Democratic Tools: Communities and Precaution

[Published as chapter 4 of Nancy J. Myers and Carolyn Raffensperger,
editors, Precautionary Tools for Reshaping Environmental Policy
(Cambridge, mass.: MIT Press, 2005).

By Maria B. Pellerano and Peter Montague

In the United States, the precautionary principle may never be adopted
as official national policy, as it has been in Europe. Even if it
were, the history of past environmental legislation shows that
official policy must be buttressed by shared values and intention.
When the underlying values guiding policy oppose precaution,
precautionary laws will be subverted, even if the letter of the law
remains the same. In a "thin" democracy, citizens may be dismayed when
this happens, but most will feel there is little they can do to
influence the process.

The remedy for thin democracy is "strong democracy" -- one in which
citizens truly participate, at least some of the time, in the
decisions that affect their lives. The precautionary principle
challenges us to develop a strong democracy. The Wingspread version of
the principle includes this important addendum: "The process of
applying the Precautionary Principle must be open, informed, and
democratic and must include potentially affected parties."

Precautionary questions for communities

Environmental problems are seldom confined to a single community, nor
do communities have control over all the policies that affect them.
Nevertheless, the best place to start building strong democracy is at
the community level. Democracy boils down to a question of "Who gets
to decide?" Communities must be able control their common assets (air,
water, public spaces, transportation system, etc.) to the extent
feasible if they are to exercise care for their future. Communities
can prepare themselves to assert control over these assets by asking
four basic questions.

1. What are the community's goals?

A community can explore what it wants for itself environmentally,
economically, and socially. Community members can ask what
environmental resources they think are important to the community's
existence. What kinds of jobs and businesses does the community want?
What makes a business a good neighbor? What resources does the
community have (and need) for attracting, or developing, those jobs?
What are the community's social goals--good food, housing and medical
care for everyone, access to an education, control of crime, and good
quality of life? In exploring these questions community members can
get very specific. For example, as part of the environmental question
an urban community might ask how much green space we need to make our
community livable and how far it should be from a typical home. (See
the Awahnee Principles for community planning, Chapter 10, Appendix
B.) By asking these questions a community gets a good sense of itself.
It also gets a sense of the diversity of needs within the community.

2. What does the community perceive as a harm or potential harm?

This question can be asked every time a community thinks there is harm
or the potential for harm. This question could be asked about an
environmental, economic, or social harm. An environmental harm might
be pollution from a facility within the community or a proposal for a
highway that will cut through the community. An economic harm might be
the closing of a local business because the owner is retiring, or the
takeover of a local bank by a megabank with no interest in the local
community. A social harm might be the closing of a local elementary
school or the loss of a community meeting place because a developer
bought the meeting place to build condos.

3. Who knows what, and what is not known?

These questions follow the previous question about a specific harm.
For any proposal affecting the life of the community, the community
should understand who within and outside the community has
information. Who knows about this proposal? What do they know about
it? Who endorses this proposal? Who is against it? For each of these
questions the community should also be looking at who does not know
the answers or have information and what is not known. By asking these
questions community members might find out that the chamber of
commerce from community B proposed a highway for community A to keep
the highway out of community B; a local community developer favors the
highway because he believes that dividing the community will make it
easier for him to put in new housing; and that the city wants the
highway so that it can relieve traffic in a wealthier community
nearby. They also might learn that residents of a local apartment
building were unaware that their homes are going to be demolished to
make room for the highway; that no one knows how many lanes or how
much traffic or how much pollution this highway will entail; and that
contracts are being let out for bid even though the community has
never been consulted.

4. What solutions can the community identify?

The community can create its own solutions for a particular harm by
considering all the alternatives including the alternative of doing
nothing. It can be very important to reframe the question at this
point and take a larger view. Take the example of putting a highway
through a community. The city probably asked, where do we put this
highway? The community might want to ask a different question: How do
we alleviate traffic congestion in the least polluting and disruptive
manner? Answering this broader question might reveal the following
alternatives: 1) going ahead with the plan as is; 2) not putting in
any highway at all; 3) developing a non-polluting mass transit
solution that would include stops throughout this community because
the community is underserved by mass transit.

Empowerment tools

Throughout these discussions the community needs to be aware of who is
at the table and who is not and how to get the most diverse group to
participate. The following empowerment tools would be helpful for
communities to make sure the people working on these issues reflect
the diversity of the community and the many points of view that exist
within a community.

Community Asset Inventories

Do you know what assets your community possesses? How many
organizations, businesses, public institutions, religious
institutions, schools exist within your community? Do you know how
much real estate is owned by community members and how much is owned
by outsiders? What are the revered spaces in your community (that
local corner store or barber shop where people hang out and talk while
they are getting their coffee or their hair trimmed; or the park with
the gym set and basketball court that is used at least 12 hours a
day). Developing an inventory of your community's assets will help you
understand the diversity of your community and what people consider
important to life in the community. There are simple ways to get this
information and a number of guides to help you (see Kretzmann 1993).
The best thing about this process is you can do it yourselves and get
to know your neighbors at the same time.

Community mapping

Engage the community in a mapping project. You could actually develop
picture maps of your community that show toxic emissions in relation
to homes, schools, or day care facilities; natural resource treasures
such as green spaces, creeks, or wooded areas; environmental health
problems such as diabetes, asthma, or cancer; or local businesses and
the number of jobs generated. These maps could be as simple as getting
a paper map from your local government and putting colored dots on it
or as sophisticated as using computer software (see Meuser in
"Empowerment Tools" in the "Further Reading" section). This could be a
great project for high school students.

Community-Organized Opinion Polling

Similar to asset inventorying, community polling allows the community
to get information from a broad cross section of community members,
learning what community members think about a particular issue. Hiring
a polling firm is not necessary. Short, easy-to-answer surveys are not
difficult to develop. For example, if community members were concerned
about a proposed highway they could develop a simple poll based on the
larger question of how to alleviate traffic in the least polluting and
disruptive manner. Questions might include: 1) Are you concerned about
a highway being built in the community? 2) If so, why? 3) Do you
currently use mass transit? 4) If not, would you use it if there were
a stop within five blocks of your home? The questions should be
phrased so that the answers are either yes/no or simple multiple
choice including the choice of "other" with space for an alternative
not listed on the poll. Such polls could be distributed to churches,
civic organizations, and schools. You might even get a high school
teacher to engage students in developing the poll.

Drafting Goals with Local/State Agencies

A community could develop five- or ten-year goals with the help of a
public agency around a specific environmental, economic, or social
issue. For example, you could develop ten- year environmental health
goals or five-year goals for the local public schools. The community
would make sure that meetings were held throughout the community at
various times and places so that as many people as possible could
participate. There should be a process in which everyone gets a chance
to brainstorm ideas and then another process to debate the ideas and
pick those that you come to consensus on.

Future Search

Future Search is another technique that would be useful for goal
setting. This is a structured 3-day process involving about 65 people
chosen to represent all parts of the community. The goal is to reach
agreement on solutions to a specific problem, such as "Affordable
housing in our county." The technique has had remarkable success in
many different settings. It takes at least six months to plan a
successful Future Search. The process helps diverse stakeholders
discover values, purposes, and projects together and enables groups to
start working toward their desired future right away. Four core
principles underpin successful Future Searches:

1. Every community or organization is part of a whole system, so in
order to do any planning the whole system must be in the room.

2. You have to explore the "whole elephant" (system) before trying to
fix any part.

3. You have to focus on the things that you agree on and set aside
problems and conflicts, treating them as information rather than
action items.

4. Participants have to manage themselves and take responsibility
before, during, and after the Future Search.

Each Future Search is carefully designed so that diverse stakeholders
participate throughout the planning process and at the Future Search,
where ideally there are eight people working in eight different
stakeholder groups. Initially participants review the past by looking
at key events in the world, their own lives, and in the history of the
Future Search topic. Then they look at the present, particularly the
trends affecting them, what they are currently doing about the key
trends, and what they are currently proud of and sorry for when
dealing with these trends. Lastly participants find common ground and
volunteer to take next steps. (See Weisbord and Janoff 2000.)

Independent Editorial Page in Local Newspaper

Community organizations could try to get their local newspaper to host
an independent editorial page. An editor, elected by organizations
throughout the community, would manage this page, filling it with news
and commentary not normally covered in the newspaper and of interest
to local citizens. The newspaper could run a disclaimer about the page
so that they would be freed of criticism for its content. Funding for
the page could either come from a small tax or from a blind trust set
up specifically for the page.

Working with government agencies and officials

Once the community is organized and understands what it wants, it can
start to work with government agencies and officials. Here are a few
things to think about when working with local governments:

In an effort to get diverse representation, everyone needs to
understand what it takes for people to really participate. This
includes financial compensation for time, child care while attending
meetings, transportation to meetings, translation services (and
perhaps other things). Government officials and corporate
representatives are earning their living while attending meetings;
they should not expect community representatives to donate their time
and energy. Government officials can travel to communities for
meetings rather than having community members always make the trek to
some high rise in the middle of the city. This serves two purposes: it
increases community participation and it allows government officials
to experience the community first-hand. Suddenly the apartment
building slated for demolition or the polluting power plant becomes
real and not just a statistic on a piece of paper.

Most importantly, the community can work with government officials to
correctly frame the questions. A narrow question -- such as where do
we put the incinerator? -- can be reframed as a broader question, what
should we do with our garbage? Or how do we reduce the amount of
garbage we create? When you ask a broader question you are likely to
get a broader range of answers. Of course the more diverse the group
answering the question, the more diverse the answers will be.

Participatory tools available to governments to implement the
precautionary principle

Governments can change the traditional way of interacting with
citizens. In the current system decisions are often made by a small
group of people, then announced to communities after the fact. If
communities want to modify a proposal, they often have to engage in
long, expensive legal or political battles. This embitters people,
undermines their faith in government, and causes many to stop
participating. So our environments, communities, and health continue
to deteriorate.

It is important for governments to start engaging citizens differently
because it is the right thing to do in a democracy and because engaged
citizens can prevent expensive problems associated with the decline of
communities. Governments can genuinely engage citizens using one or
more of the following participatory tools. Some of these tools are
already in use but need to be reworked to involve a diverse citizenry
more deeply. Some are appropriate for use on regional and national
issues as well as local ones.

Citizen Advisory Committees

Many government agencies use these committees to help with decision-
making on a variety of issues (transportation, education, policing,
housing, art, etc.). In principle these committees are a good idea but
historically in some communities they have been ineffective for
various reasons (limits on the issues they can address; politically
appointed membership, lack of true representation of a community; set
up to rubber stamp decisions already made; heavy influence from
corporate representatives; limited input from citizens who are not
members of the committee). Government agencies could work with
communities to redesign advisory committees so that the community gets
to appoint the members, the committee itself gets to decide which
issues it will address and how to get broader community input before
making final decisions.

Community Councils

Councils modeled after watershed councils could be developed to advise
town and city governments on policies that affect communities. Like
the watershed councils these community councils would be composed only
of local people who either live or work in the community and would
include business people, private land/home owners, renters, activists,
and ordinary citizens. The council's role would be to educate people
about citizenship within their community; make recommendations to
resolve disputes affecting the local community; carry out community
enhancement projects such as turning a vacant lot into a community
garden and meeting space; and help coordinate goal setting by the
community. These councils should be funded using local/state taxes, a
mechanism used by many watershed councils (see Prugh et al. 2000).
These councils would be different from citizen advisory committees
because they would look at the community as a whole and as part of a
larger region rather than focusing on a single aspect such as
transportation or education.

Consensus Conferences

Originally developed by the National Institutes of Health to produce
consensus statements on controversial medical topics, consensus
conferences are now being used by European governments to reach
consensus on controversial issues (for example, genetically altering
livestock, telecommunications policy, or use of transplants in
medicine). The conference is managed by a steering committee that
chooses 15 volunteer participants who lack significant prior knowledge
about the issue. Working with a skilled facilitator, the lay panel
discusses a background paper on the subject and formulates questions
for the public forum. The government agency sponsoring the conference
assembles an expert panel including scientific, technical, social, and
ethics experts and stakeholders from unions, industry, and
environmental organizations. The lay panel then reviews more agency-
provided background papers, asks more questions, and suggests
additions and deletions to the expert panel.

During the concluding four-day public forum, the experts make
presentations and answer questions from the lay panel and sometimes
from the audience. The lay panel deliberates and then cross-examines
the expert panel to fill in information gaps and to clarify areas of
disagreement. The lay panel then writes a report, summarizing the
issues on which it has achieved consensus and identifying points of
disagreement. Results of the panel are widely distributed to the media
and local hearings are held to stimulate informed public debate, help
citizens understand the issues, and influence decision-makers. As with
all these processes, serious effort is needed to insure diverse
representation. (Sclove 2001)

The Jefferson Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, has trademarked a
similar process called "Citizen Jury." Through polling the Center
randomly selects a panel of 18 jurors who are supposed to represent
the community. The jury is asked to study a particular public issue
(for example, solid waste, traffic congestion, or physician-assisted
suicide); the jury meets for four or five days to hear "expert
witnesses" with a range of views on the issue; deliberates; and then
presents its recommendations to the public.

Early Warning Networks

These networks have been developed by non-profit organizations to warn
communities when local companies may be shutting down. The Center for
Labor & Community Research in Chicago works with communities to
develop early warning systems for economic transitions that might
cause job loss, for example, when an elderly owner retires and no one
in her family wants to take over the business or when a company A is
purchased by company B, which intends to shut down company A. The
early warning network is a coalition of community, labor, religious
institutions, government, and local business representatives. The
network proactively looks for companies that are in danger of shutting
down and with the community devises plans to keep that from
happening.(Swinney 1999)

Recently the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) has developed an
early warning system to identify emerging public health problems,
based on the long-established practice of "alert practitioners" who
observe unusual events or emerging trends. Members of the public can
ask the Emerging Issues Advisory Group to research a particular public
health problem. The Advisory Group will evaluate and make
recommendations to the MDH about issues that are general public health
problems, have risk of serious and/or irreversible harm, affect
children and other vulnerable populations, and have feasible
interventions. (MDH 2001) Future efforts may extend this by
establishing mechanisms that scan for new patterns of emerging

Scenario workshops

Developed in Europe, this process allows communities and government
agencies to look at alternative ways to solve a problem. For example
let's say that the problem is what to do with household sewage and
wastewater because the sewage treatment plant will be inadequate in 10
years. The four scenarios are:

* The government deals with this problem without input from citizens;

* Every household is required to deal with its own sewage, meeting
public health standards, but without government help;

* Each individual household negotiates a solution directly with local
government; or

* Local residents cooperate with each other and, as a group, negotiate
a solution with local government.

For each of these scenarios detailed alternatives are developed that
include who does what and how it gets done. Then a participatory group
of citizens and stakeholders provide a critical analysis of each
scenario including barriers to success, how these barriers might be
overcome, and how the scenario fits in with the goals of the
community. They can also ask questions and suggest combining pieces of
one scenario with pieces of others to meet the community's goals.
(Sclove 1999) Note that this technique assumes that the community
already has stated goals for its future.

This chapter was written by Maria B. Pellerano and Peter Montague,
Environmental Research Foundation, P.O. Box 160, New Brunswick, NJ
08903-0160; phone: (732)828-9995; faxa; (732)791-4603 E-mail:; web site:

If you would like to suggest additions to the "Empowerment Tools" and/
or "Participatory Tools" sections, please send them to Maria B.
Pellerano at the above addresses.

Further Reading

Civic participation

Putnam, Robert D., Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American
Community. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000; ISBN 0-684-83283-6. In
this book, Robert Putnam looks at trends of civic engagement. He not
only examines such things such as campaigning and voting but also
participation in community organizations, letter writing, and card


Prugh, Thomas, Robert Costanza,and Herman Daly, The Local Politics of
Global Sustainability. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2000; ISBN
1-55963-744-7. This book examines the importance of "strong" democracy
to sustainability. It includes a clear interpretation of Benjamin
Barber's work on strong democracy.

Empowerment tools

Future Search Network. Future Search Conferences. See This web site provides information on
Future Search conferences and the Future Search network. For more
information on Future Search see the book listed below by Marvin
Weisbord and Sandra Janoff.

Kretzmann, John P. and John L. McKnight, Building Communities From the
Inside Out; A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community's Assets.
Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University, Institute for Public
Research, The Asset-Based Community Development Institute, 1993.
[Distributed by ACTA Publications, 4848 North Clark Street, Chicago,
IL 60640; phone: (800) 397-2282.] This is the most general of the many
publications put out by the Asset-Based Community Development
Institute. This book provides important checklists that can help you
start inventorying your community's assets. See for more specific workbooks
such as those that help you inventory economic assets, consumer
expenditures, and community members' skills.

Meuser, Michael R. MapCruzin Map Tutorial and Atlas available at Learn to map and gain access
to free mapping software on this website.

Weisbord, Marvin and Sandra Janoff. Future Search: An Action Guide to
Finding Common Ground in Organizations & Communities (Second edition).
San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2000; ISBN 1-57675-081-7.
This book explains the future search process with step-by-step
guidelines for planning, facilitating, and following up a future
search conference.

Participatory Tools

Jefferson Center, The Citizens Jury Process. See This web site
explains the Citizens Jury Process as designed by the Jefferson

Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), "Emerging Issues Advisory Group
to the Minnesota Department of Health DRAFT." St. Paul, Minn.:
Minnesota Department of Health, July 17, 2001. Available from the
Emerging Issues Advisory Group, Minnesota Department of Health, P.O.
Box 64975, St. Paul, MN, 55164-0975; telephone: (651) 215-5800. This
paper lays out the structure of this early warning network.

Sclove, Richard E. "Democratic Politics of Technology: The Missing
Half, Using Democratic Criteria in Participatory Technology
Decisions." Amherst, Mass.: The Loka Institute, 1999. Available at or from The Loka Institute, P.O. Box
355, Amherst, MA 01004. This publication explains how scenario
workshops are conducted in Europe.

Sclove, Richard E. "Town Meetings on Technology." Amherst, Mass.: The
Loka Institute, 2001. Available at or from The Loka Institute, P.O.
Box 355, Amherst, MA 01004. This publication explains how to conduct a
consensus conference.

Swinney, Dan. "Early Warning Systems: A Proactive Economic Strategy
for Labour in the Local Economy." Chicago: Center for Labor &
Community Research, 1999. This article originally appeared in the
South Africa Labour Bulletin and is available at . This article explains how Early
Warning Systems can predict and prevent job losses.

Tickner, Joel A. "Democratic Participation: A Critical Element of
Precautionary Public Health Decision-Making," New Solutions vol. 11,
no. 2 (2001), pages 93-111.This publication reviews several methods of
democratic decision-making including citizen advisory committees,
citizen juries, consensus conferences, and scenario workshops.