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Participation & Sustainable Development in Europe

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New forms of participation in the triangle of state, economy and society

Jens S. Dangschat

Jens S. Dangschat is Professor of Sociology of Settlements and Demography at the Vienna University of Technology, Department of Spatial Development, Infrastructure and Environmental Planning, subsection sociology; his research is focused on social inequality and segregation, participation and communal governance, theory of space and planning, and sustainable regional development.

Contact: jens.dangschat(at) or

 As competition to lower non-wage labour costs makes itself felt internationally, even the welfare states of northern and western Europe are increasingly being trimmed back to their “core responsibilities”. In line with the thesis that politics has failed to cope, free markets are to take over in some of the areas which the state withdraws from, while the remaining tasks fall to the lot of civil society – in the neighbourhood, in schools and other social institutions, in caring for relatives and in the willingness to donate to public institutions. But this “top-down request” can scarcely be regarded as a seriously-meant offer of participation, particularly if the list of obligations is long, but there is little possibility of influencing decisions.

It is just as unsatisfactory, though, to expand participation in areas where the aim is merely to paint over the symptoms of society going off course, or where the “experts” are stumped. Ecologically aware citizens toiling away in LA 21 processes cannot make good the environmental damage resulting from urban policies focused on competition – even less so if the city administration keeps these grassroots activists on a tight leash. Then again, it is a mistake to demand (wellmeaningly) participation for citizens at all levels of political decision-taking; in other words, for existing responsibilities of the political/administrative system participation as involvement in discussion and in reaching a decision is only ever one of the possible ways of doing things.
Then there is the question of which social group demands or enforces how much involvement in reaching a decision. Since participation is a component of the power to present arguments in discussion or to actually take decisions, it needs to be demanded. People have to be willing to invest time, to fight for their cause or (in the worst case) to put up with disadvantages (as was the case with Bacherpark in Vienna in 2006). At all events moral courage is called for wherever the issue is making the “authoritarian state in democratic guise” somewhat less self-involved.

As a rule – and this is mainly the case in “Points of view”, too – “participation” is seen only in terms of private households and civil society, i.e. the (local) state “generously” concedes the opportunity to join in discussion to its citizens (usually in their spare time and with no financial support). It is not often that the political/administrative system itself or employers are spotlighted in the participatory debate.

Where participation is to be provided for and demanded, the aim – in the present context of far-reaching social and economic change – must be to include all stakeholders in the society in question. Adminstrations must open up – inter-departmentally, too – and the mainstays of the local economies concerned must take responsibility for their locality. That applies specially to firms quoted on the Stock Exchange, who governments offer tax relief to in the course of a misguided debate about attracting/holding on to businesses. Corporate Social Responsibility means taking responsibility in order to strengthen a community in the public interest (and thus to the benefit of the conditions under which the firm in question competes), rather than to undermine it. Then participation also means bringing one's own strong points into a process in which new and appropriate forms of social (self-)organization are invented.

Jens. S. Dangschat

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