The Challenges of Participatory Futures

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Tim Mack

Tim Mack

At the request of the Washington state legislature, the William Ruckelshaus Center at the University of Washington and Washington State University have undertaken to create a “Road Map to Washington’s Future” over the course of 2018. Their first external step was to schedule a series of localized half-day workshops at the county level around the state. The process was to articulate a vision of the state’s desired future as expressed by local stakeholders. And the collateral goal was to take a detailed look at the state’s present planning network and growth management mechanisms, with the hope of identifying potential additions, revisions, or clarifications to state laws and policies.

The following discussion is based on my opportunity to attend one such workshop in Island County, held at the end of April 2018. It was attended by about two dozen representatives of local nonprofits and government entities with a role or interest in, or relevant knowledge about, the strengths and weaknesses of the statewide planning process. Accordingly, issues, challenges, and needed improvements to Washington’s planning framework at both the state and local levels were articulated, discussed, and captured.

Questions raised there include whether evoking the phrase “Washington’s Future” suggested that foresight tools (beyond visioning) would be utilized in the final report. But while the visioning process used was reminiscent of many foresight exercises, the workshop was largely planning focused, with a significant percentage of attendees representing planning departments at the county or city level. This suggested a conviction that a planning approach would provide the best path for reaching the desired future that was articulated in the workshop visioning process.

However, an issue arising in this road-map process was whether traditional planning approaches—i.e., existing state guidance in this area, largely the Growth Management Act (1990)—provided the best tools for implementing the results of this visioning process. The vision of “the state’s desired future” appeared to be conceived as a single desired future, and it was unclear whose future was to be visioned. In addition, an energetic discussion arose concerning how other issues that were not formally a part of the state and local planning process—such as education, environmental degradation, and climate change—could be included into the final Road Map report.

A related issue was whether the unique character of each individual county would be diluted or lost in a one-size-fits-all statewide report. While the initial workshop guidelines stated that recommendations to the legislature should be “grounded in and reflect local realities, experiences, interests and aspirations,” it was not clear how this was going to be managed. This concern was compounded by the ongoing divisions of interest within the state, such as developers versus conservationists, rural versus urban, and county versus state interests. That discussion was further complicated by questions of whether financial resources to implement the recommendations would be available. And finally, Washington state’s coastal mountain range divides the state into two distinct eastern and western regions, with significant differences in culture, ecology, and political outlook.

Some workshop attendees also felt that, while a number of areas of responsibility, such as shoreline management, were already integrated into statewide planning, others, such as forest management, were not. As well, the simplified division into urban and rural regions ignored the special needs of exurban areas (known as rural areas of intense development, or RAIDs), where residential and commercial development is soaring, resulting in “unplanned planning” in those areas. This is especially true concerning services to the growing retirement-age population, when urban housing shortages had made fixed-income households unviable and rural areas attractive. While developers have seen scenic vistas and wildlife diversity in areas such as Island County as a draw for retirees, development activities often diminish the qualities they had used as customer sales points. And some attendees also felt that little attention was being paid to local health care or transportation systems in these developing areas, with fixes usually beyond the resources of both local government and nonprofit or volunteer organizations.

As in most top-down systems, the state appears to require program support and regulation enforcement from counties without offering resources to implement these efforts. A common failing of a normative approach in both planning and foresight is a lack of attention to the strengths and weakness of critical implementation systems and obstacles facing the realization of desired futures. The focus instead is on the desired goals, with no understanding of how they might be reached.

The distinction between planning and foresight is decades old. People often understand planning more easily than foresight, with one reason being the complexity of foresight’s vision. The manageable narrowness of classical planning can be a reassuring one, where the guidelines of the Washington State Growth Management Act clearly lay out planners’ responsibilities. But the trouble is that seemingly unrelated issues are often the ones that prove the most troublesome—i.e., unplanned for. It is a classic catch-22, in that the narrower planning process can make an impact on policy making and policy makers, while broader foresight is often “outside the box,” relying on persuasion to make its arguments.

In summary, while participatory foresight tools such as brainstorming can assist in the visioning of desirable futures at local workshops, this is less helpful when crafting macro solutions within silo-restricted systems, such as state and local planning. The Washington Growth Management Act is nearly 30 years old and is showing its age. Much has changed across the state over that period, but legal and regulatory systems are often much slower to respond to change than they ought to be.

The input in the Road Map workshops from those outside the planning world offers planners the opportunity to hear other views and voices as the Road Map process moves forward, and the very fact that such a project exists to solicit input on improving the state’s growth management process is encouraging, What will be interesting to see is if this effort can capture the local variables and then interweave them with statewide trends and attitudes in a way that effectively incorporates the growth strategies of Washington state’s range of stakeholders.

It should not be implied that attaining desired futures is without tools, at least in the Puget Sound region. The 2017 completion of the Washington Department of Commerce’s Puget Sound Mapping Project covers a dozen Washington counties, and it provides a wide range of historic growth data across many economic and social sectors in a detailed visual format, offering assistance to government, private sector, and public interest groups. As well, other policy tools are in development and will hopefully be refined by the Road Map process.

Clearly, the past of Washington state planning will not necessarily be its future. This ongoing effort to integrate an expanded community into decision making and strategic planning for the state enhances confidence that desired futures within the state will be increasingly likely to include a more comprehensive community of local stakeholders from outside the planning community as time goes on.

Timothy C. Mack is managing principal of AAI Foresight Inc. Contact him at