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The View From Arnstein’s Ladder: The Promise of Community Control

The highest rungs of Sherry Arnstein's influential Ladder of Citizen Participation have control by the community as their goal. How is it that they have failed to reach that goal? And is participatory budgeting the answer?

In "The View From the Top of Arnstein’s Ladder: Participatory Budgeting and the Promise of Community Control" in the Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 85, No. 3), authors Alex Karner, Keith Brower Brown, Richard Marcantonio, and Louis G. Alcorn examine the concept of participatory budgeting through the lens of Arnstein’s influential work. Immediately the similarity between the two is apparent.

Participatory budgeting represents a form of radical democracy in which a government allocates a portion of its budget towards projects voted upon by a community. In principle, this is the type of process that Arnstein envisions at the highest rung of her ladder: a complete transfer of decision-making power from the government to community.

And yet, while participatory budgeting allows participants to scale the ladder of participation, the authors suggest that it cannot transcend the power gap at the center of the community-government relations.

Karner and coauthors first draw from the work of scholar and organizer Jane McAlevey, juxtaposing the ladder of participation to recent labor organizing perspectives on public engagement. These perspectives delineate three models of social change: advocacy, mobilizing, and organizing. Participatory budgeting quickly allows us to move from advocacy to the mobilizing model.

But even at that level, power ultimately still resides within the government to identify community leaders to carry out participatory budgeting. However, the organizing model of social change goes beyond Arnstein’s ladder. Here, participants identify organic leaders, who “take on formal leadership roles and are empowered to set their own strategy.” This structure sustains community engagement, ensuring that individuals beyond those who have previously been involved in activism are included in the process. This is true citizen control.

Relationship between Arnstein’s ladder and contemporary perspectives on social change. Shades designate correspondence between labor and organizing perspectives on social change and rungs on Arnstein’s ladder.

Relationship between Arnstein’s ladder and contemporary perspectives on social change. Shades designate correspondence between labor and organizing perspectives on social change and rungs on Arnstein’s ladder. Arnstein’s categories (nonparticipation, tokenism, and citizen power) do not map directly onto McAlevey’s three models. The mobilizing model, for example, encompasses elements of both partnership and delegated power. McAlevey’s organizing model goes further than the highest run of Arnstein’s ladder in that it sets forth a broader vision for social reform and power redistribution. Note that McAlevey’s use of the term advocacy differs from its common usage in the planning literature. Figure 1 from the Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 85, No. 3).

To illustrate the limits of participatory budgeting, the authors examine it in practice in Fresno, California.

As a part of the state-sponsored Transformative Climate Communities grant program, the City of Fresno employed participatory budgeting to engage the communities of Downtown, Chinatown, and Southwest Fresno with the goal of implementing climate adaptation and mitigation projects for communities facing environmental injustice.

However, the Fresno case failed to achieve the characteristics the authors use to describe “strong” participatory budgeting: a binding community vote, engaging historically marginalized populations, possessing enough operating funds to execute the community project, and possessing a large enough budget to address redistributive goals.

Projects were initially restricted to a one-mile distance from the planned high-speed rail station. This would have little benefit for the West Fresno community for which the authors describe a lengthy history of environmental injustice.

The steering committee selected to lead the participatory budgeting process was composed of the former mayor, incumbent council members, and other professionals.

Could power be redistributed when community members had no guarantee that their contributions would have any meaningful impact on the decision-making process? After complaints from the community, these gaffes were remedied with the committee reformed to include community activists. While it was given power to allocate funds, final approval authority nevertheless resided with the mayor and other elites.

By the time project scenarios were revealed, four of the five reflected no input from the community. However, the last represented the priorities of the participating community members — not for additional affordable multifamily housing but investment in a local grocery store as well as local solar and transportation projects. This onerous process demonstrates the power struggles through which communities must endure to move towards citizen control.

I am left with the question, “Can community control ever be achieved?”

If community control is necessary to redistribute power and bring about a just society, planners must contend with the fact that it can never be when government makes the rules of what constitutes sufficient participation.

And is community control truly the goal, a shift of power from the government to the majority of the community? Planners and activists can’t be confident this majority will make decisions to address injustice faced by marginalized members of the community.

So perhaps the solution isn’t for planners to outsource their decision-making responsibility. Instead, maybe planners must use the underlying sentiment of Arnstein’s work to adopt a values-based approach to planning and community participation.

The Journal of the American Planning Association is the quarterly journal of record for the planning profession. For full access to the JAPA archive, APA members may purchase a discounted subscription for $48/year, or a digital-only subscription for $36/year.

Top image: Participatory budgeting in Flatbush, Brooklyn, New York, in 2011. Photo by Flickr user Daniel Latorre (CC BY 2.0).


About the Author
Kyle Miller is a joint Master in Urban Planning and Master of Public Health candidate at Harvard University.

October 17, 2019

By Kyle Miller