Community Engagement, Participatory Planning and the City

31 October 2018 | Posted In: #134 Spring 2018, Community Engagement, Community Sector, Planning and Built Environment Issues, Planning in Inner Sydney, | Author: Dallas Rogers

With Community Participation Plans promised across the NSW Planning system it is timely to look at the experience of community groups who have engaged with the planning process in the past. Dallas Rogers and Cameron McAuliffe explain what they found when they talked to groups.

The participation of the city’s residents in planning and development decision making is increasingly common in cities like Sydney. The right to ‘have your say’ has been extended to those who are often most affected by changes in our urban environments. Yet, processes of participatory planning and community engagement struggle to reconcile the varied expectations and desires that communities bring to the consultation table, leaving many residents disillusioned by the very processes designed to include, engage and inspire them.

In an attempt to better understand this conundrum, we recently analysed how Sydneysiders engage in the politics of urban development in Sydney. The research involved a set of focus groups conducted with resident action groups and other urban alliances from the greater Sydney metropolitan area. We then used an expert panel to further analyse the focus group findings in relation to the capacity of the NSW planning system to incorporate public input. We were interested in understanding how local resident and metropolitan alliances planned their encounters with government and developers around specific city developments.

We started with an idea from the Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe and we take a deep dive into the political philosophy of Mouffe in our research report[i]. But, in short, Mouffe points out that despite the best efforts of different groups to come to agreement, people routinely disagree. Because of these disagreements, she claims that for different groups to productively work together their political interactions with others need to be shifted away from active hostility and opposition, which she calls ‘antagonism’. Mouffe claims that rigid opposition should be moderated into more adversarial positions, whereby each group is prepared to enter the messy politics of negotiation and debate, which she calls ‘agonism’.

For Mouffe, agonism is productive because it represents a commitment to achieve an outcome despite the different expectations and positions of each group. It is a commitment to ongoing engagement across points of difference that is key for Mouffe. While Mouffe’s ideas are popular in urban planning theory, little research has considered the conditions that might allow different groups to move from outright opposition to enter the messy politics of a development affecting them. In our focus groups, we talked to resident groups and metropolitan alliances who had used both rigid opposition towards a development as well as getting more involved in the messy business of negotiation and debate with a range of government departments and developers.

In broad terms, we found many people were dissatisfied with the government’s attempts to engage them in development decision making, including, what they saw as, unproductive processes that dismissed their voices as NIMBYism and a nuisance to the government’s progressive urban planning proposals. But within this broad context, we also found moments of alignment and negotiation, where groups with different expectations found ways to work together despite their differences.


When we asked the resident groups and alliances why they were operating in the ways outlined above, some claimed that the planning system was broken, or that the planning system now served powerful developers, or that community consultation and engagement was a farce.

We found that some of the new metropolitan community alliances were engaged with development proposals and projects via a very diverse set of political activities. It is not just through metropolitan strategic planning or local development assessment consultation processes that these alliances contributed to the planning and development of their cities and neighbourhoods. They were also engaged through political lobbying and political party activities, and through the media.

In other words, the metropolitan alliances stepped right outside the government designed community consultation events and the formal avenues available to them through the urban planning system. They mobilised local and metropolitan resistance and used whatever political tools were available to them to bring about urban change. For example, resident resistance could take the form of an antagonistic act, a lashing-out against a highly inequitable plan for delivering housing, transport or infrastructure in their city.

In these cases, their rigid opposition was not only a manifestation of their inability to remedy what they saw as the inequities in their city, but it was also a response to the government’s formal engagement processes that did not have room for their vision of appropriate urban development. Many participants in our focus groups viewed the participatory planning process as a fait accompli, where community consultation was only tinkering at the edges of plans that had already been set in motion by others.

Much participatory planning research has focused on the consultations events that are organised by government. But we are paying more attention to the diverse methods that residents use to influence or protest against urban developments, many of which fall outside the formal government-created engagement events. We are interested in the possibilities for community action that hold to account governments and developers. When residents create their own spaces for participatory planning the scope for urban change can be vastly different.

We found that it is not just governments or their community engagement consultants that shape the way residents can inform urban development. Individuals and broader community alliances are assembling themselves outside the formal politics of the urban planning and development to create new ways to contribute to city making. We need to think about participatory planning as more than the government’s formal community engagement processes.

For example, providing room for commentary on a development is not enough, whether it happens at the strategic front end of the development process, or later as the specific plans take form. It is also the processes that determine what participation is and how it will be incorporated in a development’s decision making processes that need to open up. Importantly, participatory planning should be a space to critique and hold to account the decisions of governments and the actions of developers in our cities – a place to question how public land and resources are used and distributed.


If we want to truly engage the people of our city in the processes of city making, then we need to allow residents to decide on their own engagement methods, processes and agendas. The people involved in our focus groups did not accept the boundaries that were placed around ‘community engagement’ by governments or developers. Recognising the limitations of formal processes of participation, they sought other ways to have their voices heard; and here, we return to the ideas of Chantal Mouffe. We found that rather than moving from rigid opposition (antagonism) to a more adversarial position (agonism), as Mouffe suggests, the resident groups and community alliances involved in our focus groups used many different types of political action in an attempt to influence a development.

In our study, we explored how different resident groups and alliances used a variety of political tools to disrupt the actions of those with the power to shape a development. Doing so allowed us to trace some of the transitions that resident action groups and their members underwent in their attempts to influence a development. In many cases, they used political practices that fell outside of the formal government-designed community engagement events, but they also viewed these engagement events as useful sites for political action nonetheless.

Two key reasons were given for working outside the government events in our focus groups. First, many residents stated that they did not trust these engagement processes. Second, many residents wanted to comment on the decisions that had already been taken and were, therefore, off the consultation agenda, such as the housing affordability targets. Some focus group participants stated that the formal engagement processes of government often failed to adequately address the equity concerns of some dissenting community groups.

Therefore, we wanted to investigate the different strategies and tactics used by resident action groups in their attempts to influence urban development processes, the levels of success of these different approaches, and the ways that informal resident-led action interface with the formal urban planning system and the engagement events of government.


When analysing our data, it was necessary to further refine Mouffe’s understanding of antagonism to better account for the actions of individuals and alliances in our focus groups. In our research report, Tracing resident antagonisms in urban development:

agonistic pluralism and participatory planning, we discuss three further modalities of antagonism to better understand the transitions that our participants made from antagonism to agonism. These are outlined as (1) rigid antagonists, (2) soft antagonists, and (3) strategic antagonists.

Rigid antagonists had a strong commitment to an oppositional approach to community activism in the focus groups, particularly within the smaller and more locally focused resident action groups. For these groups, their rigid antagonism was demonstrated through a single-minded resistance to any urban development in their area – some people call this classic NIMBYism. Rigid antagonists were uncompromising when they reacted against what they saw as more powerful players in the city. These groups suggested that they would ‘fight’ the urban development until the end, and this was typical of comments by these groups and demonstrated their zero-sum game mentality in contestations over planned urban development. Most importantly, this persistent rigid antagonism led to these groups often being placed outside of the politics of urban development, where decisions were made. The take home point is that rigid antagonists – the classic NIMBYs – were often not very effective political operators.

The soft antagonists wanted to be a part of the formal negotiations about the developments affecting them, which often involved the state and/or local government. Many soft antagonists participated in state government community consultations events, but reported that they remained outside of the politics of these urban developments because many of the decisions had already been made. In other words, despite their involvement in dialogue and debate, they did not think that they had an impact on the development.

This soft antagonistic position meant that even when they were included in the formal politics of community engagement, these groups felt that their voices had not been heard. They felt that they were, in effect, marginalised and co-opted through their inclusion in the formal community engagement events. The take home point is that soft antagonists – those who decide to move beyond being a classic NIMBY and engage with the government’s community engagement events – reported they were also often not very effective political operators.

The strategic antagonists often had a strong and long history of collective community activism. They moved strategically between formal and informal processes of community engagement and participation. They were willing to compromise and debate issues, they were open to different views, but they refused to be confined to the formal community engagement events of government. The inability of some community groups to affect existing power relations in the formal community participation events led them to choose to operate from outside of the formal planning politics to influence the development. They remained committed to the formal processes, but used informal actions to support their attempts to negotiate from ‘inside the tent’. The take home point is that the strategic antagonists reported the most success with their development campaigns.


For all the talk about the inability of NIMBYs to change their view about a development, or the devastation wrought by untrammelled urban development, governments at all levels are formalising community participation into the planning of our cities and regions. These formal attempts to institute more participatory planning mechanisms designed to engage communities in the planning process are laudable. However, there is a tendency for participation to be framed as an end-in-itself, rather than as a means to produce a more democratic city.

The success of agonistic approaches on the part of resident action groups and community alliances in our research was dependent on the same commitment to negotiate a productive development outcome. Where this commitment to genuinely include many voices was limited by the processes of participatory planning, some groups found it more effective to move outside the formal urban planning and development processes to take a more antagonistic position in their attempts to produce a more democratic outcome.

Antagonistic action, whether in the form of protests, political lobbying or media interventions, may work to support the actions of these groups from ‘inside the development tent’, whilst also pointing to the limitations of our current participatory regimes.

Therefore, for participatory planning to be effective it must be framed within a context of a negotiable set of urban planning agendas, regulatory practices, and planning decisions, as well as an always-contestable and contested political process defined by its high frequency of regulatory and political change.

Dr Dallas Rogers is Program Director of the Master of Urbanism at the School of Architecture, Design and Planning, University of Sydney. Cameron McAuliffe Senior Lecturer in Human Geography & Urban Studies at Western Sydney University. A link to the research discussed is with the online version of this article. Their research was funded by the Henry Halloran Trust.