Cities beyond the Year 2000 II: Participatory social planning in Ontario

(Continuing from previous post.) In the late 1990s I pursued my interest in participatory research and engagement by undertaking some facilitation training at the Canadian Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA).  ICA’s techniques have been developed through several decades of “facilitating a culture of participation” in community and institutional development.  Their work anticipated and now exemplifies the post-Cold War emphasis on a vigorous civil society, that is, of institutions between the individual and, on one hand, the state and, on the other hand, the large corporation (Burbidge 1997).  ICA planning workshops involve a neutral facilitator leading participants through four phases—practical vision, underlying obstacles, strategic directions, and action plans (Stanfield 2002).  These mirror and make use of the “objective, reflective, interpretive, decisional” steps of shorter ICA “focused conversations” (Stanfield 1997).  The goal of ICA workshops is to elicit participation in a way that i) brings insights to the surface and ii) ensures the full range of participants are invested in collaborating to bring the resulting plans or actions to fruition (Taylor 1999c).

Such investment was evident, for example, after a community-wide planning process in the West Nipissing region of Ontario, 300 kilometers north of Toronto.  In 1992, when the regional Economic Development Corporation (EDC) enlisted ICA to facilitate the process, industry closings had increased the traditionally high unemployment to crisis levels.  As well as desiring specific plans, the EDC sought significant involvement of community residents.  Twenty meetings with over 400 participants moved through the first three phases—vision, obstacles, and directions.  The results were synthesized by a steering committee into common statements of the vision, challenges, and strategic directions.  A day-long workshop attended by 150 community residents was then held to identify specific projects and action plans, and to engage various groups in carrying out projects relevant to them.

A follow-up evaluation five years later found that they could not simply check off plans that had been realized.  The initial projects had spawned many others; indeed, the EDC had been able to shift from the role of initiating projects to that of supporting them. Over 150 specific developments were cited, which demonstrated a stronger and more diversified economic base, and a diminished dependence on provincial and national government social welfare programs.  Equally importantly, the community now saw itself as responsible for these initiatives and developments, eclipsing the initial catalytic role of the EDC-ICA planning process.

When I learned about the West Nipissing case, I could not help contrasting it with one of my earliest research experiences, modeling the social-economic-ecological future of an agricultural region in Australia beset by soil salinization and econmic decline.  In that research, a detailed scientific analysis was conducted at some distance from those directly affected by the problems of salinization and economic decline.  Projections of the economic and ecological future were straightforward as long as they preserved the basic structure of the situation.  When innovative possibilities, such as reforesting abandoned land, were considered, the analysis became difficult.  The audience for the final analyses was small and attention to the report short-lived. The state government water resources ministry that commissioned the research was unable to implement the policy change that it turned out they wanted the study to support, namely increasing the price charged for irrigation water.  Nothing more then became of the two or three person-years of research in the wider agronomic, economic, environmental, and social dynamics (see Taylor 2005, 94ff).

In contrast, the West Nipissing plan built from straightforward knowledge that the varied community members had been able to express through the facilitated participatory process.  The process had been repeated, which presumably allowed them to factor in changes and contingencies, such as the start of the North American Free Trade Association and the decline in the exchange rate with the USA.  And, most importantly, the process has led community members to become invested in carrying out their plans and to participate beyond the ICA-facilitated planning process in shaping their own future.

Some difficult questions for me were opened up by this contrast.  My own environmental research had drawn primarily on my skills in quantitative methods.  What role remained for researchers to insert the translocal into participatory planning, that is, their analysis of changes that arise beyond the local region or at a larger scale than the local?  For example, even if I had moved to the Kerang region and participated directly in shaping its future, I would still have known about the government ministry’s policy-making efforts, the data and models used in the economic analysis, and so on.  Indeed, the “local” for professional knowledge-makers cannot be as place-based or fixed as it would be for most community members.  What would it mean, then, to take seriously the creativity and capacity-building that seems to follow from well-facilitated participation but not to conclude that researchers should “go local” and focus all their efforts on one place?

(to be continued)


Burbidge, J., Ed. (1997). Beyond Prince and Merchant: Citizen Participation and the Rise of Civil Society. New York, Pact Publications.

Stanfield, R. B., Ed. (1997). The Art of Focused Conversation. Toronto, Canadian Institute of Cultural Affairs.

Stanfield, R. B. (2002). The Workshop Book: From Individual Creativity to Group Action. Toronto, Canadian Institute of Cultural Affairs.

Taylor, P. J. (1999). “Basic propositions of the workshop process.” 12 December 1999).

Taylor, P. J. (2005). Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

One thought on “Cities beyond the Year 2000 II: Participatory social planning in Ontario

  1. Pingback: Cities beyond the Year 2000: Engaging with/in the militant particularism-translocal tension of Raymond Williams « Intersecting Processes

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