Governance and participation processes

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Governance and participation processes geared toward urban sustainability emphasise defining and addressing environmental problems as well as envisioning the future of cities, mainly based on the co-production of knowledge through innovative, diverse and strategic partnerships.

This page is part of an ongoing, open-ended online collaborative database, which collects relevant approaches that can be used by city-makers to tackle unsustainability and injustice in cities. It is based mainly on knowledge generated in EU-funded projects and touches on fast changing fields. As such, this page makes no claims of authoritative completeness and welcomes your suggestions.

General introduction to approach

Governance and participation processes that support urban sustainability and just cities emphasise diverse participants and roles in collective visioning and problem-solving efforts. Key driving questions include: "What do we want our city to be like in the future?" or "What are the challenges we face in building a more sustainable city, and how can we address them?" and "What information or knowledge do we have or need to help us in this process?". Such questions are explored and addressed through strategic and inclusive partnerships (see, for example, URBAN-NEXUS) or social innovation (e.g., ITSSOIN and U-Theory applications), participants collaborate to achieve concrete sustainability goals such as “reducing ecological urban footprints” (e.g.,URBAN-NEXUS), creating “sustainability transitions” (e.g., INCONTEXT), or catalysing and mainstreaming the reduction of carbon and energy consumption in urban settings (e.g., MUSIC). These approaches ultimately attempt to overcome the challenges faced by traditional top-down or silo-based governance structures and processes by convening diverse participants such as researchers and policymakers, and/or by bringing together community members, for example, from the third sector (i.e., voluntary organisations) through social innovation. Bottom-up approaches and grassroots participation can be critical in such participatory approaches.

Shapes, sizes and applications

Governance and participation processes include approaches that assert a fundamental commitment to convening participants that might otherwise lack opportunities to share their perspectives and contribute to the knowledge base upon which policies are formulated and decisions are made. Projects using these approaches can apply a number of different arrangements to engage people in both establishing the knowledge base for working toward sustainability goals as well the policymaking process itself. In this context, knowledge is co-constructed and shared, for example, through action research, a learning spiral approach, community arenas, an out of the town hall approach, or dialogue cafes. Each of these ways engage participants in gathering and sharing knowledge and perspectives to address mutually identified problems. For example, the learning spiral approach applied in the project URBAN-NEXUS"aims to ensure the formation of new, supported knowledge, the transition from knowledge to action, as well as the constant updating of the acquired knowledge" [1] An "out of the town hall" approach engages local communities in agenda-setting by giving them the space to identify the most important issues for them, rather than local governments asserting community problems, concerns and issues in advance.[2] Other approaches might include informal knowledge-sharing in intergenerational cafe discussions in Budapest, for example. Other more formal knowledge-building efforts include on-line courses on "how we transform our society" and teacher trainings that promote sustainability in schools. New approaches to participation are assessed not only based on their capacity to promote social innovation, but also their ability to inform concrete problem-solving efforts through, for example, transition management.[3] [4]

While most of these original governance and participation approaches emphasize bottom-up types of approaches at the local scale, such as place-based and “out of town hall” approaches, some are mixed. A “mixed logic analysis” approach, for example, emphasizes dialogue around larger data sets generated by scientific researchers that are then shared with local communities.

Participation processes in the latter stages of implementation (e.g., URBANSELF) tend to demonstrate increasing success, while the success of other projects such as SEiSMiC “depends on agreement among partners concerning decision-making”.[5] The project INCONTEXT provided lessons learned by coming to the conclusion, for example, that “Shared visions can drive change --even in diverse groups.” A challenge for URBAN-NEXUS was noted, “The diversity and sheer number of different stakeholders of sustainable urban development also create difficulties in getting a complete set of stakeholders in our network. To set up a meeting where all people have a connection with the topic discussed and having all stakeholders present is a difficult task. Creating long-term partnerships is something that definitely does not happen overnight”.[6] Other projects, such as MUSIC aimed at carbon and energy reduction, revealed that limited time, lack of coordination across governmental institutions, and a short-term perspective pose challenges to sustainability initiatives.

Relation to UrbanA themes: Cities, sustainability, and justice

The approaches to governance and participation processes may not all have an urban focus, but the scales do tend to be localized. Justice is largely asserted in the form of assuring diverse participation, which can be challenging in terms of identifying participants and assuring their commitment. However, most of the approaches include some aspect of environmental sustainability such as reducing carbon emissions or ecological footprints at different scales, particularly at the local or national levels. Governance and participation processes convened around these issues, combined with a commitment to diverse participation, connect sustainability and justice (particularly, procedural justice emphasizing recognition with implications for distribution). The civic-based participatory nature of self-organization (particularly in contrast to top-down and techno-expertise approaches), for example, points to procedural and recognition-based justice at the local scale through civic engagement and contribution to decisionmaking. GREENSPACE, involving extensive and diverse data collection and distribution for reflection across communities (e.g., Choice experimental approach in Dublin, ecological mapping in Stuttgart), noted that, the “Brighton & Hove” case study “demonstrated the potential for long-term sustainable deliberation and how a group can be supported to uphold inclusively, equity and fairness.”

Narrative of change

The main issues that this cluster of approaches addresses is inclusivity - the need for wider and more diverse engagement - in generating knowledge and understanding and garnering important perspectives in asserting solutions to sustainability challenges. The approaches attempt to provide forums that not only engage a diverse set of participants, some of which emphasize including disadvantaged groups or individuals, but provide a process by which they can establish common or collective understandings and solutions.

Transformative potential

The transformative potential of these approaches is in the structured interactive dynamics across diverse actors. Hence, they provide a platform to include different perspectives that are ultimately brought to bear upon the various contextualized challenges faced across communities, policymakers, and researchers. Diverse and wide inclusion of actors and stakeholders and an attempt to redress a predominance of top-down approaches transform the power dynamics through diverse participation, particularly in knowledge sharing. ITSSOIN, a research project on the third sector and social innovation, concluded that, “ the state alone does not seem to be capable of promoting the social innovation, but that cross-sector collaboration has to come in.” In assuring the transformative potential of participatory approaches to promote urban sustainability and justice, engagement must be sustained over time which is especially difficult when, for example, project funding runs out or the commitment to collaboration wavers.

Illustration of approach

Co-creation is about bringing together different people (e.g., researchers, policymakers, residents and artists) to build understanding and, in the case of the H2020 CO-CREATION project, to address disadvantage from the perspective of inclusion and participation in a way that is context-specific. Generally, co-creation refers to the collaborative construction of understandings across different actors in order to assert a common foundation upon which parties are considered equal, speak the same language and have shared a vision or goals. In 2019, CO-CREATION case studies are used to develop and test co-creation methodological approaches by bringing together diverse participants (e.g., residents, artists) to “co-create knowledge and understanding” in neighbourhoods in seven cities including Oxford, Bath/Bristol, Berlin, Brussels, Paris, Rio, and Mexico City.[7]

The project,URBANSELF, is about research on self-organization initiatives that engage citizens’ expertise, experiences and perspectives to exchange knowledge and generate solutions to address urban challenges.[8] Self-organization can emphasize citizen-based initiatives at the community and/or local levels and yet also be considered for a comparative basis across urban settings and initiatives. This approach assumes that active engagement of citizen inhabitants is fundamental to success. Self-organization is in contradistinction to exclusionary (particularly, based on “power relations, valorisation of knowledge and expertise”) and highly technical approaches to sustainability (e.g., criteria) and top-down approaches administered by the state (e.g., Chennai, India and top-down measures as in Kunming, China) and asserts the transformation of inhabitants into active citizens (constituting “real participation” vs. virtual) engaging their own approaches to urban sustainability. It is generally considered an “actor-centred approach emphasising local knowledge, communication and survival strategies instead of technical expertise as the main forces driving urban development”. Examples of self-organization were explored in cities in Europe, China, India, the UK, and others. The slums studied in India included some of the most effective examples of self-organization.

A parallel session at the first UrbanA Arena explored participation through an interactive exercise in which participants played the role of local government officials charged with designing a participatory planning process concerning the future of a disused patch of urban land. The exercise, and subsequent discussion, highlighted a number of key challenges relating to participation, including:

  • The role of the state as a facilitator and enabler, including by ensuring participants are fully informed about factors that may not be obvious to them
  • The danger that public authorities misuse participation as a means to shirk responsibilities, for example when people voluntarily provide their time and skills through engagement processes and citizen-led action in areas neglected by the state
  • Co-creation can be a useful way to include residents' experiences and expertise in planning processes, but is often best undertaken by skilled external facilitators
  • The difficulties of including the full diversity of residents in any participation process

The proposals devised by participants all focussed on citizen-led processes of decision-making and evaluation, and covered a number of themes and principles:

  • Specifically target stakeholder groups that are often absent from public participation processes (e.g. immigrants, women’s groups, elderly)
  • Hold meetings in different places and at different times, in order to be more inclusive, and providing care options (e.g. child care etc.) and meals
  • Present any existing information about the needs of the neighborhood or city, open up to new and emerging proposals and inform people about limiting factors (e.g. legal, financial and technical constraints)
  • Form citizen committees or assemblies for discussion and decision-making

A key general challenge identified was that participatory processes can require substantial resources - but that such investment is always worthwhile and cost-effective due to the long-term savings of time and money in the future.


  2. Out of Town Hall Approach
  3. Wesely, Julia & Feiner, Georg & Omann, Ines & Schäpke, Niko. (2013). Transition management as an approach to deal with climate change. Conference Paper. Conference: Transformation in a Changing Climate, Oslo.
  4. Roorda, C., Wittmayer, J., Henneman, P, Steenbergen, F. van, Frantzeskaki, N., Loorbach, D., (2014)Transition management in the urban context: guidance manual. DRIFT, Erasmus University Rot- terdam, Rotterdam.
  5. SEiSMiC