Towards a "people centered" approach to participatory planning: analysis of the grass root level conflict over waste facility siting

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Virginia Tech

This paper analyzes the role of both cooperative and oppositional modes of citizen participation in public decision making related to waste facility siting. Politicians, bureaucrats, and waste industry representatives embrace participatory planning as an equitable and efficient solution to the waste siting dilemma. Ideally, citizen involvement in waste planning would foster solutions both environmentally and economically satisfactory to all stakeholders. To date, however, no clear consensus exists over the instrumental objectives of participatory planning.

Participatory planning encompasses a wide spectrum of activities ranging from coalition-building to grassroots development. The broad use of the term “participation” complicates efforts to distinguish between those planning activities which are co-optive and those which are participatory.

Guided by two critical questions (‘who’ and ‘why’), the first section of this paper proposes a ‘people centered’ conceptual framework for defining the instrumental goals of participation and for differentiating between co-optive and participatory planning. In the second and third sections, I present a comparative case study of the two predominant modes of participation (cooperative oppositional) currently operating in the United State’s waste facility siting crisis.

I use a ‘people centered’ conceptual framework to show that the current cooperative participatory approaches to waste facility siting serve more to facilitate citizen co-optation than participation. I further demonstrate that the grassroots oppositional movement against waste facility siting represents successful participation on the part of the citizens in the face of co-optive attempts on the part of the state and the waste industry.