Competing Perspectives on Public Participation in National Park Service Planning: The Boston Harbor Islands National Park Area


  • Thomas Webler
  • Seth Tuler
  • Jasmine Tanguay


Public participation, community involvement, stakeholder involvement, park management, environmental management, environmental conflict, Boston Harbor Islands, Q methodology, discourse analysis.


Nearly all types of recreation agencies are feeling the pressure to increase public involvement. Accordingly, attention is turning to the question of how to organize such processes. Much of the literature outlining advice for how to best involve the public in collaborative decision making implicitly assumes that there is one best way to “do” public participation. In other words, one process can meet everyone’s needs adequately. Indeed, public participation theory contains a surprising lack of allowance for diverse preferences of what is a “good” process.We report on an empirical investigation in which we explore what participants of the Boston Harbor Islands Partnership planning process think about the most appropriate way to conduct public participation. Tapping subjective beliefs and preferences with an approach called Q methodology, we collected in-depth qualitative and quantitative data from experienced participants. Analysis of these data ended with three distinct narratives on what is the ideal public participation process for this context. One emphasized the inclusion of all relevant stakeholders in an atmosphere of trust with the presence of a good leader to channel diverse voices in a consensus-based process. Another emphasized a process that provided recommendations and outcomes acceptable to the National Park Service (NPS). A third focused on the guidance of a strong leader and producing recommendations that are implementable, effective, and efficient.While these results can not be generalized beyond this case, it is reasonable to assume that there will always be competing ideas about what is the best process to accomplish public participation. This research has documented that these differences can be profound. Yet the success of the BHIP process also suggests that these differences can also be overcome by crafting a process that meets a variety of different and sometime competing demands. We conclude that knowing what people want from public participation is essential to crafting a legitimate and effective process and delivering a program that is widely viewed as meaningful and successful. These findings are relevant to the mission of promoting public participation in the NPS and other recreation agencies. Planners should assume that there are multiple ideas about what is the most appropriate process for any given situation. It may be wise to clarify preferences and promote a dialogue with key participants about what is the most appropriate process. Success should be viewed a s a function not only of the design features used but also the extent to which the design matches the needs and preferences of the participants.





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