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Participation & Sustainable Development in Europe

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International level

There is a close connexion between the aim of putting participation on a firmer footing and the aim of promoting sustainable development. That is why – particularly at the international level – regulations about participation are mainly to be found in documents concerned with sustainable development, such as the Rio Declaration, the Charter of Aalborg or the >>Aarhus Convention.


In Austria, apart from the Federal Constitution, which regulates forms of direct democracy (petitions, referenda and official opinion surveys), we find rules about participation in the Industrial Code (Gewerbeordnung), the Water Statute (Wasserrechtsgesetz) and the Provinces’ laws on land use planning, for example.

Formal and informal participation processes

It is important to distinguish between formal and informal participation processes.

Formal processes are mandatory; legal regulations lay down who takes part, how far rights of participation extend, how the process is structured and what is done with the findings. In Austria formal processes include approval procedures such as environmental audits or project assessment as regards nature conservation for plant or hydraulic engineering projects, and planning procedures for zoning plans or regional programs. A formal process results in an administrative decision (e.g. by a civil servant) and/or a political decision (e.g. by a local council).

Informal participation processes are not rigidly regulated and can be structured in various ways, depending on the circumstances. They are entirely voluntary; the central principle is tackling an assignment together. The aim can be to gather information, to exchange ideas or to find a solution together – and in some cases to implement it together, too. Who takes part, how the assignment is tackled, which >> methods are employed and what rules govern the procedure are either determined in advance or agreed by the participants themselves. How binding the solutions worked out in informal processes are depends on what has been agreed about how to treat the results. As a rule the results consist of recommendations and serve to aid formal bodies such as local councils in reaching their decisions. Alternatively, a council resolution can make results binding.

What legal regulations apply to a particular participation process varies from case to case. For initial information it will be best to contact the administrative bodies concerned, or (in Austria) to get in touch with your province’s >> environmental ombudsman.

You can find out more about the legal framework of participation in the >> Participation Manual.