s work to examine “what occurs when attempts to limit participation mean that protests erupt and a different kind of politics is required.”
Their findings reveal that the then-newly elected coalition government in New South Wales (NSW) used a series of depoliticizing tactics to march onwards with its proposal while denying any meaningful public processes to criticize or discuss alternatives to Sydney’s future transportation needs.
The initial proposal of the project was conceived by Infrastructure NSW, an independent state-government agency, separate from the state urban planning department, populated by high-level private-sector actors and government servants.
The recommendation came out of a detailed 20-year infrastructure strategy that prioritized roads over rail alternatives and made clear from the get-go that the strategy was an “expert-led process, involving key stakeholder consultations but no public consultation.”
In addition to creating the project without any public engagement, WestConnex was designated as a “State Significant Critical Infrastructure” key project, a newly established process that would enable direct approval from the NSW minister for planning and prevent any formal appeal process.
The only public consultation allowed for the project was through limited comments on the environmental impact statements. In addition, NSW restructured the local government in the project area, amalgamating the three councils along the route into a new “Inner West Council.”
As unrest continued, New South Wales increased the penalties on protesting, making one liable to $50,000 in fines and defining protesting as a semi-criminal offense.
Despite these tactics, dissenters found new ways to reclaim their political voice through escalating political protest and using the considerable media interest to bring to light the fact that the communities had been left out of the decision-making process. The NSW government claimed its commitment to engaging with the public, but without allowing the space for open debate or meaningful citizen engagement the authors argue that the government fell below the bottom rung of Arnstein’s ladder.
Haughton and McManus’s research underlines the importance of reexamining our work as planners especially around critical public engagement.
Despite burgeoning participation exercises in the last five decades and the creation of a new market in public engagement consulting, often this may be an elaborate facade paired with manipulative tactics used by higher levels of government to dismiss dissenting views.
As planners, we must continue to advocate for the voices of everyone in our community and push back on these depoliticizing tactics.
The authors conclude that “a new darkness has enveloped this aspect of planning in many locations," particularly in New South Wales where higher tiers of government actively work to subvert the role of planning.
Arnstein’s goals may remain elusive today around many parts of the world, but Haughton and McManus’s work should serve as a reminder to us as planners and citizens that progress is still possible if meaningful engagement and critical debate in the public realm begin early in the planning and decision-making processes.
The Journal of the American Planning Association is the quarterly journal of record for the planning profession. For full access to the JAPA archive, APA members may purchase a discounted subscription for $48/year, or a digital-only subscription for $36/year.
Top image: Locals in Sydney, Australia, protesting WestConnex in 2017. Photo by Flickr user Miska Mandic (public domain).
About the Author
Antonio Castaneda is a Master in Urban Planning candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.