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Participation & Sustainable Development in Europe

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Public participation at the local level as a way out of the crisis of democracy?

DSA Christoph Stoik

Christoph Stoik teaches methods of social work, history and theory of social work, and urban and regional development at Vienna Polytechnic, where he is also involved in course-related research projects; in addition, he is professionally active in community organizing and urban development.

Contact: christoph.stoik(at) or stoik(at)

Given that western democracy is in crisis, what is the function of public participation? European democracies are visibly undergoing a measure of Americanization, lobbies wield increasing influence, competion between locations as regards the treatment of firms plays a significant part in national and communal politics, and ordinary citizens’ opportunities for democratic control are dwindling – and yet people are meant to have more say at the local level. So while citizens are less and less able to exert direct influence at the national and global level, local conflicts of interest are to be thrashed out between local stakeholders face-to-face.

Involving ordinary people in local political decisions more closely is inherently desirable, provided that such involvement is also facilitated at regional and national level. The urge to make one’s presence felt, to take part in social and political life, to decide and shape things jointly, seems to be focusing on the local level. I leave it open to what extent this development is being steered behind the scenes – remember the catchphrase “civil society”.

But if local constellations of interest are viewed independently of regional, national and global developments, the causal factors behind problems and conflicts of interest that crop up locally remain invisible (as Pierre Bourdieu might well have said). Ordinary people then occupy themselves with managing conflicts that originate somewhere completely different – a hopeless undertaking.

From this point of view structuring a public space, for instance an inner-city park in which problems and conflicts constantly occur, cannot be regarded independently of mechanisms of segregation and repression. It cannot simply be a matter of youngsters from immigrant families “keeping quiet” once they have been given a “cage to play in” in the park. Nor can it simply be a matter of the various users communicating with and developing understanding for each other. It is also essential for ordinary citizens to grasp how the political system works. Ordinary people should have the opportunity of putting questions and getting answers to them: How are political decisions reached? Who champions ordinary people’s interests, who local interests? Which public funds are invested in what, with what justification? And why are the authorities’ budgets constantly shrinking?

To sum up: involving ordinary people in decision processes at the local level more closely is desirable – but piecemeal local participation by itself is not enough. Local participation processes must be recognized and utilized as a starting-point for processes of education and empowerment. The overall concept aims toward a society of emancipated, critical human beings capable of solidarity.

The vision of emancipated participation by the citizenry at various levels of politics might summon up fears, among some politicians and administrators, that everything could get dreadfully complicated; at the same time it may be a pointer to a way out of the crisis of our democracy. The individual thus gains access to the various sectors of society and politics (admittedly a long-term program).

As a result the citizenry’s interests acquire more weight. Ordinary people organize their interests publicly, partly to counterbalance interests predominantly aligned with the rationale of maximizing capital and transnationally organized. Seen from this angle, a coalition between a general public organized in terms of civil society and community political interests would be logical. After all, what is at issue are shared concerns, living together in communities, safeguarding local infrastructure – in the end surviving in local space.

Christoph Stoik

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