A New Model: Participatory Planning for Sustainable Community Development

At the Community Partnership Center, we are working to develop an approach that aims to democratize research, planning, and decision-making. We call this method Participatory Planning for Sustainable Community Development (PPSCD). It is grounded in community organizing and community participation in goal setting, information-gathering, analysis and decision-making, program implementation, monitoring, and evaluation. It attempts to answer the challenge of the sustainability movement of the 1990s to find ways to effectively manage growth and plan for the future that will not compromise the quality of life of future generations. It assumes that decisions about growth management and future development are highly complex and embedded in the dynamics of the social, economic, political, and environmental systems. It also assumes that within communities there are complexities of values, perceptions, and the relative power of the various stakeholder groups affected by these decisions, as well as uncertainties and urgency surrounding growth issues.

The fourteen-phase PPSCD approach is currently being implemented by the CPC as case studies for an international community development agency, beginning with three rural program sites in the United States. We are also developing contacts in order to implement the PPSCD approach in varied urban and rural settings in the United States, and are including a variation of the approach in an international development project in Southern Africa.

The Community Partnership Center (CPC) at the University of Tennessee is a research center that creates equitable research and action partnerships with community organizations to address the needs of low-to-moderate-resource communities. During the mid-1990s, the CPC piloted a model for participatory monitoring and evaluation of federally funded rural Empowerment Zone and Enterprise Communities in which ten Community Learning Teams across the nation developed plans, selected methods, collected information, analyzed results, and made recommendations for change. This experience has been enhanced by the international development experience of Center staff in grass-roots participatory research and planning.

One of the most striking lessons from both the Learning Team Model and the international development experience is that people long for effective and accessible ways to participate in shaping their future. Ironically, in this country of wealth and opportunity, citizens are impoverished as decision-makers; people want to participate but feel disaffected, disconnected, and discouraged. Current approaches for development and growth management tend to be one dimensional. They address only one step of the decision process, such as visioning or provide tools for information gathering but not for decision-making, such as indicators. These approaches also tend to minimize the differences among community stakeholders in access to and control of resources for effective decision-making, as well as the place-based and social variables that affect decision-making.

In order to make choices about how to use their limited resources, communities need decision making processes based on understandings of the important linkages and trade-offs that exist between their community's quality of life, social, economic and environmental assets, and the potential for various stakeholders to benefit differently from the choices made. Our approach includes processes, data gathering and decision tools that can be used by communities to sustainably plan for their future. The PPSCD process takes stakeholder and other contextual differences into consideration, and works towards a collaborative development of information, and both decision making tools and processes. In essence, the focus is on process rather than specific decision products.

The cross-cutting principle is that as the level of participation increases, the capacity for learning also rises for all stakeholders and participants, including researchers, experts, and policy makers. This shift in emphasis from gathering data to increasing learning has been the trend in international participatory development theory and practice over the last twenty years.

The PPSCD Learning/Planning Team

A key component of PPSCD is the formation of a Community Learning/Planning Team which provides leadership and accountability for the planning process and monitors the outcomes. The Learning/Planning Team identifies members' priorities (and those of un-represented stakeholders) as well as members' understandings of current and historical context, core community values and knowledge of social, economic and environmental systems, and preferences for policy and monitoring approaches.

A facilitator/researcher serves as a resource person to the team to integrate social, economic, and environmental data, models, and methods from the scientific community. This resource person needs to have participatory facilitation skills as well technical skills to compliment those of the Learning/Planning Team members. Authentic participatory development recognizes that there are many forms of knowledge, both expert and local, and that both can be appropriately integrated into a planning process when the discussions and decisions are enhanced but not dominated by expert knowledge and voices.

An ideal Learning/Planning Team will have at least eight members but not more than sixteen, representing a broad cross-section of the community and stakeholder groups. The team will be self-governed (not responsible to facilitator or any outside entity) and will agree to work toward consensus in decision-making. Members must be willing to commit to the full range of tasks, make necessary time commitments, and participate in team-building activities. In addition to the members, the Learning /Planning Team will have a Coordinator and Working Groups. The Coordinator is a community member, with leadership qualities, small group management skills, and communication ability. The Coordinator recruits core team members and assists in recruiting members of working groups, facilitates and leads team activities, assists in information gathering, and communicates findings. The team will also bring in additional participants as members of working groups.

The full PPSCD process can take between 18 to 24 months. An important concern of communities in crisis is that the PPSCD Approach will take too long. It is possible to abbreviate the process and to adopt some elements and phases and not others, but these decisions should be made carefully and monitored.

Phase 1: Participatory Appraisal - Creating a Community Snapshot

PPSCD begins with a site visit by the researchers/facilitators and community partners to identify key informants and potential cooperators in a selected community. The purpose of the PA is to get a snapshot of the environmental and socio-economic context of the community in dialogue with interested stakeholders.

Phase 2: Building the Planning Team

The resource persons begin the process of developing the Learning/ Planning Team. Team members should be chosen from a broad range of community stakeholders, be willing to commit personally to the full range of responsibilities of being a member of the team, and be willing to work towards consensus in decision making.

During the team building process the team conducts an analysis of relevant stakeholders (They may change as the phases evolve.), the relationship of stakeholders to the resulting decision, how the stakeholder interests are defined, and how the team accesses and controls resources.

Phase 3: Who are we? - Telling our story

During the third phase the Learning/Planning Team develops a profile of community perspectives on social, economic, political, cultural and environmental history across space and time. Communities will be spatially defined with either political or natural boundaries, e.g. towns, counties, or watersheds, or ecosystems, as well as defined by other social, economic, and environmental dimensions as identified by communities.

This community history phase is designed give Learning Team members an opportunity to construct a story, based on their personal understanding of the community's collective reality, that will continue into the future. This community story is the foundation for the next two phases and can reveal stakeholder differences, information gaps, and questions that need to be addressed in the next phases. The story is not intended to represent objective reality but to provide an understanding of how stakeholders perceive their community's past in order to imagine its future.

Working groups may be convened in this phase to expand buy-in, develop partnerships with additional stakeholders, and develop information for this phase, such as an oral history project conducted by high school youth. During this phase it may be relevant for the team to enlist assistance from resource persons (preferably the researcher / facilitator) with field experience in participatory methods for research and planning for community development.

The role of the facilitator/researcher

The role of the researcher/facilitator is to facilitate the community's process of self definition as well as to aid in the design, collection, and analysis of information. In later stages of the process, the resource person's knowledge of secondary data availability and their ability to access the data can be an important resource for communities. These resource persons should have the ability to train communities in the use of GIS methods for describing their community. A projected outcome of PPSCD is the building of community members' capacity to become facilitators for the PPSCD process in their community.

Using Participatory tools and methods

There is a wide range of participatory tools and methods that can be used for information-gathering, analysis, and decisionmaking. Some of these tools, such as mapping, have multiple applications. Using participatory tools and methods is integral to the PPSCD Approach.

General Guidelines:

  • Concepts and Tools should always be appropriate for the context.
  • Facilitator should "hand over the stick"; the facilitator should not edit or interpret.
  • Strive for methods and tools that allow opportunities for "reversals in learning" and power.
  • Traditional research methods can be participatory, but try to avoid the survey!

A Focus on Visual and Interactive Methods

Everyone has an inherent ability for visual literacy. When information gathering shifts from formal interviewing and writing which uses the verbal skills, to participatory mapping, diagrams, photography, which use visual skills, complex issues and relationships can be represented more simply, individuals with less literate skills may participate equally, collective knowledge, creative associations, and memory are all stimulated. Examples of visual and interactive methods are neighborhood use maps, transect walk maps, timelines, resource flow charts, daily routine graphs, well-being or wealth card sorting, and role playing. Interactive methods are best learned by doing; the greatest benefit comes from their practice and analysis within the group. The sharing of knowledge and discussion that takes place is of greater value than the finished product.

Phase Four: What's important to us?

Phase Four of PPSCD involves the team in developing a set of core community values and contextual quality of life indicators. This is preparation for both visioning the future and determining the information and data needed for the subsequent research phases. This is the first stage where indicators are being developed and it is important that they are values-based indicators, providing a dimension to the choice process that is often absent in more conventional models. We expect that working groups may be developed at this stage, if not already formed, to use participatory methods and tools to develop core values and indicators of positive (and possibly negative) change by gathering input from the wider community. These quality of life indicators may be revised or change after the visioning and research phases.

Phase Five: Where do we want to go?

Phase Five is the visioning phase of the process. At this point, PPSCD Learning/Planning Team members and possible working groups will be brainstorming about the future in relationship to the values and indicators that they have developed in Phase Four and their understanding of their past from Phase Three. A variety of decision tools can be used, including matrices with ranking and scoring. This phase will reveal areas (sectors and types) of information or data that will need to be collected.

Phase Six: What do we need to learn and why?

Phases Six through Eight are the research or information gathering phases to collect the information the community needs to plan and reach its vision. Based on the PPSCD process so far, the Learning/Planning team will ask:

  • What information will be needed to fully understand the context for decision-making?
  • What information and data are already available?
  • To what extent will it be important to collect contextual information using participatory methods?
  • In what cases can we use the researcher/facilitator's or other resource person's assistance in gathering data without losing control of the information? Is the information we want relevant to the planning context we are in?

Research will likely include:

  • Community assets inventory and evaluation
  • Human/social resources
  • Infrastructure resources
  • Environmental resources
  • Cultural/historic resources
  • Systems analysis of community assets

Phase Seven: How will we find out about what we need to learn?

In this phase the team selects methods for collecting the relevant information. Both professional and local knowledge will be collected from primary and secondary sources, with both conventional and participatory methods.

Phase Eight: Who will do what and when?

This phase designs a research strategy and defines team members, working groups and resource persons' responsibilities.

Phase Nine: What are we learning and what does it mean?

Phase Nine is extremely important for assuring community control of the process. To ensure broad-based analysis and interpretation of findings the Learning/Planning Team needs to structure the process, utilizing participatory methods when possible.

Using Geographic Information Systems in PPSCD

How land is used has direct consequences on the quality of life of a community, both socially and physically from the potential for community conflict to human health issues from pollution. Choices about the spatial distribution of activities thus can affect the success or failure of a community to achieve their quality of life and vision for the future. Therefore, to consider the sustainability of choices, communities must consider the spatial distribution of activities. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) or computer mapping, allows such consideration providing a placed -based approach through which communities can visualize the current state of their community spatially and analyze the impact of choices from a spatial dimension. They can answer questions regarding where things are happening in their community that may provide valuable information about potential causes and solutions to a problem, or changes occurring.

Phase Ten: Revisiting what is important: How will we know change when it happens?

The Team develops a revised set of quality of life indicators based on the core values they have identified, their visioning process. As a result of the research conducted, indicators will reflect community values, hopes, knowledge, and possibilities. Participatory tools such as mind-mapping will also be used to facilitate this process.

Phase Eleven: Making choices with what we have learned

In this critical phase, the Team focuses on decision tools such as scoring and matrices, to analyze the GIS mapping, and other data collected, in relation to the values and quality of life indicators alreadydeveloped by the team, and the results of the visioning process. In a process called Multi-Criteria Decision Analysis (MCE), information from the research process, such as the spatial data and maps, history, values, and visioning are all analyzed. The outcome of this evaluation is intended to identify alternative policy actions and criteria for their evaluation, and select techniques for the evaluation of those policy actions. The Team brings the MCE process outward to working groups and to larger and larger circles in the community.

Phase Twelve: Moving from decision to action

During this phase the team creates policy alternatives and action plans. The team evaluates the potential for implementing choices in the near and long term, and develops a strategy to share the results of the Learning/Planning Team process. The team may decide on a variety of ways to report to the sponsoring agencies, non-profits, other community organizations and the public at-large, always keeping in mind that sustainable choices require wide buy-in for success.

Phase Thirteen: What differences have we made?

The Learning Team evaluates the process and outcomes and makes plans to proceed with the PPSCD Approach.

Phase Fourteen: What's next?

Sustainable choices provide opportunities for various stakeholders to participate in the implementation of these choices: the broader the participation, the broader the buy-in, the larger the potential for successful completion. The PPSCD Learning/Planning Team may remain functioning to monitor and evaluate implementation, thereby repeating the cycle beginning with Phase Five. The development of Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) process activities in this phase should look at whether or not the community is progressing toward their vision, strategies or actions that need changing, how well management policies are working and alternatives, any unintended consequences that may need mitigation, and other roles for team members or other community organizations.

Cross- cutting concern: How Do We Celebrate Our Accomplishments?

Participation on a Learning/Planning Team requires a long-term commitment and significant work. Experience has shown that this work is amply rewarded by the personal and collective learning that takes place. It is important to have a celebratory event and plan for recognition of the Team and work groups' contributions throughout the PPSCD process.