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Citizen Participation in Land-Use Decision Making

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Nana Kusi Appiah
September 29, 2015

Many local, state and federal government regulations require public participation in governmental land use decisions. As a city planner, I was taught the purpose of engaging the public in governmental decisions is not only to fulfill legal mandates, but also to obtain both intrinsic and extrinsic values that accompany actively engaging the populace in government land use decisions. Some of the acclaimed intrinsic values include societal acceptance and ownership of public policies.

Proponents of citizen participation believe that involving citizens in decision-making can be an end in itself. This is because citizen participation serves as affirmation of democracy and a process of eliminating disenfranchisement, withdrawal and antagonism usually suffered by those less privileged. A number of scholars have also theorized citizen participation in governmental decision is a matter of right and not a privilege for citizens.

Despite the belief in societal values that are enhanced through actively engaging the citizenry in governmental land use decisions, a number of opponents feel the process is more of a myth than a reality. These opponents claim that power is not abstract and it can be distributed in society. They also claim the powerful elites, who have the resources and the political connection to influence decisions, mostly dominate the process of citizen participation and that participation is practiced in local, state and federal governments only to fulfill legislative mandates.

Since receiving a formal planning education, I have experienced, observed and understood citizen participation more from its practical side. Despite my experiences, I decided to expand my understanding by studying the perception of elected and appointed local government officials and city planners on factors that influence them to engage citizens in governmental land use decisions. One of the myths I wished to discover was “Do elected officials and city planners engage the public in land-use decisions to discover new ideas to guide them in policy decisions and do they expect to obtain substantive information from the public to influence policy decisions?”

I used a survey questionnaire to interview elected and appointed officials who deal with land use decisions in 10 cities that also serve as county seats in the Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, Texas, Metropolitan Statistical Area. Opinions expressed by elected officials were that they minimally expect to obtain substantial information or discover new ideas from citizens to guide them in making land use decisions. This view were expressed by both city planners and elected or appointed officials.

Despite this perception, elected officials and city planners recognize the importance of engaging the public in land use decisions. Elected officials did not consider public involvement in land use decisions as slowing down their decisions. Planners, on the contrary, saw the process of citizen participation in land use decisions as time consuming and sometimes unnecessary as it added to the complexity of the process.

In my experience, most citizens participating in land use decision rarely conduct any research about the issues. Neither do they consult experts of land use policies or administrations. It is disheartening to observe communities and citizens actively engaging in land use decisions with a minimum or little knowledge of the critical issues. This incompetence and lack of information  confirms the perception of elected or appointed officials and city planners about obtaining insubstantial information from the public in making land use decisions.

It is pertinent for scholars and city planners to focus on educating the public about the importance of seeking substantive information before engaging in land use discourse. This is more important as elected officials and planners’ may be biased regarding obtaining minimum information from the public. In conclusion, I still believe there are great intrinsic values in engaging citizens in land use decisions. However, it is incumbent upon city planners and elected officials to assist and provide adequate information to the citizenry to help achieve the goals of citizen participation.

Author: Nana Kusi Appiah is the development services manager for Adams County, Colorado. Nana is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners and holds a doctorate in public affairs from University of Texas at Dallas and a master’s degree in community and regional planning from Iowa State University. Email. [email protected].

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