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What’s in a word? Participation in planning versus participatory planning.

The New Dutch Planning and Environment Act (Omgevingswet) lines up with other recent large-scale projects that have ‘municipalised’ governmental tasks from a national to a local level, including the National Law on Social Support (Wet Maatschappelijke Ondersteuning) and the Youth Act (Jeugdwet). These decentralizing dynamics are argued to form part and parcel of the Dutch transition from a classic welfare state to the neo-liberal governance frame of the ‘participatiesamenleving.’ The attempt to translate this concept to English opens a door to multiple contemplations on what this concept conveys and on which registers it builds. It also invites the question to what searchlights research on the social domain can offer with regard to the planning domain.

The buzz word ‘participatiesamenleving’ originates from the annual Kings’ speech in 2013,[1] in which it was defined as that everybody who is able, is asked to take responsibility for his or her life and environment. An oft offered translation of the word participatiesamenleving is ‘participation society’ or ‘participation in society’. Participation in society doesn’t sound like something one would obviously oppose, but I argue there is a serious caveat that needs to be pointed out.

Let’s look of at the two separate concepts enclosed in the word, starting with the latter. The word samen-leving literally translates into together (samen) living (leving). As such, it connects well enough to the word society; Society has its etymological roots in the Latin societas, describing a civil bond between parties that are bound by some form of functional interdependence.

The first concept, participatie, is more problematic. The literal translation is indeed participation. This leads to the immediate question whether connecting the qualification of participation to society isn’t an outright pleonasm. According to Merriam-Webster, participation refers to the act of participating. To participate in turn means to either (1) take part in something, or (2) to have a part or share in something. Participation society however doesn’t actually refer to (just) taking part in society, the participation in the participation society is undertaken by actively taking responsibility for your life and environment. You don’t simply take part in society, but you actively take part by actively taking responsibility for your slot in society. Taking responsibility is key.

In the legal domain, responsibilities are usually paired with rights: certain rights bring certain responsibilities, certain responsibilities bring certain rights. However, whereas the participation society holds a strong focus on responsibilities, it doesn’t seem to dwell very much on rights.

This distinction between responsibilities and rights leads to the distinction between participation and participatory. Participatory relates to providing opportunity for people to be involved in deciding how something is done.[2] Offered examples for this adjective are participatory management and participatory democracy. The term participatory democracy at first glance would again seem a pleonasm, a closer look offers the dichotomy of participatory versus passive. Participatory democracy hence is defined as: “individual participation by citizens in political decisions and policies that affect their lives, especially directly rather than through elected representatives (italics by DC).”[3]

Whereas the word participation connotes to taking responsibility, the word participatory connotes to taking decisions. However, as my teenage son will concur, these can be two very different enterprises. Being invited to take responsibility for your life is distinctly different from being presented the opportunity to decide on aspects that affect your life.

The rhetoric of the Omgevingswet conjures up images of participatory planning, enabling enterprising private actors to take initiative and actively determine their living environment.[4] In the same breath the marketing surrounding the Omgevingswet expounds on stimulating participation by stakeholders. However, the legal frame constructed for the participation is not constructed as participatory. Instead, I argue, it appears to build on the political aspiration of the current decentralising dynamics, namely participation in society; Active and responsibly citizens are stimulated to take responsibility for their living environment, but that doesn’t equal actually taking decisions on that environment.

Is this undesirable? Not necessarily, enough can be said on the argument that the current challenges that we are facing the planning domain are better met through participation in planning than through participatory planning. The caveat is that all involved are clear on the distinction, and that two words as close as participation and participatory, are worlds apart in what they entail in practice. Words matter, and should be chosen diligently and precisely.

[1] “Van iedereen die dat kan, wordt gevraagd verantwoordelijkheid te nemen voor zijn of haar eigen leven en omgeving.” [2] [3] [4] De nieuwe wet zorgt voor een samenhangende aanpak van de leefomgeving, ruimte voor lokaal maatwerk en betere en snellere besluitvorming. Daarnaast wordt participatie bevorderd. Bijvoorbeeld door burgers en ondernemers zo goed mogelijk te betrekken bij de ontwikkeling van de leefomgeving.

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