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Participation & Sustainable Development in Europe

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Public participation between the conflicting priorities of individual interests and the public good

Dr. Astrid Rössler

Astrid Rössler is an environmental consultant and a qualified mediator. She teaches Sustainable Development at the Institute of Tourism and Hotel Management in Salzburg Klessheim, and is a member of the Strategic Group on Participation.


One of the claims made for public participation is that it allows an individual or a group of individuals to assert their own interests more effectively and gives their ideas more weight. In the case of projects with pronounced environmental relevance this approach to participation - buttressing individual interests – is increasingly running into difficulties.

Example¹: in a community plagued by heavy through traffic the search is on for a route to bypass the largest settlement. Defining possible routes is tricky, since the surrounding area has been built on haphazardly and every single route faces resistance from people living nearby. In this particular case tunnel solutions are discarded as far too costly. At the conclusion of study group activities only one route – through ecologically valuable riverside woodland, steering clear of settlements – is left; it attracts support from the bulk of the population. An objection by one resident that the route would destroy a nature preserve for amphibia is indignantly rejected: peace and quiet for the inhabitants, and the safety of schoolchildren, “really ought to matter more than a few frogs”.

This type of public participation leads to insoluble polarization. The example reveals the tightrope one finds oneself on wherever direct impacts on people and on unspoilt nature are to be weighed against each other. Right at the start of any participation process concerned with projects affecting the environment agreement is therefore needed on how the group of participants and stakeholders should be defined, and how much weight is assigned to the interests of individuals and of the biosphere, respectively.

The next question is how far individuals can be expected or even required to accept a solution with drawbacks for them personally in the public interest (here: protecting the natural environment). If individuals are given the impression that public participation is mainly about promoting one’s own interests, their willingness to compromise will diminish and the climate of opinion will shift, to the disadvantage of the public interest.

A further point to bear in mind during participation processes with marked environmental relevance is what chance a negotiated result has of being implemented.

Back to our example: the local council decides to pursue the idea of a bypass through riverside woodland further, and submits the project to the nature conservation authority for approval. The environmental ombudsman and the expert in the department concerned give a negative verdict on the route submitted: the loss of local amenities and ecologically valuable riverside woodland cannot (in their view) be outweighed by the interest in a new road. At this point the climate of opinion in the community turns against the conservation of nature.

In principle the results of public participation are in no way binding on subsequent administrative procedures. In certain cases the authorities concerned are required to give objections and statements by ordinary citizens serious consideration. In practice this means that the process of weighing up public and private interests in the course of an official approval procedure may lead to results differing from those of a previous participation process. In the case of the proposed bypass it may turn out that the route submitted cannot receive approval.

In the case of participation processes with marked environmental relevance, carefully clarifying public interests and personal motives is a key element within the entire process. At the same time treating both aspects with esteem and understanding requires great sensitivity. If individuals are encouraged to develop exaggerated expectations, they are likely to demand that their personal interests be given priority over environmental considerations. On the other hand, if a negotiated result subsequently cannot be implemented, the instrument of participation will be devalued to some extent. In addition there is a risk, if private interests are emphasized, that existing power and decision structures will be consolidated, rather than more people gaining access to the process and wider horizons coming into view.

The various initiatives to strengthen participation frequently focus on the individual’s RIGHT to take part in decision processes. If we examine public participation from the angle of the community the individual belongs to as a system, the perspective changes.

The individual’s right to belong to the community goes hand in hand with a RESPONSIBILITY for contributing to the process of maintaining and renewing the community in line with his or her position and abilities. Seen from this angle, public participation involves rights and obligations, taking and giving.

Where people succeed in establishing participation as an instrument involving balanced rights and obligations within a community, the general willingness to accept solutions that take full account of social and environmental considerations may well increase and tensions between indivdual interest and the public good may diminish.

Astrid Rössler (October 2006)

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¹ This example has been contrived for discussion purposes by combining elements of two real-life case histories..