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16 November 2018

Research agrees! Citizen Engagement improves success for building cities.


Research agrees! Citizen Engagement improves success for building cities.


“engaging stakeholders and the public is hard work, yet, overall, it is worth it.” Leyden et al. (2017)


As leader of Citizen City, an initiative of the EIP-SCC (European Innovation Partnership on Smart Cities and Communities), I travel around Europe discussing citizen engagement with various levels of governments (EC, national, regional, local) and a diversity of stakeholders (academics, industry, NGOs, citizens, etc.). There is an inherent understanding that citizens are part of the city-making equation. While there is a spectrum of eagerness that cities have for engaging with their citizens, the gap in taking action is not just about how to engage, but, more fundamentally, 'why'. Relying on government to 'do the right thing' out of a sense of responsibility is good. Connecting project success and public support to the 'why' of citizen engagement is a much stronger motivator for our civil servant partners. Thanks to many brilliant researchers, city authorities now have evidence needed to attend to the difficult task of inclusive citizen and stakeholder engagement. 

I would like to share the below insights into why inclusive citizen and stakeholder engagement is important to the success of urban development projects. 

[Note: Navigating the difficulties of engagement is the role of SET (Social Engagement Toolkit) being developed by CitizenCity and a support network]

Public and Stakeholder Engagement and the Built Environment: a Review

Leyden K, Slevin A, Grey T, Hynes M, Frisbaek F, and Silke R (2017)

The summaries below are provided by our diligent researcher, Namita Kambli

According to a recent literature review conducted by Leyden et al. (2017), “engaging stakeholders and the public is hard work, yet, overall, it is worth it.” They note that there are multiple advantages to embracing more inclusive participatory processes as they pertain to the built environment: enhanced transparency, community consensus, cost-effectiveness, shared ownership, and greater long-term success. Moreover, including a wide range of stakeholders mobilises a broad transdisciplinary pool of information, thereby increasing the possibility of developing alternative and more innovative solutions. The authors, however, warn that more attention should be given to the nature of participation itself and its biases. This means that it is important to question who is participating and why and to determine their underlying motivation so as to ensure that others do not go unheard.

Overview & purpose

Leyden et al. (2017) set out to conduct a review of current literature and approaches being used to better enable public and stakeholder engagement specific to the built environment. To eliminate any bias in the selection of samples, the authors chose the first 50 articles from 2015 and 2016 on Google Scholar featuring the key terms decision-making, stakeholder involvement, public engagement, planning, and urban.

Key findings

Based on their literature review, the authors found that the literature had evolved in a positive direction by no longer suggesting that stakeholder and public engagement be avoided. On the contrary, all articles reviewed deemed participatory planning a means of adding value to the planning/policy process, with the interest in improved engagement being a growing trend in a multitude of urban development projects. 

The literature reviewed also indicated that there are several reasons to embrace more inclusive planning processes: enhanced transparency, learning, shared ownership, cost- and time-saving, and greater long-term success. Involving a wide range of stakeholders also mobilises a transdisciplinary pool of information and knowledge, thereby increasing the likelihood of developing alternative and innovative solutions and accordingly meeting the needs of those involved more effectively. 

Despite the unequivocal nod to participatory planning, the authors found that there is, unsurprisingly, no common consensus on how to bring about a fully participatory process in which all stakeholders feel equally included and gain a sense of ownership over the outcome. The literature highlighted that there are still many instances where participation is merely a “cosmetic exercise” involving a cursory nod to those who participated or involving the public only towards the end of the process after agendas have been set. This is arguably because finding common ground is an extremely difficult process given issues such as time constraints, lack of resources, political divisions, and inexperience in the public consultation process. Conflicting worldviews and poor communication between stakeholders also adds to the problem. Research, therefore, indicates that there is a need to find new collaborative processes that are flexible and open to experimentation. 

At present, participatory tools range from traditional practices, such as workshops and focus groups, to novel ICT strategies or a combination of the two. In spite of the growing popularity of virtual tools, such as social media, one of the articles reviewed concluded that wider engagement can only be achieved if virtual connections manifest themselves in physical space. This suggests that virtual tools can only complement face-to-face interactions and not substitute for physical presence. 

Conclusions and recommendations for further research

The literature review conducted confirms that most planners understand, and to some extent aspire towards, enabling more inclusive participatory planning processes. However, this is not without its proper challenges, with the biggest challenge being how to achieve such processes. On their part, the authors recommend asking the right questions: who is participating and why? Are certain stakeholders over-represented, and therefore more likely to dominate the process and the resulting outcomes? The authors draw attention to the lack of literature on the true nature of participation and its biases. They warn that many people who participate in the planning process are motivated by a mix of economic, social, or ideological incentives. In order to ensure that everyone has a voice, it is imperative that public and stakeholder engagement entail the broadest possible spectrum of participants at the start of the planning process. 

Here is the link to the complete report.


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