History of Participatory Planning in the United States

1 History of Participatory Planning

Participatory planning, a process that involves citizens in decision-making regarding their communities, has a long and complex history in the United States. This methodology was born out of a need to ensure comprehensive and inclusive participation of local people in designing urban planning projects.

Planning has not always been embraced as a democratic process. Modernist planners often made unilateral planning decisions, which led to rent strikes and slum clearance protests.  Over time, the importance of public opinion and the need for feedback from citizens was recognized as important. In response, social mapping, public exhibitions, and social surveys were used to gather the opinions of citizens to shape the direction of planning projects.

The evolution of participatory planning has been a long and complex journey, but the need for inclusive community participation in designing infrastructure and neighborhoods remains critical. Participatory planning is not only a democratic process; it is a pragmatic way of ensuring that planning projects meet the needs of the people they serve. 


  1. Understand why city planners include community engagement during the planning process



Key Takeaway:

  • Participatory design and planning is a process that engages local communities in the decision-making process of planning their neighborhoods and future growth. This approach has a long history in the United States dating back to the 1910s, with early advocacy for planning that considers local peoples needs and ideas.
  • Over time, participatory planning has evolved to include social mapping, public exhibitions, social surveys, public opinion polls, all with the aim to empower of people in planning their future neighborhoods. 
  • Criticisms of participatory planning include consultation fatigue and lack of action on feedback, budget cuts, and exclusion of certain groups in neighborhood planning. However, the benefits of meaningful and comprehensive engagement are clear, with greater inclusivity and openness leading to more positive outcomes in placemaking and the built environment. The National Planning Policy Framework should adopt specific guidelines for engagement to ensure its success.

History of Participatory Design

Plan of Chicago

The Plan of Chicago of 1909 is an important document in the early history of American city planning. A group of Chicago business leaders commissioned architect and planner Daniel Burnham to create a plan for the city’s development. The plan reacted to the congestion and pollution created by industrialization and rapid urban growth by calling for new infrastructure, parks, and establishing a framework for future development. Noted for its comprehensive approach, the plan was adopted by city government, who created one of the country’s first city planning commissions to oversee its implementation. Although the plan’s creation is widely cited for helping to spark the planning movement in America, it is also associated with an important early example of public participation in urban planning.  

In 1909, city governments did not yet have the legal authority implement plans through zoning and an official planning commission. As a result, plan advocates turned to an unprecedented publicity campaign to win public support for the plan. Although the plan was commissioned by elites and presented to citizens through a propagandistic publicity campaign, plan advocates viewed public education as integral to the practice of planning itself. Voting citizens held direct power over the plan, since plan implementation depended on the approval of public bonds at the ballot box for road expansions, parks, and other initiatives. Therefore, before planners obtained the legal authority and institutionalized power to implement plans, the success of the nascent field depended on voluntary public and private coordination, created through broad public communication.


Wacker’s Manual of the Plan of Chicago


After the completion of the 1909 Plan of Chicago, the business leaders who had commissioned and funded the plan formed the Chicago Plan Commission. The commission’s first chair, Charles H. Wacker, retained a former salesman and self-made marketing expert Walter Dwight Moody to craft an ambitious promotion effort to build broad public knowledge and support of the plan. Moody’s first publication for the commission was a ninety-page, hard bounded reference work titled Chicago’s Greatest Issue: An Official Plan, that was sent to over 165,000 Chicago residents, property owners and tenants who paid $25.00 or more in rent. The booklet rebutted critics of the plan and is credited for contributing to support for the first plan bond. Moody also wrote a 137-page textbook, titled Wacker’s Manual of the Plan of Chicago: Municipal Economy, which he convinced city officials to include into the city’s civics curriculum for all 8th grade students. Planning historian Thomas Schlerenth described the text as the first textbook in American city planning.

[If you are interested in the seeing the original document, check it out at the Internet Archive]

Moody thought that planning was divided into two parts: first, a technical branch in architecture and engineering that creates plans, and a second “which is promotive, is likewise scientifically professional and could be truthfully termed the dynamic power behind the throne of accomplishment.” Moody saw his task as to link planning reform with extensive public information for both adults and children. Moody supplemented the manual with thousands of pamphlets, hundreds of slide presentations to some 175,000 citizens, a documentary movie about the plan, and even talking points distributed to clergymen encouraging them to preach on the virtues of city planning on a designated “Plan of Chicago Sunday.”

The unprecedented publicity was one cause for the implementation of large parts of the plan, and the creation of a city planning legacy relevant even today. Although citizens were not directly involved in the creation of the plan, their votes influenced which recommendations were implemented. The publicity campaign enabled plan advocates to coordinate private decisions and build political support for government actions. The history of the Plan of Chicago demonstrates the “dynamic power” of a good plan well promoted.

Although citizens and civic leaders in dozens of American communities created city plans in the early 20th Century, government’s power to enforce them was limited. Governments had the ability to build public facilities and exercise eminent domain for public uses like roads and government buildings, but they did not posses the legal authority to regulate the development and use of privately owned land through zoning. The landmark 1926 Supreme Court Case Village of Euclid, Ohio v. Ambler Realty Co., 272 U.S. 365, settled the matter, upholding the Village of Euclid’s zoning ordinance as a reasonable extension of the town’s police power. The Court also rejected the Ambler Reality Company’s claim that the zoning violated their right to due process.


Mandating Participation: State Planning and Zoning Acts

In the wake of the case the U.S. Department of Commerce circulated two highly influential model acts for states interested in allowing cities to adopt zoning ordinances, the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act (1926), and the Standard City Planning Enabling Act (1928). Conceived by lawyers, these two model laws were deliberately written in response to the Euclid v. Ambler case. Although the legal language is oriented towards guaranteeing property owners the legal minimum required to satisfy the due process requirements of notice and hearing, the footnotes reveal an earlier, progressive-era belief in the intrinsic need for extensive public involvement.

Standard Zoning Enabling Act

The Standard Zoning Enabling Act (1926) published by the U.S. Department of Commerce contained language requiring public notice and access to hearings, and encouraged public involvement in a footnote. Before enacting or amending a zoning code in a given community, the model law stipulated “no such regulation, restriction, or boundary shall become effective until after a public hearing in relation thereto, at which parties in interest and citizens shall have an opportunity to be heard.” The law continued to require “At least 15 days’ notice of the time and place of such hearing shall be published in an official paper, or a paper of general circulation, in such municipality.” A footnote explains “it was thought wise to require by statute that there be a public hearing … There should be, as a matter of policy, many such hearings.” It also notes specifically that any citizen should be permitted to be heard, not merely property owners. Although mentioning the importance of “many” hearings, the law is designed specifically to meet the legal standard of due process through at least one public hearings and notices. Once the legal authority to plan through zoning was secured through law, public participation shifted from something absolutely required for planning to something to allow and encourage through meetings. The attitude towards public involvement in the zoning enabling act is similar to the position taken by the model act specifically for planning published two years later.

Comprehensive Planning Enabling Act (1928)

The Comprehensive Planning Enabling Act (1928) provided for the creation of comprehensive planning commissions by state jurisdictions. Before enacting a comprehensive plan, the act requires “the commission shall hold at least one public hearing thereon, notice of the time and place of which shall be given by one publication in a newspaper of general circulation in the municipality and in the official gazette, if any, of the municipality.” A footnote describes a rationale for the public hearing that extends beyond the satisfaction of a legal due process requirement, and is worth quoting at length:

The public hearing previous to the adoption of the plan or substantial part thereof has at least two values of importance. One of these is that those who are or may be dissatisfied with the plan, for economic, sentimental, or other reasons, will have the opportunity to present their objections and thus get the satisfaction of having their objections produce amendments which they desire, or at least the feeling that their objections have been given courteous and thorough consideration. The other great value of the public hearing is as an educating force; that is, it draws the public’s attention to the plan, cause some members of the public to examine it, to discuss it, to hear about it, and gets publicity upon the plan and planning. Thus the plan begins its life with some public interest in it and recognition of its importance.

The quote hints at the awareness by planners that participation can have the functional use of not only building consensus (and here, diffusing the most dissatisfied) but also encouraging broad based knowledge necessary for implementation. Like the zoning act, it also requires notice and hearing for subdivision controls also.

Between the 1920s and the 1950s, the approach contained in the laws became widely adopted in the country. Citizen planning and zoning commissions, public newspaper notices, and public meetings became the common tools for allowing involvement in planning processes. After World War II, a newly dynamic economy and new federal funds for urban renewal would highlight the limitations of this restrained approach to planning.

Housing Act of 1949 and National Defense and Interstate Highways Act of 1956

The Housing Act of 1949 made significant funds available to cities to engage in slum clearance programs, and very soon after the passage of the law a host of cities launched significant clearance programs, often in low-income African American neighborhoods. The National Defense and Interstate Highways Act of 1956 provided funds for road construction providing funds to realize highway plans for urban areas, often being planned since the 1920s. In cities throughout the country, civic elites used the machinery of zoning and planning – combined with federal dollars – to forcibly remove low-income and African American communities for urban renewal projects. Despite public hearing requirements, low income communities had little meaningful input in the creation and execution of renewal plans.


Economic Opportunity Act (1964)

In large part in response to the history of urban renewal, President Johnson’s War on Poverty invented an important new terminology and approach to participation in urban planning. The 1964 Economic Opportunity Act committed significant federal funds to a variety of efforts to combat poverty in America. It created the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) and over 1,000 Community Action Agencies (CAA) who were eligible to receive funds for a variety of social programs. The Community Action Agencies ranged from community groups, nonprofits, and city agencies, but the law required all be “developed and conducted with the maximum feasible participation of the residents of the area.

However, for the first two years of the program the precise meaning of “maximum feasible participation” was left undefined, with OEO offering little specific guidance other than that the CAA board should contain some representatives of the poor. Privately, federal administrators arbitrarily suggested one-third of the governing body an appropriate number. The issue of how the poor would be represented was intensely debated in dozens of cities, often distracting from the mission to tackle poverty. In 1966, the U.S. Congress stipulated democratically selected representatives of the poor comprise one-third of the boards, and in 1967 the Green Amendment allowed local elected officials to designate the official CAA for their area.

The Great Society experience with maximum feasible participation had several important lasting effects. First, it established the principle that government planners should proactively ensure the involvement of citizens of low-income communities. Second, despite the professional consensus that involving low-income communities improved planning, it highlighted the lack of methods and techniques to translate the abstract goal of “participation” into reality. The inability of the OEO to translate the legislative requirement into meaningful techniques forced the CAA boards to debate the issue themselves. Beginning in the 1960s, the planning profession increasingly turned to the problem of defining participation and describing what it would mean in practical terms, described in the following section. Lastly, while having a profound intellectual impact in the profession, the legal requirement only ever applied to a shrinking slice of funds for social programs. Other planning processes – such as city plan commissions and zoning – were unaffected by the War on Poverty’s participation requirements.


[This whole video is fascinating, but you can skip to minute 6:30 to understand the Community Action Agencies]

Better Planning through Participation

The urban planning profession has developed increasingly sophisticated techniques and theories regarding how and why to involve citizens in planning processes, especially since the 1960s. Critics pilloried the effectiveness of citizen participation during the War on Poverty, suggesting a new theoretical approach to participation itself was needed. Despite theoretical disagreement about the proper definition of and practice of participation, professional literature reflects a consensus a variety of additional techniques can enhance the process and result in more effective and democratic plans. These debates suggest ways planners can craft strategies that take into account social divisions and inequality, and effectively incorporate Internet technology into existing processes.

The experience of limited participation during urban renewal and the debate surrounding “maximum feasible participation” in the 1950s and 1960s sparked an intense professional interest in the topic of public participation in planning. The political and social turmoil in American cities and the contested nature of urban politics raised serious questions about how participation should be structured, and how power should be distributed more broadly in the city.

Arnstein’s ‘Ladder’ of Participation

In this climate, Sherry R. Arnstein, a former U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) official, published one of the most influential articles on the topic of public participation. Titled “A Ladder of Citizen Participation,” her article described an eight-rung metaphorical ladder of participation. The rungs are organized into three levels: nonparticipation (manipulation and therapy), tokenism (informing, consultation, placation), and citizen power (partnership, delegated power, citizen control). Interlaced with her description are anecdotal stories describing both flawed participation and successful examples where power was delegated to community representatives. This “ladder” of participation was a powerful critique of duplicitous participation processes that do not provide citizens with real power


Emerging Planning Professional Values

By the late 1980s, the lessons of the experimental and uneven forays into participation of planners of the 1960s and 1970s had become synthesized with pre-existing processes and requirements, particularly for local neighborhood planning. The American Planning Association’s 1990 Neighborhood Planning: A Guide for Citizens and Planners, presents a wide variety of outreach methods, data-gathering methods, and participation methods. The book is sanguine on the effect of public participation on planning, arguing it is needed not just for ethical reasons but to create better plans that are more likely to be implemented: “Doing things democratically takes more effort and more time, but it is worth it for the quality of product that emerges and the sense of commitment that people will have toward it.” 


Collaborative Planning

Judith E. Innes and David E. Booher urge us to abandon the existing model of participation for a collaborative approach that “should be understood as a multi-way set of interactions among citizens and other players who together produce outcomes.” They argue the legally required methods of public participation, in particular public hearings and review and comment procedures “do not work,” and antagonize the public, pit citizens against each other, polarize issues, and discourage participation. Recognizing that “governance is no longer only about government but now involves action and power distributed widely in society,” they advocate a set of approaches that are “inclusive of stakeholders and that put dialogue at their core.”

The authors describe the differences between currently legally required participation methods and their proposed collaborative approaches as

  • one-way talk vs. dialogue;
  • elite or self-selecting vs. diverse participants;
  • reactive vs. involved at the outset;
  • top-down education vs. mutually shared knowledge;
  • one-shot activities vs. continuous engagement;
  • routine activities vs. for controversial choices.

Collaborative planning is based on the following principles:

  • Inclusiveness: All stakeholders should be involved in the planning process, regardless of their position or power.
  • Informed dialogue: Stakeholders should have the opportunity to share their information and perspectives.
  • Mutual learning: Stakeholders should learn from each other and build trust.
  • Incrementalism: Solutions should be developed incrementally, through a series of small steps.
  • Adaptability: Solutions should be flexible and adaptable to change.

Innes has argued that collaborative planning can lead to a number of benefits, including:

  • Better decisions: Decisions that are made through collaborative planning are more likely to be supported by stakeholders and to be implemented effectively.
  • Increased trust and cooperation: Collaborative planning can help to build trust and cooperation among stakeholders, which can lead to more effective problem solving.
  • Increased learning: Collaborative planning can help stakeholders to learn about each other’s perspectives and to develop new solutions to problems.
  • Increased legitimacy: Decisions that are made through collaborative planning are more likely to be seen as legitimate by stakeholders.

Collaborative planning is a complex and challenging process, but it can be an effective way to address complex problems. Innes’ work has helped to to legitimize and advance collaborative planning as a legitimate approach to planning and problem solving.


Advocacy Planning

Paul Davidoff was an American lawyer and planner who is best known for his advocacy of advocacy planning. Advocacy planning is a type of planning that is based on the idea that planners should represent the interests of specific groups or constituencies, rather than simply providing technical advice to government agencies.

Davidoff first articulated the principles of advocacy planning in a 1965 article in the Journal of the American Institute of Planners. In the article, Davidoff argued that traditional planning was inherently biased in favor of the wealthy and powerful, and that planners had a responsibility to represent the interests of the poor and marginalized.

Advocacy planning has been criticized for being too adversarial and for leading to a fragmentation of planning efforts. However, it has also been praised for its emphasis on citizen participation and for its ability to bring about positive change for marginalized communities.

Here are some of the key features of advocacy planning:

  • Representation: Advocacy planners represent the interests of specific groups or constituencies, rather than simply providing technical advice to government agencies.
  • Advocacy: Advocacy planners advocate for the interests of their clients, using a variety of methods, including research, analysis, and public relations.
  • Participation: Advocacy planners involve their clients in the planning process, giving them a voice in decision-making.
  • Pluralism: Advocacy planners recognize that there are multiple perspectives on planning issues, and that no single plan can satisfy everyone.

Advocacy planning has been used in a variety of contexts, including community development, housing, transportation, and environmental planning. It has been particularly effective in working with marginalized communities, such as low-income residents, people of color, and people with disabilities.

Advocacy planning is a valuable tool for promoting equity and social justice. It can help to ensure that the planning process is inclusive and that the needs of all communities are represented.


Some Facts About History of Participatory Planning in the United States:

  • ✅ Participatory Planning in the United States emerged in the 1960s and 1970s as a response to top-down and technocratic planning practices that excluded the public.
  • ✅ Participatory Planning aims to empower local communities and involve them in the decision-making process for land-use and development.
  • ✅ Participatory Planning emphasizes collaboration, negotiation, and consensus-building among various stakeholders, including residents, business owners, and government officials.
  • ✅ Different forms of Participatory Planning include Community-Based Planning, Interactive Planning, and Collaborative Planning. 
  • ✅ The effectiveness of Participatory Planning in achieving equitable outcomes and promoting social justice is a subject of ongoing debate among scholars and practitioners.

FAQs about History Of Participatory Planning In The United States

What is the History of Participatory Planning in the United States?

Participatory planning in the United States dates back to the 1960s when there was a surge in social activism and community organizing. The Civil Rights movement and the War on Poverty helped spark interest in participatory planning as a means for communities to address the issues affecting them.

What are the benefits of Participatory Planning?

Participatory planning has several benefits, including increased community ownership and investment in the planning process, increased transparency and accountability, and the potential for more equitable and inclusive outcomes.

What are some examples of Participatory Planning initiatives in the United States?

Some examples of participatory planning initiatives in the United States include the participatory budgeting program in New York City, community land trusts in several cities, and participatory planning processes for neighborhood revitalization in places like Detroit and New Orleans.

What are the challenges of Participatory Planning?

Some challenges of participatory planning include ensuring equitable participation and representation, managing conflicting interests and priorities among community members, and maintaining momentum and engagement throughout a long planning process.

Quick Check

Who created the ladder of participation?

Sherry Arnstein

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Paul Davidoff

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Judith Innes

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David Booher

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