Participatory Processes & Collaborative Governance

Jennifer Hirsch
Jennifer Hirsch
Adjunct Associate Professor, City and Regional Planning
Director, Center for Serve-Learn-Sustain

How would you define this Big Idea?

There are many ways to engage individuals and communities in processes and activities aimed at social and environmental change. Most of them are top-down, meaning that people or entities with some kind of formal power create a plan and then look for "adopters," which are people or groups who will carry out that plan. In 1969, policymaker Sherry Arnstein published an article that continues to be influential today, called "A Ladder of Citizen Participation," depicting eight rungs, with the bottom being manipulation and the top being citizen control. The in between rungs mark increasing citizen engagement, from communication ("informing") to collaboration ("partnership") to real power ("citizen control") in which citizens have real decision-making power. While sustainability is generally seen as the work of government (policymakers) and technologists (scientists or engineers), and thus a top-down endeavor in which citizens or communities are seen as "adopters" (as in, how can we get people to retrofit their homes? or turn off their lights when they don't need them?), the field is slowly starting to recognize the key role that people and communities need to play, not only as trusted messengers in getting people to engage in sustainability and climate actions, but also in deliberating about the challenges and creating new innovative, community- and culturally-based solutions. Within sustainability studies and in practice, there are increasingly theories and examples of participatory processes that lead to new types of sustainability practices. When these processes involve collaborations between communities and government, they are known as "collaborative governance."

How is this Big Idea included in your work?

Much of my work, as an urban environmental anthropologist, has focused on forging collaborations between government and communities. In Chicago, I worked with the City of Chicago Department of Environment to engage communities across the city in implementing the Chicago Climate Action Plan. Building on that work, I helped the City of Cleveland do the same thing with their Neighborhood Climate Action Plan. Now, in my current role as Director of the Center for Serve-Learn-Sustain at Georgia Tech, I am establishing participatory processes for developing and promoting education for sustainable communities at Tech, creating communities of practice in which students, faculty, staff, and off-campus partners work together to define and implement a collaborative agenda. I am also engaged in a number of different initiatives aimed at establishing structures for collaborating around sustainability, involving GT, partner universities, the City of Atlanta, and other partners, such as advising the City on the creation of Atlanta's Resilience Plan and working with Emory University and other partners to establish a UN University Regional Centre of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development.

Learn more:

"A Ladder of Citizen Participation." Sherry R. Arnstein. 1969.

“Forging City-Community Partnerships for Climate Action: Lessons from the Social Sciences and Chicago.” Climate, Cities, and Behavior Symposium, Garrison Institute (Garrison, NY). March 2013.
( Video recording of a symposium talk I gave on my work related to collaborative governance.

“From information provision to participatory deliberation: engaging residents in the transition toward sustainable cities,” by Michaela Zint and Kimberly S. Wolske. The Elgar Companion to Sustainable Cities: Strategies, Methods and Outlook. 2014. Overview of sustainability engagement strategies in cities from around the world, including our Chicago work.

 “Putting the CAP [Cleveland Climate Action Plan] into Action: An Asset-Based Approach to Neighborhood Engagement.” October 2013. ( Presentation at the 2013 Sustainable Cleveland Summit, introduced by Jenita McGowan, Chief of Sustainability, City of Cleveland.

"Geraldton 2029 and Beyond- Co-creating a Sustainable Future." October 2010. ( Video about a sustainability collaborative governance effort in Western Australia.

Sustainable Values, Sustainable Change: A Guide to Environmental Decision Making, by Bryan Norton. 2015. Professor Norton is retired from GT's School of Public Policy. He is one of the foremost environmental philosophers in the country. This book lays out a deliberative process for working our way together towards sustainable communities, rather than having a set end goal.