Last year, Sherry R. Arnstein’s “A Ladder of Citizen Participation” celebrated its 50th anniversary. Originally published in the Journal of American Planning Association (JAPA) and one of its most cited articles to date, the longevity and impact of Arnstein’s Ladder can be recognised in the emergence of 60 public participation models since its inception.
Yet, Arnstein’s vision from 50 years ago bridges decades in more ways than one. Not only through its dynamic iteration in the history of public engagement frameworks and practices. Indeed, it provides a foundation for many of the central concepts that shape public engagement research and practice today. For just as current public participation spectrums continue to engender the work of shifting power in public decision-making – central to Arnstein’s vision – they also open out onto theories, methods and ideas that exist between the spectra.
But the inception of Arnstein’s Ladder in 1969 coincided with a shift in focus of the role of ‘citizens’, or public, and the conception of ‘participation’. Published at a “major inflection point” in the United States, with the Civil Rights Revolution, Vietnam war protests, the devastation of urban renewal, urban riots (Watts Riots and Newark Riots, for instance) and the increasing awareness of global environmental and ecological disasters, it demarcates the shift in the activation of citizens. Outgoing JAPA editor, Professor of Community and Regional Planning, University of Texas, Austin, Sandra Rosenbloom recently notes: “One result of the tumultuous events and major societal changes challenging the country at that time was a greater focus on the role of citizens in determining their own destiny and that of the neighbourhoods and communities in which they lived. Citizen participation became both a duty and a rallying cry, but one that Arnstein viewed with great scepticism.”
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