Expanding beyond the human in public engagement

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As cities around the world transform to accommodate over half the world’s population, who gets to decide how they evolve? The established best practice is to engage the public—the human public—in the dialogue. But what would the more-than-human world—plants, animals, rocks, ecosystems—have to say if they were invited into the conversation? The current approach to human rights “still exists within a Western-dominated, liberal international order” that does not always recognize more pluralistic views of “who” is worthy of a voice in decision-making and governance. It excludes more-than-human beings from the community of rights holders and prevents the just and inclusive dialogue needed to create cities that work for all. 

For decades, public consultation and engagement have been a pillar of civic participation in jurisdictions around the world. At their best, they help develop more community-informed policies, programs, services, and infrastructure. Notionally, consultation and engagement have become a form of social technology with the potential to influence the outcomes of our local, regional, and international governance. In practice, the realities of shifting political contexts and economic austerity—among a range of factors—mean that consultation efforts often become an afterthought, informing rather than engaging the public. Movements to improve public consultation, such as using more participatory methods, collaborative design, and citizens’ assemblies, have urged public institutions to see people—humans—as central partners in the decision-making process. Importantly, these movements have aimed to consistently center those with lived experience as a way to ensure that policies, programs, services, and investments address real needs. 

For years, I have been among those practitioners, working to help governments, charitable organizations, civil society organizations, and private institutions understand how to meaningfully center community voices in their decision-making processes, specifically around the development of the urban environment. Our ultimate goal in this work is to shift governments and other institutions to play a supportive role as communities lead processes for change—to move beyond tokenistic engagement to delegated public power

This work happens at all orders of government, from local to international, and often starts with trying to incrementally improve the existing touchpoints they have with the public through their legislated or statutory public consultations. For example, the Ontario Planning Act articulates requirements for public consultation in advance of decisions on land use planning, requiring governments to host statutory public meetings for specific types of development projects. In theory, this ensures that the public has the right to weigh in on decisions that impact the infrastructure in their communities. The known lore about many of these consultations is that they tend to be transactional (highly technical presentation followed by short Q&A) and often inaccessible (e.g., time of day, location, language barriers, use of jargon). 

Beyond these limitations, the question of “who” is defined as part of the process has become ever more pressing in community-driven change. With overlapping crises of democratic backsliding, rising inequalities, and pressing ecological emergencies, rights practitioners increasingly understand equity-deserving communities to include ecosystems and non-humans. 

Current efforts to improve consultation and engagement do not acknowledge that cultures and faiths around the world, most notably Indigenous communities, see the more-than-human world—plants, animals, insects, bodies of water, rocks, and the like—as vital beings, entitled to the same rights afforded to humans, and therefore deserving of the same rights to participation. In order to advance honest efforts towards reconciliation—decolonizing ourselves, our systems, and our institutions, rights practitioners must conceive of the more-than-human world as a rights holder in the process of public engagement and consultation. Practitioners must urge institutions to see people-centered engagement and consultation—even some of the most innovative methods of public participation—as a baseline rather than the end goal and encourage the development of solutions for local, regional, and international governance that actively dialogue with the natural world. 

Existing governance and legislative frameworks can be a starting point for this work. Who makes decisions around the right to participate, and what do the decisions consist of? In terms of governance, signals of change include corporations in the United Kingdom appointing Nature to their boards, ensuring that the decision-making is guided and influenced by more-than-human beings. Additionally, the Office of the Provincial Health Officer in British Columbia has put forward a rights framework that can only be realized “in the context of vibrant, loved and cared for ecosystems,” appointing senior bureaucratic officials to ensure that Nature—among others—is meaningfully engaged in the dialogue. 

Recognizing that the fates of our more-than-human kin are inextricably connected to our own—that we humans can only thrive when the natural world is doing the same—can be a helpful lens in acknowledging that they must also have a voice in the dialogue about our collective future. There is much to learn from Indigenous communities and land-based cultures that have long held this “kincentric approach” at the center of their worldview. Extensive scholarship—primarily from feminist, Black, and Indigenous scholars—argues for this “kincentric approach” as part of a “relational turn” for human society, a way to be less extractive in our interactions with both human and more-than-human kin, potentially providing the opportunity for productive discourse at a time of pronounced civil society divides.

Efforts to expand the aperture around who constitutes the “public” are urgent. They weave the work of social and climate justice together by including the more-than-human world as part of the communities regarded as equity-deserving—as our kin. To build on the great work of scholars like Suzanne Kite, rights practitioners must do the hard work of learning the language of these kin in order to shape our urban futures together. Human actors will need to move past this era in which human and equity-centered engagement is “new” and “transformational” for institutions rather than a default consistently expressed in approaches to public dialogue. Rights practitioners and—more broadly—professionals facilitating public engagement need to dramatically increase our sophistication and include other living systems. This approach will allow for the maintenance of local and global commitments to reconciliation and equity and, as importantly, to respond to the crises of the moment.

If consultation practices are a form of social technology that defines the outcomes of our local, regional, and international governance, expanding them to dialogue with the natural world is a necessary “technological update” that can help bring social and climate justice together.