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Scaling Up Participatory Development

Tuesday 2nd July, 2019

Last month I attended the Global Development Institute conference “Scaling up participatory development in towns and cities of the global south” at the People’s History Museum. The purpose of the conference was to understand the opportunities and constraints on scaling up participation by sharing experiences and analysing outcomes.

For my part, I was particularly interested in the “scaling up” element. I have spent the last few years working on a number of huge strategic spatial planning projects and I’ve become increasingly curious as to how we can embed meaningful engagement into these large-scale, long term processes. It’s tricky, there’s no getting around it. The last strategic spatial project I worked on covered an area that was home to 2.8 million people - the great consultation techniques we know and love become difficult to implement at that scale. You can’t exactly invite them all a workshop, hand them a cup of tea and ask them what they think.

No wonder then, that the methodologies for producing such strategies have tended towards the technocratic, and consultation has usually slid into the “tokenism” range on Arstein’s Ladder (Informing, Consultation, Placation). If our aspiration is to reach those top rungs (Partnership, Delegation, Citizen Control) then something needs to change. There is a place for census data, technical mapping and housing need calculations, but it doesn’t give us the whole picture. This was the spirit in which I entered the Edwardian Engine Hall of the People’s History Museum, for two days of listening and learning.

My primary observation was that although the conference focused specifically on the Global South, some of the barriers and challenges to participatory development were recognisable to me from an English planning context. Speakers from Thailand, India, Africa and South America highlighted the following key issues, which will likely sound familiar to those practicing in the UK:

  • Local authorities that are short of money.
  • Skepticism and mistrust from communities based on previous experience.
  • Shifting responsibility from governments to individuals can reinforce existing patterns of inequality (e.g. Neighbourhood Planning)
  • Engaging “down” (with local people) is easier than then engaging “up” (getting buy in from government and commercial organisations.
  • The “Housing Crisis” Effect – pressure for housing giving more power to the market, who are allowed to operate at pace, bypassing meaningful engagement.
  • The market becoming a major driver of urban social change.
  • Overreliance on top-down, technocratic planning.
  • Landowners disproportionately gaining power from the development process.
  • Insufficient collaboration between different government departments.

It was also fascinating to gain an insight into the points of difference; the myriad political contexts, environments and communities within which practitioners and academics in the global south are operating. Some practitioners were working in extremely challenging circumstances; in Ethiopia a series of masterplan objections resulted in state actioned violence and murder. More positively, different political frameworks have allowed cities in Latin America to successfully implement land value capture.

By the end of the event I felt able to draw together a number of key observations that may be useful when trying to scale up participatory development in the UK. These have crystalised in the intervening weeks into the following:

“Networking” or “Engaging Horizontally”

Power and legitimacy can be built by linking together smaller community groups, organisations and institutions to form coalitions. To do this successfully in a strategic planning context, such groups must shift their focus from the specifics of their individual campaigns to the broad themes that motivate them all: e.g. from a specific cycle route to “affordable, sustainable travel networks”. An external actor or coordinator may be needed to achieve this.

“Playing the Game” or “Engaging “Vertically”

It became clear over the course of the two-day conference that sometimes, as much as we may hate it, the success or failure of engagement hangs on the passion and charisma of a single person with power. Unless we are able to completely upend our current political systems (and there was no small appetite in the room to do this!) consulting at scale will rely to a certain extent on “playing the game” and making the processes seem attractive and advantageous to political leaders. Potential “carrots” can include: increased political support or an easier route to policy adoption.


The role of mapping came through time and time again in case studies during the conference. It is a crucial component of traditional, technocratic spatial planning processes and can be co-opted for the purposes of engagement. Mapping can be used to expose and reveal; one government denied the existence of informal settlements in a region, but through the use of google maps and community mapping processes an NGO was able to reveal 75 such settlements. Mapping is also powerful in that it can translate the experience of multiple individuals into a single image, transforming the personal into the spatial. There are now real opportunities afforded by technology – Geo Design Hub, for example, is a software platform designed to allow multiple participants to negotiate and produce spatial plans collaboratively.


The above techniques of collaboratively gathering and synthesising data can only really work if they are undertaken in a transparent way. A common complaint of participants in consultation processes is that they never see the outcomes of their contribution. Strategic spatial plans take a long time to come to fruition, so demonstrating “quick wins” is often difficult. It is however very easy to allow participants to access the aggregated information, so they can see the emerging direction, and assess whether their own opinions are shared and reflected by the group.


Organisations, processes and methods should sit just outside of political institutions/ government. They should be adjacent to governments for legitimacy and conference of power, but should not be so close that they are wholly under government control. This is a fine balance to strike, but spatial Planning is a long- term process that looks decades into the future, so as far as is possible it should be removed from the churn of the electoral cycle.

Vicky Payne

Twitter: @Victoria_Payne

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