9 ideas for better public participation

On Monday 29 July 2013, Future Cape Town hosted its third summit on the topic of public participation and engagement. This session was sponsored and hosted by the Taj Hotel Cape Town, and included a small gathering of urban planning, design and architecture professionals, city officials, as well as NGOs with an interest in urban issues.

The aim of this meeting was to discuss the issue of how various levels of government, as well as professionals in the built environment, engage with the general public and each other around projects in the urban space, particularly large-scale ones.

Below are nine ideas on how to tackle public participation in Cape Town. For further reading, please see our full Summit discussion paper and proceedings here or you can download it here



Images courtesy of tlupic and CAFOD Photo Library


1.  Ensure adequate budgeting and planning:

Ensure that a significant percentage of the project budget is allocated for the public participation process, and that this process is properly planned and delineated as part of the overall building scheme.

2.  Communicate a vision:

Designers and planners should submit mock-ups of their designs and buildings models where relevant, to the affected communities for scrutiny and comment. This could be done by creating a mini-exhibition at the nearest town hall or public space, or by creating an informational website.

3.  Give the public a stake in decision making:

A significant proportion of the weighting of the final choice of project should be given to the community. For example, a proposed public building should allow for 5-20% (or higher) of the final choice of design to be decided by public vote.

4.  Plasticity:

Minor changes to project scope or design should be easier to action, without the extensive application process they currently have to undergo. These changes should not affect projects in other parts of the city.

5.  Build local ownership:

Local ownership of the project should be fostered from the get-go, through engagement, education and community involvement in the process. This will help reduce vandalism and other forms of property crime.

6.  A representative committee:

The creation of a project steering committee that has significant and representative numbers of locals sitting on it.

7.  Empowerment of people:

It is not simply enough to create a neutral space for comment, one must ensure that the voiceless are empowered to make themselves heard. Extensive investment in engagement becomes a tool for educating communities about civic issues, and will build a culture of active citizenship over time.

8.  Timing of public participation:

Stakeholders are generally only brought in for participative processes after the parameters of a project have already been set (for example, by city planners), and the public can then only respond within that framework. Participatory planning should allow the public to help define the questions that need to be answered by the planning process. This applies mostly to statutory processes like developing a Spatial Development Framework, not to developer-led proposals.

9.  Empowerment of citizen organizations:

If citizens are to be empowered to engage actively in city-making issues, NGOs and community-based organisations that deal directly with urban development issues need to be encouraged and supported with development strategies and funding. It was noted that there has been a scarcity of these sorts of much-needed organisations in South Africa since 1994.


We are grateful to all attendees for the giving of their time and expertise, and hope that the conversation on this topic will continue.

Photos of the event can be found here.

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