Out of the Town Hall

Going Out of the Town Hall: the Benefits and How They Can Be Achieved

 Academic Article

Abstract: Against the backdrop of new forms of local activism and the difficulties local governments face when aiming for more participatory governance, this paper explores which new approaches or governance tools could be used to harness the transformative potential of local communities with the long-term goal of building an environmentally sound, economically successful and culturally diverse future. In a European research project, insights on local sustainability initiatives and participatory processes were gained by observing existing initiatives, initiating pilot projects and engaging with stakeholders. Building on this research, this paper argues that new governance tools are needed to counter some of today’s persistent problems. These tools are characterised as discussions at eye level with all participants, openendedness and the development of a common vision for a local community. Local governments can initiate these processes or get into contact with initiatives of engaged citizens. However, which role a government should take – roadblock, bystander, co-pilot or driver – needs to be decided according to the needs of the community and the initiative on a case by case basis.


Change takes place in local communities. From urban gardening and networks of sharing to community-owned wind farms, citizens’ initiatives have emerged all over Europe to find new answers to today’s pressing challenges (Barton 2000). The aims of this engagement might be very concrete – such as revitalising a deserted inner city or increasing demand for locally-farmed food – but the issues are linked to the wider societal challenges of an ageing population during a long-term economic downturn in a global society that puts enormous pressures on the natural environment and still remains deeply unjust (O’Riordan 2001).

The importance of the local level to make sustainable development become a reality was recognised two decades ago with the Rio Conference on Environment and Development. Local governments were given a distinctive role (United Nations Conference on Environment and Development 1992) that has led to a growing number of Local Agenda 21 processes over the past two decades (Coenen 2009; ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability 2012; Selman & Parker 1997). Against the backdrop of new forms of local activism and the difficulties local governments face when aiming for more participatory governance, this paper explores which new approaches or governance tools could be used to harness the transformative potential of local communities with the long-term goal of building an environmentally sound, economically successful and culturally diverse future. It looks into new ways for local governments to engage with local actors who are already working on or want to tackle the sustainability challenges facing their local communities. The paper builds on research completed as part of the European-funded FP7 project “InContext: Individuals in Context: Supportive Environments for Sustainable Living”.

Methodology and theoretic background

InContext, and therefore this paper, builds upon a specific understanding of societal change, namely transition theory (Grin et al. 2010; Markard et al. 2012). The paper’s underlying assumption is that today’s society faces a number of persistent problems that are linked to value-based decisions, are subject to uncertainty and involve many actors (also called “wicked problems”, Rittel & Webber 1973). To address these problems a transition is needed, a “radical transformation towards a sustainable society” (Grin et al. 2010). Building on this theoretical background, the InContext project explored the assumption that sustainable behaviour is shaped by an interplay between external factors (e.g. social norms, policies and infrastructure) and internal conditions (e.g. values and beliefs), both of which need to be addressed when trying to shape transitions towards sustainability (Schäpke & Rauschmayer 2011).

The importance of the local level to make sustainable development become a reality was recognised two decades ago with the Rio Conference on Environment and Development.

In addition to theory development, the InContext project included four case studies and action research applied in three pilot projects. The outcomes of this research, together with insights from three engagement workshops with local government officials, are the basis for the propositions put forth in this paper. The case study work focused on four bottom-up initiatives engaging in alternative ways to produce and consume food and energy in Austria, Germany and Belgium (see Figure 1). As part of the pilot projects, the research teams engaged with communities in towns and neighbourhoods in Finkenstein (Austria), Wolfhagen (Germany) and Rotterdam-Carnisse (the Netherlands). Together, researchers and local citizens defined the current status, outlined long-term visions and pathways for reaching this vision and started local transition initiatives as part of a collaborative “community arena” process that supported co-creation of knowledge and multi-actor learning (Wittmayer et al. 2013a, 2013c). This action research built upon the principles of transition management in creating space for alternative ways of doing, thinking about and organising one’s community. Transition management is an innovative governance concept based on complexity theory, governance theories and insights from social theories aimed at creating societal searching and learning processes (Loorbach 2010).


Fig 1: Map displaying InContext pilot projects

Local governments and local initiatives working together 

Local, bottom-up initiatives contribute to shaping societal transformation (Seyfang & Smith 2007). When faced with these initiatives, local governments can take on various roles: bystander, co-pilot, driver or roadblock. The InContext research suggests that local governments do not consistently play one particular role, but instead take different roles over time, in different situations and with different initiatives (Bauler et al. 2013; Wittmayer et al. 2013c).

Local government as a roadblock

All local efforts for change in a community are influenced by government decisions. From the initiatives’ point of view the most negative option is when local government acts as a roadblock. In this scenario the local government opposes the initiative. This may be due to legal considerations or conflicts with prevailing interests of other societal groups, which local governments might consider as more important or legitimate. Furthermore, since many of the local initiatives studied here push into vacant physical spaces, for example appropriating unused public spaces for urban gardening, in many cases no routine procedure exists (Bauler et al. 2013). In these cases, lengthy bureaucratic or deliberative processes may be needed to find new solutions.

Local government as bystander

Initiatives may also develop without resistance or support from the local government, with the government thereby taking on the role of bystander. However, groups are still bound by regulations set at the local, national and EU level. For example, GeLa, the biodynamic farm in Austria, received European farm subsidies and had to comply with the rules that come with these (Debourdeau et al. 2012).

In addition to regulation, the availability and use of public space impacts local initiatives.  Local stakeholders must determine for example whether agricultural land should be developed for urban uses or made available for organic farming. Without communication, the local government does not learn about the challenges that these initiatives face, nor will local groups receive necessary support.

Local government as co-pilot

A third option is the local government as a co-pilot. Many initiatives align with long-term national political goals, e.g. sustainable food production initiatives that support national health and environmental targets. Getting in touch and working together with bottom-up initiatives can help local governments to learn about how larger societal challenges are perceived and play out in their communities. Exchange and collaboration with initiatives can help local governments to be active players in the ongoing change dynamics of their communities.

Local government as driver

There are also an increasing number of participatory processes where local governments are in the driver’s seat. By using public participation processes, (local) governments hope to increase the quality of decisions, contribute to empowerment and increase public support for their decisions. At the same time, participatory governance has been criticised for some, for example for creating “different categories of citizens” (Turnhout et al. 2010).

Out of the town hall

The community arena, a participatory process developed within InContext and tested in the pilot projects, differs from many of the standard participatory processes in that actors are treated as equals: all are taking part in a large-scale change process, a transition (rather than a policy process). Based on experiences with the community arena, three recommendations for designing participatory processes are proposed that can help local governments to work together with engaged citizens.

Working outside traditional roles in a protected space

One of the principles of transition management, on which the community arena was based, is the creation of space for alternatives to emerge (Loorbach 2010). This creates opportunities for actors to reflect on their beliefs and assumptions including those connected to a specific role. In the community arena people meet as individuals, including their values, emotions and hopes as well as their institutional ties. This is a “protected space” in a figurative and also ideally in a physical sense: meetings can take place on neutral ground, away from the town hall. This setting can also allow exploration of participants’ underlying needs and how they lead to certain behaviour, providing valuable “inner context”. The dialogue aims to create a shared understanding of the problem and vision for the community. The creation of shared purpose and the search for solutions may follow eventually.

Performed this way, participatory processes can result in social learning and a broader knowledge base. In the community arena of Finkenstein for example, citizens learned new skills such as presenting and defending findings to a wider public; some of the Carnisse participants learned how to manage a local community centre. Both of these lessons allow for “potentially more informed and creative decision-making” (Newig et al. 2008: 381), and are important for dealing with long-term change processes to address wicked problems. This process design enables participants out of their traditional roles, such as governmental official or citizen. Thus it creates space to allow for more innovative relations and solutions.

Aligning expectations

In many participation processes, participants’ understanding of the objective, their type of participation and anticipated outcome differs. Ambiguities about these basic questions can become a source of misunderstandings and frustrations (Turnhout et al. 2010). To avoid such misunderstandings, the InContext research teams sought to clarify expectations of all basic elements of the process, including the “who” (active citizens, politicians or local authorities), “what” (information, planning, legitimisation of decisions or empowerment), “where”, “how” and “why” (expected outcome). This prevents actors from acting upon individual assumptions that may not be shared. Also, all parties should openly discuss potential limitations of their commitment, especially with regard to time and financial resources.

The guiding power of visions

The societal challenges we face, such as climate change or social inequality, are complex and have no pre-defined solution. Possible solutions need to be explored in a cooperative learning process, allowing for trial and error and adaptation along the way (Loorbach 2010). In the community arena process of Finkenstein, creating a vision of the future has helped to unify the group and motivate others to join (Wittmayer et al. 2013c). A long-term vision links the actions of citizens and activists involved to a bigger picture. It requires imagining oneself at a time in the future – such as 2050 – looking back towards the present, and reflecting on what would have to have happened for this future to become reality, a process known as backcasting (Quist 2007). The actions identified in this way can then become immediate next steps, and work in contrast to conventional policy processes that often only span one electoral period and include actors’ immediate interests. Furthermore, this allows integration of long-term goals, such as sustainability, which are otherwise difficult to incorporate into day-to-day actions.

Challenges and constraints

Questions of democratic legitimacy and representativeness

The relationship between public authorities and participatory processes and local initiatives is ambiguous and raises questions of representativeness and legitimacy. Public participation processes can never be fully representative (O’Neill 2001). However, if participation processes such as the community arena are understood as an arena for generating ideas about alternatives in addition to, rather than instead of, a more traditional decision-making process, acceptance can be more easily secured (Wittmayer et al. 2013c). Organisers, facilitators and participants should discuss questions of representativeness and legitimacy and define a procedure for sharing the process’s results. This can include the involvement of the wider community or how concrete proposals can be taken to representative decision-making bodies like the city council. In the arena processes started within InContext, for example, groups presented their long-term vision in public hearings and invited feedback, input and activities from fellow citizens.

Public participation processes can never be fully representative… However, if participation processes such as the community arena are understood as an arena for generating ideas about alternatives in addition to, rather than instead of, a more traditional decision-making process, acceptance can be more easily secured.

Elected leaders and public servants may experience ambivalence towards local initiatives: they might want to support engaged citizens, but also see local initiatives as a threat to a representative government that holds special expertise and is elected to fulfil public duties. However, in most cases local initiatives address issues that cannot be sufficiently tackled or have been overlooked by local governments, a point which highlights the benefits to local governments who work with these initiatives.

Although the definition of public duty is not clear-cut, some initiatives indeed fill voids left by lack of local government action (Bauler et al. 2013). This role can be seen in the pilot project in Carnisse. A community centre had been run by a welfare organisation on behalf of the local government until the end of 2011. Then the local government determined that welfare work did not explicitly include running the community centre and chose a different welfare provider. A group of engaged citizens, after a nearly two-year struggle, re-opened the community centre under citizen self-management. The re-opened community centre is thus effectively performing tasks formerly understood as being within government’s responsibility. The responsibility of the local government can be understood as ensuring open participation or taking one group’s demand as an opportunity to improve participation opportunities for all.

Thus there is yet another issue to consider: while greater public participation and local initiatives hold great potential for better policy-making and greater public ownership of political decisions, there is a threat of the local government abdicating its traditional public service responsibilities. Thus the ongoing debate on what local government is or should be responsible for, and its role more generally, deserves more attention.

Accountability for open-ended processes

Public authorities are held accountable for their actions and the quality of public services delivered. Even in cases where no public money is spent – or where the funds for the initiative come from other levels such as the EU – public authorities may be held accountable for the choice of whom to involve or support. As a consequence, public authorities have an interest in setting goals and demonstrating that public money and staff time are invested to achieve these as efficiently as possible.

By contrast, many local initiatives or community arena processes are much more process-oriented. The purpose of community arenas is to open space for engaged citizens to create a shared vision and discuss how quality of life can be improved. This process is by definition open-ended and experimental in character. Therefore, it is neither desirable nor possible to define the result in advance, i.e. how public money supporting this process will be spent. The case studies revealed comparable search processes within the bottom-up initiatives. Many of the actors involved reflect on wider socio-economic conditions that they perceive as crucial for sustainability. For example, investors in community energy projects not only strive for low-carbon electricity generation, but start reflecting on local values.

To justify their decisions, local authorities need to point to the advantages of open-ended processes based on best practice examples in other communities. The relative unpredictability of open processes may lead to new insights and solutions, which would have been impossible to achieve with ordinary expert planning processes. While open-ended processes are not a solution for everything, their experimental character favours social learning and empowerment.

Dealing with the prospect of failure

The experiences from the community arenas applied in the pilot projects and the case studies showed that there are times of success and times of failure within local initiatives that are unpredictable from the beginning. In the evolution of a project, times of apparent or potential failure can lead to new directions and successes. For example, the Belgian Veggie Thursday Campaign, one of the case studies, faced strong opposition based on liberal claims of free choice, but used this debate to further refine its campaign message in positive terms of offering vegetarian alternatives (rather than morally tainting meat consumption). Similarly, GeLa, the first community-supported agriculture initiative in Austria, faces a constant threat of losing its leased farmland to home developers. This threat caused the community to not only collectively search for alternative plots, but also to rethink the conventional model of operation (the farmer leasing land independently of the community) and to consider models of collective land ownership.

Conclusions: The power of trusting relationships

Local bottom-up initiatives – such as those covered in this paper – are based on a broad understanding of sustainability, encompassing social and economic issues in addition to environmental ones. They are experimental in character and do not have predefined goals. They tend to have a shared sustainability vision, build on mutual trusting relationships between those engaged and often involve unexpected actors or redefine certain actors’ traditional roles in the process. Their value for enabling sustainability transitions is the space they provide for testing new practices over an extended period of time. Through replication elsewhere and further adaptation, they might be one element triggering cultural and structural changes necessary for addressing persistent problems.

When faced with bottom-up initiatives, local governments need to define their role based on the individual case. They can obstruct initiatives, simply leave them alone, try to steer or institutionalise the activities or engage in constructive dialogue. This paper concludes that taking the role of a co-pilot with the aim for joint learning can be beneficial for both the local government and the initiatives.

If local governments strive to work more actively towards sustainability, this paper has shown that the pitfalls of ineffective participation processes might be avoided by starting with an open agenda. Embracing the diversity in their municipality allows citizens to bring up the issues considered most relevant for the community. Transition management processes, such as the community arena developed by InContext, allow for this new form of engagement. For these processes to be fruitful, they need to be designed in a critical and thoughtful way. The inclusion of engaged citizens is a pre-requisite for the process to flourish. Engaged citizens and the local government need to operate on equal footing, each bringing in their knowledge, values and ideas. The nature of the relationship is thus fundamentally different from other forms of governance dominated by expert knowledge and top-down policy-making. Furthermore, it is important that all participants align their expectations. A successful process requires common understanding on all basic elements of the process, especially on the existing limitations, open-ended character and possible outcomes.

No participation process can ever be fully representative and participatory processes such as the community arena are no exception. However, if these processes are designed in a thoughtful and reflexive way, these new governance approaches can be an important tool to find new answers for today’s wicked problems, develop solutions that fit to specific local challenges and include citizens in a transition to sustainability.


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Figure 1: Overview of InContext pilot projects and case studies