Shunning citizen engagement in infrastructure planning weakens democracy

Conflict around transport infrastructure planning processes reveals the crucial relationship between public infrastructure and democracy.  

The ‘publicness of infrastructure’ makes citizen engagement vital to planning transport infrastructure in a democracy, argues Crystal Legacy in her recent article ‘Sidelining citizens when deciding on transport projects is asking for trouble’.

Speaking to the gap between citizen participation and decision-making in infrastructure planning as identified by submissions to a parliamentary inquiry on the Australian Government’s role in the development of cities, Legacy underlines a pivotal role for citizen participation in shaping the habitat of democratic life.    

Infrastructure in a democracy is essentially a ‘public thing’, the author points out. Either publicly or privately managed, it articulates a shared vision for the city or community. Infrastructure projects spell out this vision. The debates surrounding them reveal much more than questions of impact or form or purpose to ask what kind of city is envisioned by these projects – a question of critical importance to decision-making in project planning, the author suggests. To create public infrastructure through undemocratic or market-led planning processes is to overlook the relationship between democracy and public infrastructure.

Excluding citizens from planning their habitat – the environment that supports civic life in a democracy – marks a departure from the shared vision for the community that public infrastructure is meant to articulate. Illustrating with examples from controversial projects, the author suggests that infrastructure cannot be approached separately from the citizens it is meant to serve. This relationship should be prompting planners to ask how infrastructure planning can be made more democratic through citizen engagement. By building citizen engagement into infrastructure planning, decision-makers can better respond to the needs of the community – and acknowledge the ‘publicness’ of the infrastructure in question, thereby enhancing democracy.

Tapping into recent reports on citizen participation and infrastructure planning in Australia and Canada, the author sums up their recommendations around three key points:
1. Early engagement  
2. Better access and quality of engagement at strategic stages in the planning process
3. Bringing stronger practices and tools to improve engagement and decision-making

Crystal Legacy is a Senior Lecturer in Urban Planning at the University of Melbourne. 

Photo: Takver/Flickr/cc

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