Janis Birkeland, " 'Community participation' in urban project assessment (an ecofeminist analysis)", with commentaries by Bronwyn Hayward and Paul Selman and a reply by the author, in Brian Martin (ed.), Technology and Public Participation (Wollongong, Australia: Science and Technology Studies, University of Wollongong, 1999), pp. 113-142.


"Community participation" in urban project assessment (an ecofeminist analysis)

Janis Birkeland[*]


Traditional models of participation are based on abstractions of society that artificially segregate "experts" from "ordinary citizens" and implicitly assume agency or wisdom resides in either professionals or citizens. The corresponding frameworks for decision making remain sequential and place the parties in active and reactive roles. As such, these frameworks are inherently divisive and hierarchical, thereby inhibiting the kinds of creative, lateral, problem-solving strategies required for ecologically and socially optimal solutions. In contrast, feminist models of participation, among others, have promoted collaborative, interdisciplinary, community-building processes to empower the community and create better communication structures. However, these processes have focused on improving the participatory experience, not changing structures and, therefore, the results of participation are often nullified by power relations at the political level. An ecofeminist model provides an analysis of the operation of power in terms of the hierarchical dualisms of Western social and intellectual constructs. It also provides a basis for addressing systems issues and incorporating design-based strategies that unite both experts and citizens as innovative actors. The implications for the design of participation processes in project evaluation systems are explored. 

Back to: 

Table of Contents 

Commentary by: 

Bronwyn Hayward

Paul Selman 

Response by Author 



The "problem" in urban planning is often depicted as the top-down imposition of an ordered environment by technocratic planners. The "solution" is to achieve more genuine forms of bottom-up community participation in the evaluation of development proposals.[1] Based on many years experience in advocacy planning and participatory design, I suggest it is not that simple. The failure of urban management systems to resolve conflict over development proposals and to achieve optimal projects from a social and environmental viewpoint cannot be achieved by greater participation alone. Adding more meaningful forms of community participation onto existing processes, while important, may only mask the need for deeper institutional reforms. Moreover, the main paradigms of participation in development approval processes--technocratic (top-down), liberal (incremental), and radical (bottom-up)--are themselves problematic in some respects.

This chapter sets out some of the ways in which traditional urban management systems (superseded by theory but not in practice) fail to achieve effective and constructive participation. These traditional approaches are then contrasted with a feminist model which reflects recent trends in participatory practice.[2] The discussion is limited to the design of structures or processes for participation in project evaluation and approval systems. It does not discuss the many strategies and practices employed by progressive planners at the person-to-person level to ascertain preferences and improve the value of the participatory experience.[3] These strategies, while valuable, are slow to change the broader institutional framework of decision making, which can subvert the positive results gained through participation. In my view, we cannot rely on the "trickle-up" effect alone to change institutional systems.

The typology in Table 1 is intended as a communication aid. As with any typology, it is important to note that it is based on ideal types. Most people would have a mix of positions. While Table 1 makes distinctions among the first three models, it is their similarities that are significant here. Traditional models of participation are based on abstractions of society that artificially segregate "experts" from "ordinary citizens" (i.e. polarising them by emphasising differences). In fact, the terms "top-down" and "bottom-up" expose a hierarchical and dualistic social order which belies the myths of pluralism by which participation is generally legitimised.[4] That is, there is a misfit between the democratic values espoused and the dualistic conceptual framework through which they are meant to be realised.

Table 1: Summary of participatory planning models







A generalised public interest determined by experts

A market of individual interests and preferences

Under-represented groups threatened by development

Humans in complex social and ecological systems


Public consultation by experts

Consumer choice

Development of counter-plans and offers

Team design process


Determine optimal solutions

Determine public preferences

Ensure equal access to decision making

Facilitate bioregional/global perspective


Scientific evaluation

Democratic representation

Law-based, adversarial



Cost-benefit based methods, EIA, etc.

Voting analogues e.g. survey, participation

Educational and adversarial strategies

Self-help and empowerment




Critical theory



Input into scientific process

Input into pluralist process

Counter-plans, protest, obstruction



Weigh expertise and other policies

Balance competing interests

Distribute wealth; arbitrate

Meet basic needs; facilitate


Private or public developer

Private or public developer

Private or public developer

Community self-reliance



Procedural justice

Distributive justice

Justice; well-being


Majority wins

Balance of interests; trade-offs

Equal opportunity; fair game rules

Design for many parameters


Transparency of decision making

Deregulation and less government

More community power and autonomy

Systems change

Frameworks for decision making that are based on myths about agency or wisdom residing in either professionals or citizens are inherently divisive and place the parties in active and reactive roles. It will be shown that the community-expert dichotomy works to marginalise community interests which, over the long term, must lose to the increasing power of special interests. Based on hierarchical/dualistic thinking, these paradigms of participation may foreclose the kinds of creative, lateral, problem-solving strategies required for ecologically and socially optimal solutions. The resultant linear decision-making processes favour an accountancy, or "bean counting," approach in decision technologies. It will be suggested that a team-based design approach is needed to recognise and resolve the multi-dimensional environmental and social parameters that development decisions entail. An ecofeminist model would tend to foster collaborative, interdisciplinary, design-based strategies that involve the participants as innovative actors.

Participation models: a primer

The models of participation that are set out in Table 1--technocratic, liberal and radical--are associated with different philosophies of planning--comprehensive, incremental and advocacy, respectively. Because these planning and participation models overlap both conceptually and historically, a capsule introduction to these three forms of planning is provided along with its associated model of participation. For simplicity, the variations between planning in the Western democracies are disregarded here and there is a greater focus on the United States which arguably has had a longer participatory planning experience.[5]

Comprehensive, technocratic or top-down planning

"Comprehensive" planning initially only meant that whole municipalities were zoned (i.e. certain land uses were restricted to certain areas). Eventually, however, zoning and other forms of development control, or "statutory planning," conformed to simple master plans aimed at distributing land uses to reduce their impacts on adjacent properties (rather than the broader impacts of development). These early forms of development control proved too rigid to accommodate technological and social change.

In the 1960s and 70s, comprehensive planning evolved to accommodate other values in master planning, usually through the form of policy documents. Strategic planning subsequently integrated the economic dimension into the setting of public planning goals, reflecting the growing influence of business management paradigms, language and ethos.

With the rise of economic rationalism and tougher economic times during the 1980s cold war, planning as a "vision for the future" succumbed to its rhetorical association with post-war slum clearance programmes and centrally-planned economies. These legacies also did much to throw systems thinking or ecological planning "out with the bath water." However, "bioregional planning," which attempts to integrate community and ecology through systems of social organisation tailored to the regional ecology, is giving comprehensive planning a rebirth in some circles.

Community participation within the traditional comprehensive approach to planning was characterised as technocratic and top-down. Despite references to multiple publics or a multiplicity of values, the "community" was conceived as a monolith (Figure 1) whose best interests were translated into physical form by experts. Critics maintained that participation just meant consultation or "input" in planning and development approval systems, while experts (or expediency) determined what was best for the whole community. The government agency (planning authority or commission) weighed and balanced this advice with a range of competing policy objectives. Comprehensive planning presupposed that an optimal result for the community could be objectively determined, and that planning decisions flowed directly from information. Hence abstract, "objective" decision aids developed, such as cost-benefit analysis, risk analysis and environmental and social impact assessment which, being highly technical, arguably exclude lay people from genuine involvement.

Figure 1: Differing models of community

In this tradition, participation is seen as disciplining the decision-making process. Increasingly, more open procedures enable the public to oversee the administrative process (e.g. "transparent" processes, plain language, impact statements, written decisions and other accountability measures). But while public hearings allow the general public to express its views, these need not be acted upon. Objectors must often find errors in the technical procedures employed by experts which can be legally challenged, at least for negotiation purposes.

Faith in the objectivity of decision technologies may mean that information gleaned from consultation is discredited where it does not appear "rational" in the eyes of the experts. For example, the risk of a nuclear power plant meltdown is theoretically much less likely than that of an earthquake on the same site. Yet consumers generally "prefer" the risks of earthquakes to that of nuclear meltdowns. Therefore, their preferences have been defined as "irrational": a psychological problem to be overcome or accounted for. Subjective feelings about security, well-being or a sense of place and community are thus delegitimised. (In that case it was assumed that an earthquake on the site would not damage the nuclear power plant.)

Incremental, liberal or non-planning

Incremental (or liberal) planning came into vogue in the 1960s. It was a pragmatic response to the problems of implementing comprehensive plans, and was an attempt to fit planning within liberal ideology.[6] Incremental decision making is supposed to minimise the risk of big mistakes by making marginal, tentative adjustments in direction or approach.[7] In the context of resource or land use allocation on a finite planet, it is really "non-planning," because such decisions mask cumulative effects that are largely irreversible from an ecological perspective. Case-by-case development decisions convert land and environmental "goods" to private consumption, thus reducing future public options, while simultaneously obscuring the cumulative social and environmental impacts and the opportunity costs of these resource transfers. Over time, incremental choices form a "decision tree": at each branch, planning decisions may be rational, but taken as a whole they may not be, as we could end up out on a limb. Although many planners subscribed to a belief in a "public interest," when economics became the state religion in the 1980s, many redefined their position as "entrepreneurs," whose role was to attract investment to the community.

Whereas the comprehensive model has traditionally viewed society as homogeneous, the liberal model has portrayed society as an aggregate of individuals (Figure 1). The community ("whole") is merely the sum of the individuals ("parts"). Because the community is an aggregate, decision analysis techniques place an emphasis on various analogues of "voting," such as surveys or statistical analyses, to determine preferences. It is not the whole person but their values and preferences that count, as expressed through the pocket book, survey or vote. That is, these methods presume to separate interests or values from their complex individuals in order to measure them.

While the technocratic model of participation can be selective about public opinion, the "liberal" model presupposes that consumer preferences and producer needs correspond with optimal planning decisions. This suggests that the role of planning is merely to resolve conflict among competing interests when the market fails to do so. Planning is therefore subservient to consumption, and the producers and businesses which sustain consumerism. The consumer or voter is still relatively passive in this model of participation. The individual expresses wants, but it is the expert who collates and interprets community preferences and advises governments (the final arbitrator). This liberal model obscures the obvious, that as powerful firms and individuals incrementally acquire more resources through the planning and resource allocation system, their influence over decision making grows. Further, critics note, consumer demand (whether ascertained by research, market or voting mechanisms) is a function of prior resource allocations, opportunities and advertising.

The model also perpetuates the sometimes fanciful technical assumptions of its parent ideology: traditional economics. For example, the model presumes that the public sector is blinkered, while the individual voter or consumer (even if working in the public sector) is omniscient. It also assumes that, although individuals act selfishly, the aggregate of their self interested acts will result in optimal outcomes. Yet a community near a national park or wilderness area will often support development in their neighbourhood for financial gain, on the assumption that there will always be other wilderness areas they can enjoy on holiday. This is partly because individuals do not have the capacity to prepare a plan for the region or nation which would reveal that other places are under similar threat.[8]

Radical, advocacy or bottom-up planning

Comprehensive planning was not designed to consider who gained at whose expense, or the effect of development on values like sense of place and community. Jane Jacob's book on the Death and Life of Cities (like Rachel Carson's Silent Spring) spurred a countermovement against this modernist approach. Foreshadowing postmodernism, some planners and architects began to realise that "ghetto dwellers" (many of whom were recent migrants) had life styles, value structures and cultures which needed to be accommodated in the built environment. The virtue of giving the poor more meaningful participation was demonstrated by the riots of the 1960s. The US "war on poverty" made possible a spate of advocacy planning and design agencies organised along the lines of legal aid offices. Inspired by the civil rights movement, advocacy planners sought to give disadvantaged communities a voice in the land use investment and development decisions that affected them. When external support dried up, a few offices survived by doing paid consultancies in the public interest.[9] Many radical planners dispersed into government planning agencies, where they continued to advocate social justice issues.[10] While advocacy and radical planning can be distinguished, they are both fundamentally concerned with social justice and meeting the needs of the under-represented, by whatever avenues the political situation at the time presents.

Advocacy planning was a genuine attempt at bottom-up planning. Advocacy planners tried to empower the community by providing technical support and political advice, without imposing their own values, decisions or strategies on their client groups. They worked to overcome cultural, class and language barriers to assist under-represented and under-resourced community groups in communicating with technocrats and negotiating with administrators. In this model, the community takes an active role in planning and design through hands-on involvement, rather than "consultation." Advocacy may be more likely than the other participation models to result in conditions being placed on a development approval, such as more energy-efficient design, cleaner technology or even a better site for the project. These modifications, however, are only likely where they cost little, improve a project's image and deflate public opposition.

In pluralist theory, which legitimises advocacy planning, the individual is the embodiment of many interests and affiliations which lead to alliances with different interest groups (Figure 1).[11] Because advocacy makes claims of being representative, it has been criticised for assuming that self-selecting participants can truly speak for the community. This critique assumes numerical "representation" is the primary objective rather than planning outcomes that represent community interests.

Perhaps the biggest frustration among advocates is that most hard-won victories are usually pyrrhic. For example, citizens spend thousands of hours trying to prevent a fast-food facility from displacing a local heritage property, while the parent chain continues to destroy rain forests to supply that chain's cheap beef. Thus, although many advocacy planners have socialist values, the praxis and the pluralist interpretation of society upon which it is based is not necessarily "radical." For example, many radical planners implicitly accepted the traditional view of social interaction as a contest among competing interests, groups, classes or alliances of interests, for political influence or control of social and natural resources. Great progress has been made in improving communicative strategies and techniques among participants, but little has occurred to improve the effectiveness of participatory processes in changing the resource transfer process. Whether the advocate works outside the system or inside a government organisation, the objective is to improve participation or, at most, reduce the power differentials between vested interests and community groups, rather than to change the decision-making system fundamentally.[12]

Problems to be avoided

As illustrated by Table 1, these "ideal" models have many differences. To take some examples: (a) they portray "their community" either as a homogeneous whole (monolith), an aggregate of individuals (market), or victimised group (minority); (b) the community "participates" either as a passive recipient, a voter/consumer or an adversary; (c) community interests are determined either by scientific evaluation with consultation, democratic representation and choice, or adversarial negotiation. However, such distinctions conceal other commonalities which could undermine meaningful participation. Some frequently encountered problems are set out below.

Marginalisation In these traditional models, the "community" is often abstracted, pedestalled and set apart, parallel to the way the "environment" has traditionally been treated as separate from ourselves and made a ward of the state. This is more understandable in advocacy planning, because it comes into play when the life quality of a marginalised community is threatened by government or corporate action. However, in representing the subject community as a "minority" or "noble savage," advocacy planning does little to strengthen the community's claim. Our society does not respect victims. While modern participation specialists promote a different perception of community, this traditional view is still deeply imprinted in the collective imagination.

Anthropocentrism The first three models are anthropocentric in that the concept of "community" excludes nature. Other species and future generations cannot vote, and models of participation which exclude or invisibilise natural and social support systems work against rational planning (because survival is a fundamental goal of rational behaviour, by definition). A denial of the interdependencies between human and natural communities also prevents an understanding of the impediments to social justice and their causes--which should be a raison d'etre of participatory models. It is largely the power imbalances that result from the inequitable distribution and ownership of natural resources, the raw material of power, that makes participation seem ritualistic.

Objectification Similar to the way that the community and environment are reified in these models, the individual is treated as an abstract "unit," whether seen as part of a whole, aggregate or pluralist group (Figure 1). That is, people are black boxes--containers of values or preferences that can be separated from the person. Recent "bottom-up" models, which draw upon the rhetoric of complex systems theories, still treat humans as a "node" in a communication network. Such androcentric oversimplifications can cause planners to miss the mark. Humans are a complex of emotions, motives and behaviours that are poorly understood, both by themselves and by their "interpreters." Feelings are often more relevant in finding ways to meet basic needs and improve human well-being than so-called "objective" indicators.[13]

Androcentrism This objectification of the "lay person" has its counterpart in the casting of the expert as the archetypal white male of Western mythology. Decision makers are viewed as rational calculators who optimise public, personal or class interests (depending on the model). It is assumed that given sufficient information "input," they will make an objective decision or bargain. Notions of rationality mask the personal motives which can unconsciously influence government officials and experts against ecologically-sound decisions; for example, frailty in the face of power, the desire to display tools of the trade regardless of their applicability, the entrenched faith in objectivity, situational ethics, and loyalty to the brotherhood.

DualismThese paradigms dichotomise community and experts; alternatively, we could all be considered both experts and part of the broader community. Dualisms lead to "either or" thinking: either centralised top-down or bottom-up planning; either expert or community-based decisions. Some call for combining both bottom-up and top-down systems,[14] but in this case the transformation of both is required, not just an adding together of procedures. Binary oppositions can limit choices, reinforce conflicting positions, create barriers to optimal solutions and generate opportunities for blaming and buck passing. For example, professionals can use community participation to absolve themselves of personal responsibility: i.e. "the market made me do it." Yet people can hardly choose better plans and designs when examples of these options do not exist in the market.

ProceduralParticipation often becomes the goal, rather than a means to meet everyone's needs in the optimal way. The three models of participation are thus "procedural" in that if the process is right, the outcomes will presumably take care of themselves. Thus, community participation debates have often focused on how representative of marginal perspectives the process is, rather than outcomes. Cumulative resource transfers will inevitably silence the "multiplicity of values" which participation seeks to foster. Participation specialists are developing strategies that enable "listening" which complement procedures that ensure everyone can speak.[15] A collaborative, proactive orientation which can transcend the basic "development versus environment" conflict is possible if people consider themselves on the same side. A mutual concentration on design issues through "charrettes" (community-design workshops)[16] and other devices (if done properly!) helps to achieve this common focus, in my experience at least.

LinearParticipation is generally only one step in a linear and sequential decision-making system. A corporate or government developer initiates a plan or project for its own purposes, and then the proposal is evaluated with community input and approved or rejected. Participation is thus part of a process of evaluating choices that are defined by proponents or vested (corporate or government) development interests. Even the "counter-plans" of advocacy planners are usually responses to threats posed by development proposals. This sequential process means that unforeseen environmental impacts may be "approved" in advance when the planning or building permit is issued (although performance bonds may be used). Participation often appears to be a stamp of approval.

ReactiveIn project review, the debate is often over mitigation measures rather than the best land use. For instance, more rational land use and healthier, more interesting jobs might be created by solar, wind or wave energy rather than by fossil fuels, but there is a developer ready to invest in a coal-fired plant. The best use of investment capital and land, therefore, often depends on special interest initiative and profit, tempered somewhat by political restrictions on the developer's ability to externalise the costs onto the wider community. As restrictions are determined politically, they also reflect the power of development interests. Thus, present forms of participation can do little more than tax development by requiring that their adverse impacts be modified.[17]

QuantitativeIn these models, participation is often reduced to a debate over the figures in an environmental impact assessment report, partly because of the unspecified assumptions and rubbery nature of the figures. Numerical approaches give preference to quantities over qualities; for instance, the number instead of the kinds of jobs. Thus, dam construction will appear to be better for employment than the solar alternative, because qualitative aspects and "remote" costs are played down--such as the nature of the work, the social displacement entailed by a short-term construction project in (often) a remote area, the value of wilderness, the ecological "services" provided by nature, and alternative projects foregone.

BoundedQuantitative analysis tends to narrow the system boundaries, as long-term costs (such as likely effects on future generations) seem uncertain and difficult to measure. Moreover, if the benefits to the developer are deemed merely to "outweigh" environmental risks to the general public, the project can still be considered a good investment. Even when the risks are considered, they are "discounted" or reduced to current values (i.e. the reverse of interest rates is applied). In fact, however, environmental values and costs can amplify over time. Also, the equations also usually omit the indirect subsidies and pre-existing benefits that the developer receives from being in a community. These include the contextual factors and conditions that make the project likely to be profitable in the first place, such as an adjacent park or lake, and the existing infrastructure of roads, grants, tax shelters, fast-tracking procedures and cheap loans. Limited time horizons enhance the bias caused by narrow system boundaries.

Power-based The realities of power relationships are generally discounted in the traditional models. In fact, significant projects are often taken out of the planning system and fast-tracked through the political process because they involve powerful interests and controversies. This can mean that major developments are negotiated with politicians without public oversight (known as "decision making by brown paper bag").[18] Even pollution and health standards (regardless of the validity of methods by which "acceptable" pollution levels are determined) are negotiated by politicians, applied by consultants (in the pay of project proponents) and overseen by bureaucrats. This is hardly a recipe for confidence.

Accountancy-basedThe traditional models of participation are "accountancy-based." The technocratic process uses quantitative analysis, the liberal process counts preferences and advocacy planning attacks the figures. Healthy buildings and environments, however, are not achieved through accountancy and legalities, but through design. For example, the adverse impacts of a building or land use greatly depend on the choice of materials, layout, processes and components.[19] Good building design can reduce energy consumption by 90%, while increasing employee productivity and eliminating the "sick building syndrome."[20] Means to improve projects at the design stage are therefore more important than measuring impacts.

Ecofeminist paradigm

More recent work in planning has begun to challenge the traditional models. The "ecofeminist" paradigm summarised in Table 1 does not share the "similarities" (above) still often found in traditional models of participation. Ecofeminism challenges the androcentric interpretation of humans, nature and society, the dualistic and linear framework of reason, and the hierarchical structures of Western society upon which the other models are based. Space does not permit an exposition of ecofeminism here, so only a few relevant aspects are set out below. The general import of the following values is to suggest that the previous processes should be replaced with a "team-design" approach to participatory planning and design.

Inclusiveness Ecofeminism calls for inclusiveness: the integration of voices of women, children, classes, indigenous cultures and other species--categories marginalised by patriarchy. The civil rights and feminist movements forced a "postmodern" perspective which recognises that where one stands is conditioned by where one sits. A wider range of values and interests is now acknowledged in planning policy. However, the androcentric decision theories, processes and technologies remain tailored around one human stereotype (the self-interested radical individualist male of Western philosophy) and are, therefore, inherently exclusionary. This essentialist "model of man" is being dislodged by a "broader" (feminist) archetypal human that is interdependent with community and nature. This validates concerns that are largely disregarded in mainstream planning: the sense of well-being obtained from belonging to a community, contact with nature, and a healthy, safe environment.

Ethical discourseIn the absence of a culture of normative debate, the androcentric decision aids and linear, reactive review processes, though designed merely to "inform" decision makers, have in fact been deterministic. They have dictated what kind of future we are creating. Also, much of the accumulated knowledge about planning is being privatised in widely dispersed consultancies. An ecofeminist paradigm would require that decision-making technologies and processes be redesigned to foster ethics-based decision making rather than quantitative decision technologies, which tend to count only those things that can turn a profit or can at least be represented by numbers. An ecofeminist system would therefore seek to replace case-by-case decision making with face-to-face communication and mutual learning.

Ethic of care Ecofeminism calls for an ethic of care which respects the intrinsic value of other beings and nature. Instrumentalism would be supplanted by reciprocity and community building. Instead of "marshalling linear flows of time, resources and human or natural energy in the service of a manifest destiny," planning would strive to foster symbioses with nature and Other. Feminists do not accept the concept of knowledge as context-free, value-neutral universal ideas. Knowing is grounded in emotion, experience and values, and has normative content. A ecofeminist attitude toward participatory planning would involve learning by immersion with a community, rather than by eliciting information through empirical questions and surveys.

Redistribution of wealthTheoretically, neoclassical economics has sought to ensure that improving the welfare of a group or individual does not make any others (the whole) worse off. This means the risks of uncertainty or unforeseen environmental impacts are borne by (or externalised upon) the community as a whole or communities in other countries. The focus on weighing up interests or costs and benefits, or making trade-offs, in order to choose winners, distracts attention from questions pertaining to the value of a development or industry itself, or the best long-term use (or non-use) of public resources and investments. In contrast, public investments within an ecofeminist economics would be directed toward restoring or protecting the whole natural and social support system in ways that would not make any groups or individuals worse off. It is often countered that there are insufficient public resources to solve these big problems. To the contrary, eliminating "perverse subsidies" through planning would represent a public investment in ecologically-benign production systems and products. A fraction of the world military budget could restore air, soil and water to an adequate standard.

Spiral reasonLinear, dualistic and hierarchical structures of reason create inherent biases against the health and preservation of natural systems, such as "cause and effect," "either or," "them versus us" thinking that fuels mistrust and hostility. The ecofeminist structure of reason is spiral, in contrast to the ladder of patriarchy or "great chain of being."[21] Recently, hyper-abstract models based on complex systems or chaos theory have been latched onto as a new model for seeing the world. (The deceptively value-free, transcendent and detached metaphor of complex systems may explain their appeal.) In contrast, the ecofeminist model is self-consciously normative and immersed in real world issues and, I suggest, provides a better basis for designing the future. It also means that since expert knowledge and technologies are not superior by virtue of being (ostensibly) objective, rational and detached, the expert must become accountable for outcomes. Mere adherence to the methodology of the brotherhood will no longer constitute responsible behaviour.

Celebration of diversity Incrementalism is not a good concept upon which to base an adaptive planning model, because it is one-dimensional: it is linear in time. Incremental planning should not be confused with the multi-dimensional green strategy of "working on all levels whenever and wherever one can be effective in making positive social change." Instead, it means taking tentative steps in policy implementation and, if they are later seen to fail, something else can be tried. This is reminiscent of the computer game called Lemmings and not the systems view to which incrementalists sometimes lay claim. The ecofeminist celebration of biological and cultural diversity would foster diversity in planning and participation systems. It would therefore be more "adaptive" than incremental strategies. As I have explained elsewhere, participation in an ecofeminist framework would be designed to prevent the abuse of power and promote decision-making systems that fit the nature of the particular context or issue.[22] In this regard, ecofeminism offers a theoretical base for bioregional planning,[23] which holds that the social organisation and decision-making structures of a community should be designed to fit the local ecology.

Design-based approachMeasuring, administering, monitoring and enforcing compliance-based assessment processes and cross-subsidies should not be the highest goal of environmental management. Rather than mitigating problems after the basic decisions have been made and developers have invested in plan development, waste and pollution should be prevented where possible. Thus, in an ecofeminist model of participation, ecodesign (synthesis of imagination and systems thinking) would replace linear project evaluation systems (Box 1). Because it focuses attention on joint problem solving, the design-based approach moves conflict away from ideological positions towards lateral solutions. Different strategies and tools can be applied to structure the design process. Quantitative, mechanistic decision aids would be applied within, and subsidiary to, an ethics-based framework for decision making in the (watershed or bioregional) community. These methods would be expanded to involve an analysis of industries, urban areas and construction projects as complex energy and resource metabolisms nested in wider ecologies.[24]

A design-based approach is always contextual and responsive to the particular site and cultural conditions. Although it also takes into account general principles of ecological design, it is geared towards outcomes rather than adherence to a specific process. The following is an example of how this team-based concept might be structured in one institutional and geographical context.

Box 1: Ecodesign 

Ecodesign re-examines needs, ends and means in the context of the social and ecological systems in which they function. On the physical plane, ecodesign involves rethinking the materials, industrial processes, construction methods, building forms or urban systems to "close the loops" at both site-specific and regional levels. On the social plane, it means rethinking the end uses which products, buildings and systems serve and how these affect the community, social equity and environmental ethics. Unlike the environmental management fields, ecodesign also goes beyond the physical and social dimensions, acknowledging a spiritual dimension. This entails rethinking how built environments can affect our sense of being, belonging and place in community and nature.[25]

Design review process

Project assessment (for these purposes) begins after a land use or development proposal has been deemed permissible in concept. This should only happen when a project fulfils the environmental, ethical and economic objectives of a comprehensive plan and meets other environmental standards and policies. The purpose of the project review system is to achieve both the developer's and general public's goals in the optimal ecological, social and economic way. The particular system below is simply to illustrate how the above ecofeminist principles could translate into a pragmatic transitional system.[26] It has three components: a design competition, impact assessment and design development stage.

A collaborative (community/expert) team-design approach would occur in open community workshops in order to draw upon practical experience in the community. Team members would represent different forms of knowledge as well as different areas of expertise. This team-design process would benefit the developer, since it should increase creative ideas, improve ecological and cost efficiencies, and reduce conflict by giving the community a sense of ownership of the planning and design process. The jury or project assessment and design (PAD) team would have the support of staff planners and administrative assistants, as do planning commissions. The PAD team would not, however, be composed of political appointees or long-term elected members. Instead, the members would be called for occasional "jury" service from a revolving list of certified volunteers (who might receive stipends). They would generally be expected to have a demonstrable ecological understanding and experience in both community involvement (activism) and offer interdisciplinary design knowledge.

Design competition stageThe first stage is a type of design "competition" (which has a long history in the design professions). The design jury in this case, however, is a select cross-section of the community drawn from the roster. The appropriate number and mix of jurors is determined through an open scoping process by the responsible planning authority. For a major project, the jury might include an ecological economist, environmentalist, engineer, unionist, landscape planner, psychologist, community group representative, sociologist and biologist and others. At this stage, their job as jurors is to evaluate information dispassionately. Unlike their legal counterparts, however, they would examine the proposals using environmental and ethical criteria relevant to their area of expertise, which could be that of a child carer, immigrant, urban Aboriginal or unemployed youth.

Impact assessment stage The second stage begins when a "design and construct" team is selected or assembled by the jury. The jury then becomes an advisory body that assists in both impact assessment and the search for more creative solutions to any issues that surface. At all stages, the meetings would be open to contributions by observers. The assessment processes are flexible; information and experts can be tested by inquisitorial or adversarial processes as appropriate to the circumstances of the case. As is presently the case, the developers pay social and environmental impact consultants, but the PAD team and planning staff assess these studies for reliability and accuracy. By assuming authorship, the planning agency accepts responsibility for its contents (not presently the practice in Australia). While technical matters may be contracted out to specialists, the costs and time involved in project assessment would be significantly reduced by integrating impact assessment with project design and development.

Design development stageIn the final stage, the PAD team works with the selected firm in an interactive, "roundtable" design process that remains open to public input and involvement. Ecological efficiencies discovered by the PAD team and planning staff come free to the developer and mean long-term economic public benefits. The way design competitions and impact assessments are presently structured means much valuable information "disappears," because the information is generated case-by-case and is relatively inaccessible. Because of the continuity provided by the proposed system, in contrast, a "learning system" is created. The planning staff can develop and maintain "evaluation tool kits" for both assessing and rating future developments proposals. This community-based team process would enable citizens to take back some responsibility for the quality of their built environment.

Box 2. Further reading 

M. Albert and R. Hahnel, "Participatory planning," Science and Society, Vol. 56, No. 1, Spring 1992, pp. 39-59. 

Douglas Amy, The Politics of Environmental Mediation (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987). 

M. Bamberger, "The importance of community participation," Public Administration and Development, Vol. 11, No. 3, May-June 1991, pp. 281-284. 

R. Fisher and S. Brown, Getting Together: Building Relationships as We Negotiate (New York: Penguin, 1988). 

Allan D. Heskin, The Struggle for Community (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1991). 

S. Kaplan and R. Kaplan, "The visual environment: public participation in design and planning," Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 45, Spring 1989, pp. 59-86. 

A. S. Lackey and L. Dershem, "The process is pedagogy--what does community participation teach?" Community Development Journal, Vol. 27, No. 3, pp. 220-234. 

Wendy Sarkissian and Kelvin Walsh, Community Participation in Practice (Perth: Institute for Science and Technology Policy, Murdoch University, 1994). 

Carmine Scavo, "The use of participative mechanisms by large US cities," Journal of Urban Affairs, Vol. 15, No. 1, 1993, pp. 93-109. 

L. Susskind and Jeffrey Cruickshank, Breaking the Impasse: Consensual Approaches to Resolving Public Disputes (New York: Basic Books, 1987). 

B. West, "Public consultation--is it just a public relations exercise?" Urban Consolidation and Planning Conference, Sydney, 16-19 March 1992.


This chapter has attempted to outline traditional planning and participation models and contrast these with some features of an ecofeminist alternative. While other models dichotomise experts and lay citizens, this model would recognise that all individuals are a mix of special knowledge, experience and ignorance. While there is a long history of participation in planning and design, and substantial progress in the area of improving participation methods, the translation of those experiments into government level decision making has been limited. To direct attention to the structural level, the chapter has provided a model for a "transitional" or sub-optimal system, which illustrates how broader feminist principles can be used to modify the generic project review system in a practical way.

Acknowledgments I acknowledge and appreciate the comments on the draft by Pam Kaufman, cultural landscape consultant, Toronto, Canada; Bruce Goldstein, Program in City and Regional Planning, University of California at Berkeley; Stephanie Rixecker, Department of Resource Management, Lincoln University, Canterbury, New Zealand; and Wendy Sarkissian, Department of Architecture, University of Sydney.

Commentary by Bronwyn Hayward[*]

There is a growing unease amongst academics, planners, and community members alike. Despite many laudable attempts to achieve a more participatory approach to planning, it seems, as Birkeland argues here, that the introduction of participatory processes alone has not achieved significant institutional reform.

Janis Birkeland identifies three schools of planning thought and explores how each school approaches the issue of public participation. These schools--technocratic, liberal and radical/advocacy--are then contrasted with an alternative ecofeminist vision of participatory planning.

In contrast to the former planning schools, Birkeland argues that an ecofeminist approach holds the key to effective institutional reform because it promotes more inclusive public participation (integrating a wide range of voices), and gives emphasis to the ethics of discourse, social learning, grounded knowledge and the "intrinsic value of other beings and nature." Ecofeminism also encourages a redistribution of wealth (with an emphasis on restoring nature and social supports), new forms of reasoning and diversity in design.

This ecofeminist vision is commendable, but will it work? My initial reaction is to note that ecofeminists are not alone in articulating new visions for public participation. Planners working with theories of deliberative democracy share many of the aspirations outlined above. For example, authors like Dryzek,[27] Hillier,[28] Forester[29] and Fischer[30] have been influenced by Habermasian theories of critical theory and communicative action. These authors seek practical ways to create planning forums in which citizens can come together to discuss issues of concern, in a situation where discussion is influenced only by the force of the better argument, and not by power or wealth. Some deliberative democrats like Dryzek argue that new social movements provide the kind of inclusive forum we need if we want more voices in planning debate. Others like Frank Fischer try to help citizens to work on complex technical issues in team situations with planners and other "experts."

A second school of thought which shares many of the aspirations of ecofeminists is that of communicative planning. Authors like Iris Marion Young[31] and Patsy Healey[32] are amongst the foremost authors of this new school of thought. Communicative planners complain that many approaches to public participation, including the discursive school, simply end up privileging those people who feel most comfortable with the western rational (male) adversarial model of argument. Communicative planners attempt to achieve a more inclusive public discussion by ensuring that voices coloured by emotion, rhetoric, and story telling are recognised as valid and authoritative and that public participation occurs in forums in which time has been taken to ensure that participants first know and trust each other.

Communicative planners, deliberative democrats and ecofeminists all advocate slightly different approaches to public participation, but they share a common concern for social justice. All three planning approaches force planners to revisit questions of social justice in two ways. First these new approaches challenge us to consider the justice of decision-making procedures (how decisions are made, who gets heard and with what authority) and second we are asked to consider issues of distributive justice (who benefits and who bears the burden of planning outcomes). These approaches remind us that if we want to achieve effective institutional reform in planning it is not enough to introduce more opportunities for public participation; we need to ensure that planning outcomes are equitable and that the participatory procedures are inclusive and just.

Commentary by Paul Selman[*]

At the outset, let me affirm my sympathy with many of the author's ideas about reconstructing urban planning. Nevertheless, despite being a supporter of community-based approaches, I do question their potential to be wholly reconciled with human (and not just male) nature. On balance, I think that Birkeland's views provide an interesting basis for debate, but that her prescriptions are neither definitive nor the exclusive domain of ecofeminism.

Initially, I must agree that urban planning represents a patriarchal tradition. This is an observation rather than a criticism, for I do not believe that one generation should pass judgement on a previous one. Despite being a staunch defender of my profession (hopefully, not mere "loyalty to the brotherhood"), I cannot escape the conclusion that traditional urban planning is irredeemably a male-oriented product of twentieth century modernism. My professional institute has done all the right things--electing women presidents, taking our daughters to work, supporting "women in planning" groups, etc.--yet still any gathering of senior planners approximates to the proverbial smoke-filled room of middle-aged men. This reinforces my belief that urban planning contains assumptions about change and progress which appeal to the male psyche, and I suspect that its traditional conception is nearing the end of its shelf-life.

However, I believe the author too lightly dismisses and caricatures past practice, and ignores the positive reasons why "theoretically superseded" systems prove ineradicable. It is important to see the different models not as progressive substitutes over time but as conceptual clusters of imperfect approaches which contain various workable features. Adversarialism may not be fashionable, but it is still probably the most satisfactory way of resolving most planning issues; equally, incrementalism is an effective way of making decisions in most situations, whereas mould-breaking "social learning" occurs only intermittently. The hallmarks of ecofeminism also seem distinctly eclectic and, whilst it may "reflect recent trends," it cannot lay more than a partial claim to notions and mechanisms of adaptive planning, industrial ecology, team-design, roundtables, contextualised knowledge, inclusiveness or advocacy. Many of the propositions are thus neither distinctively feminist nor even terribly contentious.

My main concern is that the chapter reflects an idealised view of human nature, often found in theories of citizenship, localism and communitarianism. It may be regrettable that economics has become a "state religion" since the 1980s (partly as a result of a certain woman prime minister), but this is because it provides a depressingly accurate view of human behaviour, and does help us comprehend the nature, values and usage of environmental resources. Men and women, given comparable opportunities, show remarkably similar proclivities to materialism, mobility and consumption. Even the most laudable community, team-based designs must take account of this side of human nature, as well as the increasing atomism of complex societies. I should like to contend numerous other statements but, despite my caveats, I find this an optimistic essay, which signals many features of a re-defined urban planning in the 21st century.

Response by Janis Birkeland

Selman objects that the participatory processes canvassed in my chapter are "not the exclusive domain of ecofeminism." I would hope not, as we inhabit the same social system. When participation issues are discussed within a "malestream" communitarian, anarchist, socialist or other paradigm, they do not attract such dog-in-the-manger retorts. Ecofeminist theory challenges the dualistic nature of traditional Western thought, so it would not be consistent to reject all concepts produced in a male dominant culture (at least since the advent of first-wave feminism). The traditional defence of patriarchy has been to regard things associated with the feminine in oppositional or exclusionary terms, and this ploy still serves to marginalise feminist thought. Ecofeminism is not an opposition, but an evolving and creative synthesis which seeks to heal the lobotomy of patriarchal culture.

This "exclusionary principle" in malestream academia does harm to its heirs as well as those it serves to dispossess. Feminists know and understand the malestream culture, but also read feminist analyses, so they have the benefit of broader insights and dimensions. Thus, for example, had Selman understood ecofeminist theory, he might not have such a fatalistic view of "human nature" embedded in economic rationalism or Thatcherism. The fact that game theory experiments show that people trained in neoclassical economics act more selfishly than others demonstrates that economic rationalism is not biologically preordained. While women are capable of taking on the most perverse values, their tradition of care for millions of years has not yet been annihilated by the economist paradigm. If women's experience counted, it would belie the universality of patriarchal human nature.[33]

Selman's complaint that my "prescriptions are not definitive" seems to be demanding patriarchal outputs from ecofeminist theory. In an ecofeminist framework which (within the constraints of language and culture) could be understood as systems design thinking, terms like "definitive prescriptions" make no sense, and would certainly be inappropriate criteria for social change. Patriarchal thinking is also revealed in Selman's projection that feminism is passing judgement on a "previous" generation. All the feminists I have known are interested in changing systems of oppression and exploitation--not "blaming"--yet blame is all that many men choose to hear.

Selman's lament that his "professional institute has done all the right things," such as electing women presidents, would amuse most of its women members. If malestream planners learned to listen, women's participation in these institutes might begin to shift paradigms. This is one of those key concepts of participatory planning that is not the exclusive domain of ecofeminism, yet has not been taken on board anyway. To think that tokens in boy's clubs is an answer is also to confuse gender (a cultural construct) with sex (biology) and reflects the dominant paradigm of participation discussed in my chapter. While I do indeed "caricature past practice," I was there, as a participatory planner in the 1960s. Bronwyn Hayward's contribution notes that the work of discursive and communicative planning theorists was not included in my (admittedly broad and simplistic) overview. While aligned with critical theory, these theories of participation, last time I looked, were still not dealing with the structures of power as distinguished from procedures within those structures, which was the primary point of my chapter.

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[*] Dr Janis Birkeland was an architect, lawyer and city planner in San Francisco. Her experience includes being an advocacy planner in low-income urban areas, conducting many community-participation-in-design projects, holding positions in both statutory and comprehensive planning, and heading the Major Project Review Section of the San Francisco City Planning Department. She has a PhD in environmental management and is Co-director of the Centre for Environmental Philosophy, Planning and Design at the University of Canberra, where she is a senior lecturer specialising in ecological architecture, construction ecology, environmental planning, construction law and ecophilosophy.

[1]. Charlie Pye Smith and Grazia Borrini Feyerabend with Richard Sandbrook, The Wealth of Communities (London: Earthscan Publications, 1994); Helen Forsey (ed.), Circles of Strength: Community Alternatives to Alienation (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 1993); Christine Meyer and Firth Moosang (eds.), Living With the Land: Communities Restoring the Earth (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 1993).

[2]. For a description of ecofeminist theory, see Janis Birkeland, "Linking Theory & Practice," in Greta Gaard (ed.), Ecofeminism: Living Interconnections with Animals and Nature (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993), pp. 12-59; Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva, Ecofeminism (London: Zed Books, 1993).

[3]. See Wendy Sarkissian and Kelvin Walsh (eds.), Community Participation in Practice: Casebook (Perth: Institute for Science and Technology Policy, Murdoch University, 1994) for a comprehensive overview of this area.

[4]. Janis Birkeland, "An ecofeminist critique of `manstream' planning," The Trumpeter: Journal of Ecosophy, Vol. 8, No. 2, 1991, pp. 72-84.

[5]. See generally J. Barry Cullingworth, The Political Culture of Planning: American land Use Planning in Comparative Perspective (New York: Routledge, 1993).

[6]. Paul Davidoff, "Advocacy and pluralism in planning," Journal of the American Institute of Planners, Vol. 1, November 1965, pp. 331-338.

[7]. C. E. Lindblom, "The science of muddling through," Public Administration Review, Vol. 19, Spring 1959, pp. 79-88.

[8]. Doug Aberley (ed.), Futures by Design: The Practice of Ecological Planning (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1994).

[9]. The Community Design Center still survives in San Francisco.

[10]. John Forester, Planning in the Face of Power (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).

[11]. Davidoff, op. cit.

[12]. See Forester, op. cit.

[13]. See Clive Hamilton, "Genuine progress indicators," in Janis Birkeland (ed.), Eco-Logical Design (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1999, forthcoming).

[14]. Mary Ganis, People and Physical Environment Research, Paper 47, 1995, pp. 3-6.

[15]. See Sarkissian and Walsh, op. cit.

[16]. Peter Wear, "New age ghetto blasters," The Bulletin, 23-30 January 1996, pp. 46-48.

[17]. Janis Birkeland, "Redefining the environmental problem," Environmental and Planning Law Journal, Vol. 5, No. 2, 1988, pp. 109-133.

[18]. In Australia, whether and when an EIS is required is ultimately up to ministerial discretion.

[19]. See David Malin Roodman and Nicholas Lenssen, A Building Revolution: How Ecology and Health Concerns are Transforming Construction (Washington, DC: Worldwatch Institute, 1995).

[20]. See Hunter Lovins, "Productivity and energy efficiency," in Janis Birkeland (ed.), Rethinking the Built Environment, Proceedings of the Catalyst 95 Conference (Canberra: Centre for Environmental Philosophy, Planning and Design, University of Canberra, 1995).

[21]. Patsy Hallen, "Careful of science: a feminist critique of science," The Trumpeter, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1989, pp. 3-8.

[22]. See Janis Birkeland, Planning for a Sustainable Society: Social Transformation and Institutional Reform, PhD thesis, Department of Geography, University of Tasmania, 1993, which redesigns the institution along ecofeminist principles.

[23]. Judith Plant, "Searching for common ground: ecofeminism and bioregionalism," in Van Andruss, Christopher Plant, Judith Plant and Eleanor Wright (eds.), Home! A Bioregional Reader (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1990), pp. 79-85.

[24]. Birkeland, 1999, op. cit.

[25]. Janis Birkeland, "Responsible design," Architectural Theory Review, Vol. 2, 1996, pp. 13-15.

[26]. This example was presented in Janis Birkeland, "Towards a new project review system", Bogong, Vol 16, No. 5, 1996, pp. 10-13.

[*] Bronwyn M. Hayward lectures in public policy in the Department of Human and Leisure Sciences, Lincoln University, PO Box 84, Lincoln University, Canterbury, New Zealand. She specialises in public participation research and teaches a graduate course in theory and practice of public participation in planning and policy making.

[27]. John S. Dryzek, Discursive Democracy: Politics, Policy and Political Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

[28]. J. Hillier, "To boldly go where no planners have ever gone before," Environment and Planning D Society and Space, Vol 11, 1993, pp. 89-113.

[29]. J. Forester, Critical Theory Public Policy and Planning Practice (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993).

[30]. Frank Fischer, "Citizen participation and the democratisation of policy expertise," Policy Sciences, Vol. 26, 1993, pp. 165-187.

[31]. Iris M. Young, "Communication and the Other: beyond deliberative democracy," in M. Wilson and A. Yeatman (eds.) Justice and Identity (Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 1995).

[32]. Patsy Healey, "Planning through debate," Town Planning Review, Vol. 63, No. 2, 1992, pp. 143-163.

[*] Paul Selman is professor of Environmental Planning at Cheltenham and Gloucester College, UK. He holds qualifications in environmental science and town planning, and is a member of the Royal Town Planning Institute. After a stint in local government, he taught at various universities, and is the author of several books and editor of the journal Landscape Research.

[33]. Birkeland, 1993, op. cit.

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