The Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Natural Hazard Science will be available via subscription on April 26. Visit About to learn more, meet the editorial board, learn about subscriber services.

Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM the OXFORD RESEARCH ENCYCLOPEDIA, NATURAL HAZARD SCIENCE ( (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2019. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

Subscriber: null; date: 26 March 2019

Public Participation in Planning for Community Management of Natural Hazards

Summary and Keywords

Public participation in environmental management, and more specifically in hazard mitigation planning, has received much attention from scholars and practitioners. A shift in perspective now sees the public as a fundamental player in decision making rather than simply as the final recipient of a policy decision. Including the public in hazard mitigation planning brings widespread benefits. First, communities gain awareness of the risks they live with, and thus, this is an opportunity to empower communities and improve their resilience. Second, supported by a collaborative participation process, emergency managers and planners can achieve the ultimate goal of strong mitigation plans.

Although public participation is highly desired as an instrument to improve hazard mitigation planning, appropriate participation techniques are context dependent and some trade-offs exist in the process design (such as between representativeness and consensus building). Designing participation processes requires careful planning and an all-around consideration of the representativeness of stakeholders, timing, objectives, knowledge, and ultimately desired goals to achieve. Assessing participation also requires more consistent methods to facilitate policy learning from diverse experiences. New decision-support tools may be necessary to gain widespread participation from laypersons lacking technical knowledge of hazards and risks.

Keywords: public participation, community engagement, hazard mitigation, planning, resilience, adaptive capacity


Natural disasters are extraordinary events that strike everywhere, with no time restriction, distinction of country, or social class. Munich Reinsurance Company (2017) calculated $175 billion in losses in 2016 due to natural hazards and resulting disasters throughout the world. Natural disasters affect nations, their economies, and more critically their communities.

Communities reduce their vulnerabilities to disaster by adopting codes, standards, procedures, and regulations. Moreover, they reinforce their capabilities to face hazard events with land-use planning, hazard mitigation planning and practices, and disaster preparedness activities. Such efforts fall under the umbrella of community resilience, defined as the ability to prepare for hazardous events, adapt to modified conditions, and withstand and recover rapidly from disruptions (NIST, 2016). Ultimately, resilience reflects the ability of the community to take collective action and face unexpected events (Pfefferbaum, Reissman, Pfefferbaum, Klomp, & Gurwitch, 2007).

Countries globally have committed to improving community resilience to disasters through agreements such as the United Nations’ Hyogo Framework for Action 2005–2015 (HFA). The HFA identified three main objectives: (1) integrating disaster policies with economic plans to generate sustainable development; (2) increasing local adaptive capacity; (3) incorporating risk reduction into the design and implementation of emergency preparedness, response, recovery, and reconstruction programs in affected communities (UNISDR, 2005). Thus, community resilience is the product of a complex multilevel governance process involving international organizations such as the United Nations, national and subnational governments, nongovernmental organizations and donors, communities, businesses, and ultimately individuals.

Public participation is an acknowledged tool to improve community resilience and more effectively manage disasters (Manyena, 2006). Indeed, scholars often argue that active citizens are a necessary feature of disaster resilient communities (Campanella, 2006; Cutter et al., 2008). To this end, the disaster research community and fields such as public administration and environmental management have generated a body of knowledge on public participation in community planning and management. While many disaster scholars advocate strongly for public participation, the process of integrating public participation into hazard management is not easy. Participation in the process can raise awareness of hazards and vulnerabilities, but its technicality and complexity may present limits and barriers to community engagement and decision making. Uncertainty about the future further complicates the disaster management process.

The following sections provide a brief overview of the disaster management and public participation literatures. The article next explores key considerations for participatory planning and community management of hazards, including examples of participation in action. The article concludes with thoughts on next steps for disaster research and participatory practice.

Disaster Management


The United Nations defines hazard as “a process, phenomenon or human activity that may cause loss of life, injury or other health impacts, property damage, social and economic disruption or environmental degradation” (2016, p. 18). Hazards can be differentiated as natural or technological, and as slow-onset (a drought or a famine) or rapid-onset (landslides, floods, or earthquakes).

A disaster is defined as “a serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society at any scale due to hazardous events interacting with conditions of exposure, vulnerability and capacity, leading to one or more of the following: human, material, economic and environmental losses and impacts” (United Nations, 2016, p. 13). Social scientists have defined disasters as sudden natural or technological events that have negative social impacts on communities (Quarantelli, 1998).

Disasters arise from multiple factors, including a combination of hazardous processes, the vulnerability and exposure of the population to hazardous elements, and the inability to mitigate the impacts and reduce the negative consequences (Saban, 2014). As social events, disasters only arise when people and systems are harmed (Phillips, Neal, & Webb, 2011). Disasters are differentiated from catastrophes for their limited spatial impact and the smaller amount of damage caused to infrastructures (Haddow, Bullock, & Coppola, 2002). We apply the term catastrophe when infrastructures and response operations are fully compromised across a broad spatial area such as throughout the Gulf Coast region after Hurricane Katrina, where “there was across-the-board and almost total disruption of community functions” (Quarantelli, 2006).

Natural hazards pose threats on both the built environment and human systems. The level of potential damage and losses that a system is likely to experience is determined by the concept of vulnerability, defined as “the conditions determined by physical, social, economic and environmental factors or processes, which increase the susceptibility of a community to the impact of hazards” (United Nations, 2016, p. 24). Cutter, Boruff, and Shirley (2003) found three main streams in vulnerability research: (1) the identification of elements and factors that make people vulnerable to extreme events (Burton, 1993); (2) understanding vulnerability as a social condition (Blaikie, Cannon, Davis, & Wisner, 1996); (3) and the interconnection of potential exposure and social resilience with a particular geographical focus (Cutter, Mitchell, & Scott, 2000).

Although global climate change is not a natural hazard in itself, researchers examine the associated localized hazards including sea level rise, heat waves, droughts, and extreme meteorological events. These hazards can affect the built environment, the natural environment, and human lives. For this reason, adaptation and adaptive capacity are two additional concepts deserving explanation.

Adaptation is “the process of adjustment to actual or expected climate and its effects, in order to moderate harm or exploit beneficial opportunities” (IPCC, 2013, p. 1251). In essence, adaptation is a way of reducing vulnerability to climate change (Berkhout, 2005). Adaptive capacity is therefore, “the combination of the strengths, attributes, and resources available to an individual, community, society, or organization that can be used to prepare for and undertake actions to reduce adverse impacts, moderate harm, or exploit beneficial opportunities” (IPCC, 2013, p. 1251). Moreover, adaptive capacity is context specific (Smit & Wandel, 2006), meaning that communities, social groups, and individuals do not all adapt in the same way.

Disaster Management and Hazard Mitigation

The modern disaster management model is based on a cyclic framework of four phases including mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery (Guion, Scammon, & Borders, 2007). The mitigation phase broadly applies to long-term strategies to assess and reduce hazards that may trigger disasters. The preparedness phase applies to shorter-term strategies that prepare communities for when disasters strike. The response phase applies immediately after disaster strikes, including both individual- and community-level responses. The recovery phase involves longer-term response activities involving post-disaster rehabilitation or reconstruction. This framework was created to protect property and human life following all emergencies including natural disasters. It is widely used by national and local institutions, nongovernmental organizations (Luna, 2001), and the private sector (Neil, 2006).

Within the disaster management cycle, the mitigation phase is arguably the most important: It enables communities to study the surrounding area, identify disaster-prone areas, and implement necessary measures to reduce the likely impact of hazards on communities (Godschalk, 2003). Sometimes scholars refer to disaster mitigation as hazard mitigation (Berke & Smith, 2009; Godschalk, 2003) to indicate the focus on reducing hazards that can trigger a disaster. Natural hazards mitigation include a series of interconnected structural and non-structural strategies, including property protection, natural resource protection, and hazard avoidance (Berke & Smith, 2009). Hazard mitigation and disaster management as a whole can make substantial contributions to a community’s safety (Pearce, 2003).

According to Godschalk and Brower (1985), this phase of disaster management seeks to (1) contain or modify hazards; (2) protect people and facilities in hazard-prone areas; and (3) limit the use of hazardous areas. To achieve such goals, emergency managers and planners have various tools available including plans, such as land-use and emergency response plans; regulations, as in zoning or public health regulation; public facility programs that limit the development of publicly owned or managed facilities in hazardous areas; land acquisition through which government obtains control over development in an area; and taxation or spending programs to incentivize private behavior (Godschalk & Brower, 1985).

When hazard mitigation started to be better conceptualized and implemented, and subsequently applied, the approach was judged as top-down and paternalistic. Beatly (1989) argued that government decided the mitigation measures and the best strategies for achieving optimal outcomes, regardless of citizen preference or experience with prior hazards. Tierney (1989) stressed that mitigation may fail because government exclusively used technical expertise and did not take into account social factors, including a community’s lack of knowledge or understanding of risk.

Because disasters disrupt society, Weichselgartner (2001) argued scholars must reframe the concepts of disaster mitigation and vulnerability: Disaster mitigation is a social process and vulnerabilities are rooted in historical, social, and economic processes. As such, disaster mitigation should stress social approaches more than physical or technical responses.

Communities are central to the new disaster mitigation practice. Cities, in particular, are complex systems, highly vulnerable, and where resilience is a priority. Effective hazard mitigation requires a comprehensive strategy that mixes traditional risk-reduction practices with capacity building and promotion of social resilience (Godschalk, 2003).

The disaster management community has now embraced the community management of natural hazards, also known as community-based disaster management (CBDM). The CBDM model integrates public participation into disaster management at all four phases: mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. The Federal Emergency Management Agency now advocates community-based management through its Whole Community Approach (FEMA, 2011). The Whole Community Approach seeks to engage all community actors—citizens, businesses, and organizations—with the aim of informing, sharing, and understanding communities’ risks (FEMA, 2011).

Newport and Jawahar (2003) maintain that disaster mitigation would be ineffective without community participation. As a social developmental process, participation builds adaptive capacity and facilitates consensus (Newport & Jawahar, 2003). Through participation, people are empowered and made aware of the risks in the surrounding environment (Horney, Simon, Grabich, & Berke, 2014), creating a constituency base to oppose or support new policies (Burby, 2003). Communities that participate in hazard mitigation planning are more resilient and better able to reduce the exposure to risks and hazards (Berke & Smith, 2009).

Communities are more than just a settlement of people; there are factors that shape the communal life, which bond citizens together. Perry and Lindell (1997) argue that mitigation planning should preserve the functionality of social networks, and officials have to pay attention to social and personal needs. When planning for hazard mitigation, planners and emergency managers have to be aware that certain mitigation policies can have a negative influence on individuals and community life (Perry & Lindell, 1997). Public participation is one avenue to infuse these considerations into disaster management practices.

Public Participation

Public participation is a complex topic to which theorists and practitioners have devoted substantial attention. As Day (1997) points out, public participation is a “cornerstone of democracy” (p. 421); it makes administrators committed and accountable to the public they serve (Thomas, 1995). Much of the debate revolves around key questions of effectiveness and success of public participation and the choice of the right methods for designing participatory processes.

In defining public participation, scholars must clarify what is meant by public and by participation. By public here we mean those persons that are likely to be affected by a policy or have an interest in promoting or opposing a policy or a governmental decision. Dietz and Stern (2008, p. 15) identify four categories of participants in environmental policy making:

  • Stakeholders: groups that are likely to be affected by a policy decision or have an interest in the final outcome;

  • Directly affected public: individuals that will experience the outcomes of decisions;

  • Observing public: the media, cultural elites, and opinion leaders; and

  • General public: all individuals not directly affected but that can formulate an opinion on it.

In terms of participation, Dietz and Stern (2008) define public participation as the process of involving citizens in making and implementing decisions of public matters. The process includes a wide variety of mechanisms to engage with representatives from different sectors.

Models of Participation

Arnstein (1969) presented an early typology of public participation based on her observations of participation in federal housing programs in the 1960s. Her typology depicts public participation as a series of steps or rungs on a ladder. Different citizen engagement activities result in different degrees of influence over the final decision. According to Arnstein, the goal is for citizens to reach the top rung, with true power over decision making and implementation. Instead, Arnstein argues that most participatory processes leave citizens with very little influence, often serving in a “token” capacity and, in some cases, having their voices intentionally subverted.

Arnstein’s ladder provides a way to characterize the degree of citizen influence, but does not account for a broader array of factors influencing the participatory process. Fung’s Democratic Cube (2006) emphasizes three dimensions that comprise public participation: inclusiveness, spanning from exclusive participation (experts and administrators) to inclusive participation (broader public); how citizens participate, indicating modes of communication and deliberation; and level of authority and power over decision making. The framework was designed as a tool to design effective and democratic decision making processes. Adjustments in any of the three dimensions can address important “problems of democratic governance, such as legitimacy, justice and effective administration” (Fung, 2006, p. 66).

Public participation processes require that governmental agencies and public officials call citizens to express opinions and take an active part in decision making. Fung (2006) argues that participant selection can raise important questions: (1) Are participants representative of the entire population?, (2) Who is eligible to participate?, and (3) How do individuals become participants? These questions shed light on a critical point of public participation—the selection of participants—because citizens can lack knowledge of process or substance. Fung (2006) explains that participants can be self-selected, when meetings are open to the general public; selectively recruited, when agencies need to engage people that are less likely to participate; and randomly selected, which is the “best guarantee of representativeness” (p. 68).

In an extensive review of public participation in environmental decision making, Dietz and Stern (2008) expanded the exposition of public participation into four dimensions:

  • Breadth—who is involved in the process (exclusive to inclusive; representativeness);

  • Timing—at which point the public is involved (in design of planning, planning, implementation, etc.);

  • Intensity—time and effort spent in participation; and

  • Influence—extent to which public input contributes to the final decision.

  • Building on Dietz and Stern, Sarzynski (2015) added a fifth dimension of:

  • Purpose—the goal of participation (whether valued intrinsically, valued for serving an instrumental purpose, or both).

History of Public Participation

Governments have changed the way they manage public policy and affairs of public interest over the past century. Public participation in environmental decision making dates back to the 1930s, although few formal opportunities existed for the public to speak during the New Deal era (Dietz & Stern, 2008).

Public participation gained more attention in the 1960s as a time of social turmoil and unrest (Thomas, 1995). In the United States, the Freedom of Information Act in 1966 required federal agencies to provide requested information to the public about policy deliberations (Dietz & Stern, 2008). By 1969, the federal government enacted the first law to require public participation in environmental decision making: The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) (Depoe, Delicath, & Elsenbeer, 2004; Dietz & Stern, 2008). NEPA signaled an essential shift from a one-way communication model to a two-way communication model (Depoe et al., 2004).

Since NEPA, many other regulations and laws gave opportunities to citizens to be informed and express opinions (Dietz & Stern, 2008). Public participation spread rapidly to the extent that in 1974 federal grants requiring citizen participation peaked at almost 100 (Thomas, 1995). Nevertheless, as Dietz and Stern (2008) noted, during the 2000s some agencies recognized participatory decision making processes were difficult to manage with delays and high costs, ineffective public involvement, and management inefficiencies.

In the field of disaster management, laws and regulations have progressively required more active engagement of the public in decision making. The Federal Disaster Assistance Program of 1950 and the Disaster Relief Act of 1970 set hazard mitigation as a national priority, and the Robert T. Stafford Act (1988) required states to plan for hazards. In 1997 FEMA changed its approach to managing disasters by adopting the CBDM model. FEMA’s (1997) goal was to reduce the impact of disasters by engaging communities and collaborating with them in conducting risk and needs assessment before an event. FEMA was intentionally fostering public/private partnerships during the hazard mitigation phase. In 2000, the Disaster Mitigation Act amended the Stafford Act to introduce new requirements for state and local planning, with an emphasis on public participation and adopting a participatory approach.

Designing and Assessing Public Participation for Mitigation Planning

Brody, Godschalk, and Burby (2003) developed a six-step framework that planners should follow when designing public participation processes for hazard mitigation planning. The framework includes (1) administration: whether to design a formal participation plan; (2) objectives for participation, which span from educating citizens to seeking information from the public; (3) timing: when planners should start involving stakeholders in the process; (4) targeting: which stakeholder groups should be involved in the process; (5) techniques for participation in the process; (6) information to disseminate and how. The following sections outline some of these considerations in more detail.

Objectives: Why Participate?

Public participation in governance is likely to fail in meeting expectations when objectives are not explicitly formulated (Burke, 1968). In mitigation planning, objectives may include educating and informing citizens on how to cope with hazards, obtaining citizen knowledge and experience with previous hazards, “mobilizing [an] active constituency in supporting programs and policies and fostering citizen influence in decision-making” (Burby, 2001, p. 46). Thus, the objectives point to two critical processes driving participation: obtaining relevant information and support from the public for mitigation planning and providing relevant information and resources to the public for disaster preparedness.

Timing: When to Plan for Public Involvement?

Time is a key consideration for public participation, and planners need time to develop effective public participation programs for hazard mitigation planning. Moreover, they need to understand at what point of the planning process they have to call the public to participate. Ideally, participation should take place before planning is completed, when the public can collaborate on solutions, and not just in disseminating information after mitigation plans have been completed (Burby, 2001). Public participation can happen before the planning process if planners need to tap citizens’ knowledge (Innes, 1996) and/or they can gather the public at the end if they need feedback or evaluation (Burby, 2001). Pearce (2003) alleges if planners ignore communities during plan development, “then they decrease their chance of providing reasonable solutions to disaster-related problems” (p. 216). According to Burby (2003), citizen involvement does generate important information and can trigger agreement on problems and likely solutions.

Targeting: Who to Participate?

Rosenbaum (1976) argued that some decision making processes are limited to public officials and representatives of various government departments, excluding mass participation. Other processes are underpinned by widespread and inclusive citizen participation (Godschalk, Brody, & Burby, 2003; Godschalk, Parham, Porter, Potapchuk, & Schukraft, 1994; Healey, 1996). Possible groups for participation in hazard mitigation planning include businesses, developers, neighborhood groups, media, environmental groups, utility representatives, affordable housing advocates, agriculture or resource groups, and professional organizations (Berke, Song, & Stevens, 2009).

Scholars have argued that local governments must be committed to promoting and encouraging a wide range of community members to take part in hazard planning (Berke & French, 1994; Godschalk et al., 2003). Yet, Day (1997) explains that widespread participation in decision making can raise conflict rather than consensus. Brody (2003) found that including a broad range of stakeholders in the planning process increased the likelihood of plan implementation but not necessarily its quality; while targeting specific stakeholders (i.e., industry, environmental NGOs) led to higher quality because of the alignment of stakeholders’ values with the plans’ values and goals.

Additionally, Burby (2003) found that planners have difficulties in attracting and retaining citizen participation in HMP. Some authors found that disadvantaged classes did not participate because they lacked access to information (Pearce, 2003). The technical nature of hazard mitigation may favor professionals with appropriate training and expertise to understand options and communicate their preferences to decision makers. Alternatively, potential participants lacking technical education may not be able to understand identified hazards or proposed solutions, leaving them with fewer opportunities to collaborate in problem solving and possibly leading to disengagement from the process. Additionally, Horney, Simon, Grabich, and Berke (2014) demonstrated that socially vulnerable groups are less likely to participate in HMP because of racial discrimination and class inequalities, indicating a need for awareness and targeting of participation by underrepresented groups.

Techniques: How to Participate?

Berke et al. (2009) identified 10 techniques used to encourage public participation in land-use development management and hazard mitigation, including public hearings, visioning exercises, community forums, citizen advisory committees, workgroups, interviews, surveys, web sites, telephone hotlines, and open meetings with planning staff.

Public hearings are the most common participatory technique employed by public officials in hazard mitigation planning (Burby, 2001, 2003; Godschalk et al., 2003). Additionally, members of the public are often invited to give comments on plans, ordinances, and projects (Godschalk et al., 2003). Hearings and comment periods cast a wide net for participation and demand little effort from participants. Yet, one study concluded that standard participation in HMP was often characterized by prolonged meetings and indifference from those who run the meetings, focused on one-way communication, and with limited opportunities for dialogue (Lowry, Adler, & Milner, 1997).

Scholars recommend use of advisory committees and workgroups for more collaborative mitigation planning (Burby, 2001). These committees or workgroups involve fewer persons but require a more intensive commitment from each participant. Thomas (1995) suggested that using an advisory committee has several advantages: (1) it is easier to reach consensus among participants; (2) participants think on behalf of their community rather than their interest group; (3) it can build public acceptance. A limitation might be the exclusive participation of business and professional groups with the time, knowledge, and interests to participate (Binney, Mason, Martsolf, & Detweiler, 1996; Merkhofer, Conway, & Anderson, 1997; Williams et al., 2001).

Interviews and household surveys are also appropriate and common techniques for obtaining information for hazard mitigation planning.

Information Needs?

Community resilience comes when there is wide access to general and technical information. As the International Federation of Red Cross points out: “Once people have access to information as a right, not just as from their country’s government, local authorities, companies and interest groups, but also from international organizations and aid agencies, they can plan for themselves, make informed choices, and act to reduce their vulnerability” (IFRC, 1994, p. 37; cited in Pearce, 2003).

The development and dissemination of information should be integrated into any effort to mitigate and plan for hazards (Faupel & Kartez, 1997). Nevertheless, many small local governments had or gave little information (Burby, 2001). Without information, communities and citizens are unlikely to know about local hazards and opportunities to reduce them.

Information and communication are essential; Pearce (2005) underpins that stakeholders should be provided with elementary quantitative and qualitative data in order to easily understand communities’ vulnerabilities.

Nevertheless, uncertainty about future hazards and associated vulnerabilities complicates the information to be provided and considered in the planning process. Participants may desire to constrain the planning task to one possible future because of the difficulty in comprehending and comparing multiple futures, as the literature on “bounded rationality” in decision making illustrates (e.g., Simon, 1957). Yet failure to acknowledge uncertainty and multiple futures may lead to maladaptive plans and ineffective policies, resulting in “a persistent gap between research on planning under deep uncertainty and practice” (Woodruff, 2016, p. 457).

Beyond acknowledging uncertainty, simple actions such as “focusing on sensitivity and adaptive capacity in the vulnerability assessment, recommending no-regret strategies, and iteratively monitoring and incorporating lessons learned into adaptation can help communities begin to prepare for multiple potential futures” (Woodruff, 2016, p. 458). The monitoring piece seems critical for success and a prime opportunity for public involvement. Information provision should not simply be a one-way function from government to citizen. Rather, all participants should be involved in producing and assessing information through two-way communication and incorporating new information into future planning endeavors (Woodruff, 2016).

Box 1: Public Participation in Hazard Assessment

Before selecting hazard mitigation strategies, it is good practice to undertake a hazard, risk, impact, and vulnerability analysis (HRIV). As Pearce (2005) argues, without an adequate HRIV analysis, mitigation planning is likely to fail. The HRIV model has five phases. During the first phase, hazard identification, participants review a list potential hazards a community can face. In the second phase, risk analysis, participants determine the probability of occurrence of a hazard based on historical data. Because uncertainty persists in predicting future hazards based on historical data, the risk analysis is based on a balance between evidence and participant agreement (p. 423). In the third phase, vulnerability analysis, participants examine the intersection of risks and factors including people, place, preparedness, and time. The fourth phase, impact analysis, is the most challenging as it aims to predict the social, economic, and political impacts of hazards. The fifth phase is risk management, during which participants identify hazard mitigation strategies given the information generated at earlier stages.

Public participation is a central factor in the HRIV process. The HRIV is developed at the community and regional scales and requires that participation through an advisory committee (Pearce, 2005). Of course, the advisory committee cannot include an entire community. To this end, planners and experts have to find a balance in representativeness across diverse stakeholders. Key figures include emergency managers; industry representatives; insurers; media representatives; community planners; land developers; utilities representatives; public relations officers; local residents; environmentalists; hazards experts; elected officials; business representatives; engineers; and the nonprofit sector. The number of people participating on the committee is not fixed. For many communities, the number may be about 15 (Pearce, 2005; Thomas, 1995), although the number may vary according to community size (Pearce, 2005).

Assessing Participation Quality

While many options exist for designing public participation, scholars have also identified various considerations for evaluating public participation. For instance, Dietz and Stern (2008, p. 71) recommend evaluating the (1) quality of participation in terms of outputs generated; (2) legitimacy of the process based on principles of openness, fairness, and equality; and (3) capacity for future decision making through improved knowledge and skills. In this way, the evaluation covers both procedural and substantive topics.

Rowe and Frewer (2000) further outline “acceptance criteria” that measure the acceptability of the design to participants, and “process criteria” that evaluate the conduct of the process used by the sponsoring agency:

  • Acceptance criteria:

    • Representativeness: the participants should be the broadest sample possible from the affected public (p. 12);

    • Independence: the process should be conducted in an independent and unbiased way (p. 13) such as by a neutral committee comprised of members from different organizations. This procedure can have a significant trade-off for the sponsoring agency of having less power and control;

    • Early involvement: the public should be involved early in the process. This step requires careful attention, especially when dealing with highly technical subject matters such as risk assessment (p. 14);

    • Influence: participation should have meaningful impact on decision making;

    • Transparency: the process should be clear to all participants about how decisions are taken. Transparency means also a disclosure of a full spectrum of information about the process.

  • Process criteria:

    • Resource accessibility: participants need access to various resources to fulfill their role, including information, human resources, material resources, and time;

    • Task definition: public officials should detail in advance the scope of and expectations for public participation;

    • Structured decision making: officials should provide participants with a clear exposition of the mechanisms and tools that will structure and support the decision making process;

    • Cost-effectiveness: the participation process should be cost effective.

Despite exposition of relevant evaluation criteria, no universal methodology or measurement tool has emerged to assess the quality of public participation. Indeed, because participation designs vary broadly based on context and circumstance, Chess (2000) stresses the necessity for sponsoring agencies to develop their own evaluation tools based on their needs and goals. The crucial question that Chess (2000) poses is whether to evaluate the process or the impact on outcomes. Evaluating the process means looking at all of the elements that went into its design and implementation, to improve the process while in progress (formative assessment), or to learn from the experience for designing future participation processes (summative assessment). Evaluating outcomes aims to judge the contributions of participation to the achievement of desired outcomes, such as community resilience and adaptive capacity (impact assessment). Each type of evaluation requires its own research methods and approaches, which are well supported by an entire field of literature and practice.

Experience With Public Participation in Mitigation Planning

Public participation in hazard mitigation planning has been studied in different political and national contexts. This section reviews several empirical studies of participation in action, highlighting the context, how public participation was integrated into HMP, and the outcomes of the processes.

Correlational Studies

Stevens, Berke, and Song (2010) examined public participation in 65 development projects located in hazardous areas. Using a bivariate correlation analysis, they examined the relationship between techniques for delivering information and stakeholder participation; and the relationship between hazard mitigation techniques and levels of participation. They found that public participation had a positive effect on the integration of hazard mitigation into larger development projects and that hazard mitigation techniques increased with the number of stakeholders involved (as did Brody, 2003). Stevens et al. found associations between the information transmission techniques, the number of participating stakeholders, and the hazard mitigation techniques included in the plan. In addition, how planners used information impacted stakeholders’ participation, with evidence that stakeholders’ participation was higher when planners used direct and interactive (two-way) participation techniques. Involving participants at the early stage in the process proved successful in setting the agenda.

Case Studies

Florida and Washington States, United States

Godschalk, Brody, and Burby (2003) evaluated citizen participation in the development of hazard mitigation policies in five communities. The studied communities included the City of Ft. Lauderdale, Pinellas County, and the City of Sarasota in Florida; and the City of Issaquah and Pierce County in Washington state. The research found a variety of approaches used by the local jurisdictions, ranging from formal participation, to neighborhood participation, capacity building, and citizen initiative. Some jurisdictions focused on citizen education and others on tapping citizen knowledge. Stakeholders included neighborhoods, associations, and environmental groups. Participation techniques ranged from public hearings, workshops, committee meetings, and informal meetings.

Overall, despite variations in participation design, Godschalk et al. (2003) found low-citizen interest in dealing with natural disasters and in how hazard mitigation was integrated in the comprehensive planning. Citizens felt that neighborhood issues, such as neighborhood protection and traffic congestion, were more important than hazard mitigation. The public perceived mitigation planning as a technical endeavor and planners perceived that mitigation planning was duplicating other plans.

Peterborough, Ontario

Oulahen and Doberstein (2012) investigated the Peterborough, Ontario, Canada post-disaster flood hazard mitigation program. The city was selected because it “experienced an estimated 1:100 year heavy rainfall that generated approximately 77mm [3.03 inches] of rain in 24 hour period” (p. 5) with extensive damage to both public and private property. The city integrated public participation early in the subsequent planning and decision making. The city relied on an external private firm because of a lack of resources within municipal government and a desire to keep the planning independent of political interests.

Objectives for public participation in Peterborough included education and public influence over decision making. Public participation began early in the process, just two months after the flood. The consulting firm used geographic targeting for selecting stakeholders, but marginalized citizens were not specifically targeted. Participation techniques included public meetings, where participants were also given comment forms to submit, and direct information provided to citizens about the municipal response to a future likely event. Parallel to this, the firm tapped the municipal staff’s knowledge of more specialized and technical information.

Oulahen and Doberstein (2012) found that involving the public in Peterborough at an early stage was a key success factor in its hazard mitigation planning. The plan was improved because of the external firm’s neutrality and the variety of participation techniques employed. Another key success factor was the honesty and trust that the city and firm built with participants, allowing citizens to openly state concerns and share details with planners. Overall, some aspects of the process could have been improved, as, for example, stating upfront the intended levels of public participation, and including marginalized groups in participant targeting.

Barriere, British Columbia

Pearce (2005) investigated public participation in the HRIV process (see Box 1) used in Barriere, British Columbia, in March 2000. Residents from a larger region were invited to a workshop held at the Search and Rescue Hall and moderated by the local emergency coordinator. Workshop participants included representatives of several different groups of stakeholders including emergency services (ambulance and fire), health services, the regional government, and community residents.

All participants in Barriere were asked to identify hazards and then to review the HRIV handbook. Following identification of hazards, groups were asked to divide the area into planning zones. According to Pearce (2005), this procedure raised much discussion and controversy because of differing knowledge among participants representing different jurisdictions or service areas. Among the likely hazards identified in the region, participants selected wildland urban interface fires and train derailments as the most likely to happen. Participants collected data and information about fires and train derailments for the risk assessment. Knowledge about fires was supported by the presence of firefighters, while less was known about train derailments because no one from the train company was invited to attend the HRIV workshop.

Pearce (2005) reported that the overall process in Barriere was speedy and dynamic, and that participants gained knowledge about risks. This finding is consistent with theoretical expectations that participating in hazard planning can help citizens acquire knowledge (i.e., Burby et al., 1999). However, a lack of financial resources and full-time personnel proved to be an obstacle and the planning process did not continue beyond the workshop, raising questions of sustainability.

Asian Communities

Lastly, the United Nations’ Center for Regional Development tested their Community Based Disaster Management tool in several Asian and Southeast Asian Countries (Shaw & Okazaki, 2004). In Bangladesh, the Flood Proofing Project included community mobilization and awareness, community resource management, and livelihood protection. The project was deemed successful because communities could identify and better understand problems (i.e., that floods were the major drivers of temporary migrations of people) and develop appropriate solutions that improved their resilience. In India, following a deadly cyclone in 1999, the Orissa State Disaster Mitigation Authority, supported by the United Nations Development Program, implemented the Orissa Disaster Management Project. The project involved creating disaster management plans at the village level, raising awareness through education campaigns and the formation of disaster management committees, and creating networks of institutions and citizens that improved adaptive capacity.


Research in the field of disaster management has made considerable advancements, and the interest in natural hazard mitigation has brought significant contributions. Planning for natural hazards reduction is a key step in reducing likely losses after disasters. Traditionally, scholars and planners defined hazard mitigation as a coordinated series of actions to control hazards, and protect life and property. Scholars recognized that citizens play a key role in hazard mitigation and advocated for inclusive processes. To this end, community-based disaster management emerged as a new model of managing, responding to, and recovering from disasters.

Including public participation in hazard mitigation planning allows communities to learn more about their environment, assess vulnerabilities and risks, and devise appropriate response strategies. Moreover, integrating public participation in hazard mitigation planning increases community resilience, as active citizens play a key role in building disaster resilient communities.

Although many scholars advocate for broad and inclusive public participation in all government activities, the process of integrating public participation into hazard mitigation planning and environmental management more broadly has proved to be not an easy task. Participation can raise awareness of hazards and vulnerabilities, but it can also raise debate and conflict among stakeholders. The technicality and complexity of HMP may also prevent laypersons, especially underrepresented groups, from participating in decision making.

Strong hazard mitigation planning comes when needs are identified; objectives are clearly stated; goals are met; and consensus among stakeholders is reached. Delivering information at the right time and with appropriate resource supports given stakeholders’ prior knowledge is critical for engaging citizens. Stakeholder representation must be carefully evaluated in order to avoid imbalances of representation and conflicts among competing interests.

Overall, research on the effectiveness of public participation in hazard mitigation planning is limited and leaves room for future study. When designing participatory processes, a variety of participation methods have been presented, each with potentialities and trade-offs. Under which conditions are certain participation designs more suitable than others in achieving effective participation or realizing desired goals like community resilience?

Our understanding of participation would be advanced by researchers’ use of a common evaluative framework, such as proposed by Rowe and Frewer (2000). Perhaps the framework should be modified specifically for use in the HMP context. If so, what changes to the framework are necessary and which indicators should be used?

Lastly, although scholars advocate for the broadest public participation, disaster researchers found that broad participation can be impeded because of a lack of knowledge among laypersons. How can practitioners ensure that technical information is efficiently and effectively delivered to stakeholders lacking such knowledge? Are new tools needed for visualizing and analyzing information for HMP, especially with an eye to acknowledging uncertainty? Insights from the emerging smart cities and e-governance communities might be useful in this regard.


Adger, W. N. (2006). Vulnerability. Global Environmental Change, 16(3), 268–281.Find this resource:

    Arnstein, S. R. (1969). A ladder of citizen participation. Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 35(4), 216–224.Find this resource:

      Beatly, T. (1989). Towards a moral philosophy of natural disaster mitigation. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters, 7(1), 5–32. Champaign: University of Illinois Press.Find this resource:

        Berke, P., & Smith, G. (2009). Hazard mitigation, planning, and disaster resiliency: Challenges and strategic choices for the 21st century. In U. Fra (Ed.), Sustainable development and disaster resiliency (Vol. 1, p. 18). Amsterdam: IOS Press.Find this resource:

          Berke, P. R., & French, S. P. (1994). The influence of state planning mandates on local plan quality. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 13(4), 237–250.Find this resource:

            Berke, P. R., Song, Y., & Stevens, M. (2009). Integrating hazard mitigation into new urban and conventional developments. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 28 VN-r(4), 441–455.Find this resource:

              Berkhout, F. (2005). Rationales for adaptation in EU climate change policies. Climate Policy, 5(3), 377–391.Find this resource:

                Binney, S. E., Mason, R., Martsolf, S. W., & Detweiler, J. H. (1996). Credibility, public trust, and the transport of radioactive waste through local communities. Environment and Behavior, 28(3), 283–301.Find this resource:

                  Blaikie, P., Cannon, T., Davis, I., & Wisner, B. (1996). At risk: natural hazards, people’s vulnerability and disasters. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

                    Brody, S. D. (2003). Measuring the effects of stakeholder participation on the quality of local plans based on the principles of collaborative ecosystem management. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 22(4), 407–419.Find this resource:

                      Brody, S. D., Godschalk, D. R., & Burby, R. J. (2003). Mandating citizen participation in plan making: Six strategic planning choices. Journal of the American Planning Association, 69(3), 245–264.Find this resource:

                        Bunnell, G., & Jepson, E. J., Jr. (2011). The effect of mandated planning on plan quality: A fresh look at what makes “a good plan.” Journal of the American Planning Association, 77(4), 338–353.Find this resource:

                          Burby, R. J. (2001). Involving citizens in hazard mitigation planning: Making the right choices. Australian Journal of Emergency Management, 16(3), 45.Find this resource:

                            Burby, R. J. (2003). Making plans that matter: Citizen involvement and government action. Journal of the American Planning Association, 69(1), 33–49.Find this resource:

                              Burby, R. J., Beatley, T., Berke, P. R., Deyle, R. E., French, S. P., Godschalk, D. R., . . . Paterson, R. G. (1999). Unleashing the power of planning to create disaster-resistant communities. Journal of the American Planning Association, 65(3), 247–258.Find this resource:

                                Burby, R. J., & Dalton, L. C. (1994). Plans can matter! The role of land use plans and state planning mandates in limiting the development of hazardous areas. Public Administration Review, 54(3), 229–238.Find this resource:

                                  Burby, R. J., Deyle, R. E., Godschalk, D. R., & Olshansky, R. B. (2000). Creating hazard resilient communities through land-use planning. Natural Hazards Review, 1(2), 99–106.Find this resource:

                                    Burke, E. M. (1968). Citizen participation strategies. Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 34(5), 287–294.Find this resource:

                                      Burton, I. (1993). The environment as hazard. Human Ecology (Vol. 7). New York: Guilford Press.Find this resource:

                                        Campanella, T. J. (2006). Urban resilience and the recovery of New Orleans. Journal of the American Planning Association, 72(2), 141–146.Find this resource:

                                          Chess, C. (2000). Evaluating environmental public participation: Methodological questions. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 43(6), 769–784.Find this resource:

                                            Cutter, S., Barnes, L., Berry, M., Burton, C., Evans, E., Tate, E., & Webb, J. (2008). A place-based model for understanding community resilience to natural disasters. Global Environmental Change, 18(4), 598–606.Find this resource:

                                              Cutter, S. L., Boruff, B. J., & Shirley, W. L. (2003). Social vulnerability to environmental hazards. Social Science Quarterly, 84(2), 242–261.Find this resource:

                                                Cutter, S. L., Mitchell, J. T., & Scott, M. S. (2000). Revealing the vulnerability of people and places: A case study of Georgetown County, South Carolina. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 90(4), 713–737.Find this resource:

                                                  Day, D. (1997). Citizen participation in the planning process: An essentially contested concept? CPL Bibliography, 11(3), 421–434.Find this resource:

                                                    Depoe, S. P., Delicath, J. W., & Elsenbeer, M. F. A. (Eds.). (2004). Communication and public participation in environmental decision making. Albany: State University of New York Press.Find this resource:

                                                      Dietz, T., & Stern, P. C. (2008). Public participation in environmental assessment and decision making. National Research Council. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.Find this resource:

                                                        El-Masri, S., & Tipple, G. (2002). Natural disaster, mitigation and sustainability: The case of developing countries. International Planning Studies, 7(2), 157–175.Find this resource:

                                                          Faupel, C. E., & Kartez, J. (1997). Inter-agency collaboration and hazards education in American communities. Journal of Social Service Research, 22(1–2), 131–149.Find this resource:

                                                            Federal Emergency Management Agency. (1997). Project Impact: Building a disaster resilient community. Washington, DC: FEMA.Find this resource:

                                                              Federal Emergency Management Agency. (2011). A whole community approach to emergency management: Principles, themes, and pathways for action (FDOC 104-0). Washington, DC: FEMA.Find this resource:

                                                                Fung, A. (2006). Varieties of participation in complex governance. Public Administration Review, 66(Suppl. 1), 66–75.Find this resource:

                                                                  Godschalk, D., Parham, D., Porter, D., Potapchuk, W., & Schukraft, S. (1994). Pulling together: A planning and development consensus-building manual. Washington, DC: Urban Land Institute.Find this resource:

                                                                    Godschalk, D. R. (2003). Urban hazard mitigation: creating resilient cities. Natural Hazards Review, 4(3), 136–143.Find this resource:

                                                                      Godschalk, D. R., Brody, S., & Burby, R. (2003). Public participation in natural hazard mitigation policy formation: Challenges for comprehensive planning. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 46(5), 733–754.Find this resource:

                                                                        Godschalk, D. R., & Brower, D. J. (1985). Mitigation strategies and integrated emergency management. Public Administration Review, 45(Special), 64–71.Find this resource:

                                                                          Guion, D. T., Scammon, D. L., & Borders, A. L. (2007). Weathering the storm: A social marketing perspective on disaster preparedness and response with lessons from Hurricane Katrina. Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 26(1), 20–32. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.Find this resource:

                                                                            Haddow, G. D., Bullock, J. A., & Coppola, D. P. (2002). Introduction to Emergency Management. Boca Raton, FL:CRC Press.Find this resource:

                                                                              Healey, P. (1996). The communicative turn in planning theory and its implications for spatial strategy formation. Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design, 23(2), 217–234.Find this resource:

                                                                                Horney, J., Simon, M., Grabich, S., & Berke, P. (2014). Measuring participation by socially vulnerable groups in hazard mitigation planning, Bertie County, North Carolina. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 58(5), 1–17.Find this resource:

                                                                                  Innes, J. E. (1996). Planning through consensus building. A new view of the comprehensive planning ideal. Journal of American Planning Association, 62(4), 460–472.Find this resource:

                                                                                    International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. (1994). World disaster report 1994. Geneva, Switzerland: International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.Find this resource:

                                                                                      IPCC. (2013). IPCC fifth assessment Report (AR5). Fifth Assessment Report, s. 10–12. Retrieved from this resource:

                                                                                        Lowry, K., Adler, P., & Milner, N. (1997). Participating the public: Group process, politics, and planning. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 16(3), 177–187.Find this resource:

                                                                                          Luna, E. M. (2001). Disaster mitigation and preparedness: The case of NGOs in the Philippines. Disasters, 25(3), 216–226.Find this resource:

                                                                                            Manyena, S. B. (2006). The concept of resilience revisited. Disasters, 30(4), 433–450.Find this resource:

                                                                                              Merkhofer, M. W., Conway, R., & Anderson, R. G. (1997). Multiattribute utility analysis as a framework for public participation in siting a hazardous waste management facility. Environmental Management, 21(6), 831–839.Find this resource:

                                                                                                Munich Re. (2017, January 4). Press release: Natural catastrophe losses at their highest for four years. Retrieved from

                                                                                                Neil, S. (2006). Ready or not? Disaster preparedness and emergency response in the water industry. American Water Works Association Journal, 98(3), 242.Find this resource:

                                                                                                  Newport, J. K., & Jawahar, G. G. P. (2003). Community participation and public awareness in disaster mitigation. Disaster Prevention and Management: An International Journal, 12(1), 33–36.Find this resource:

                                                                                                    NIST Community Resilience Group. (2016). Community resilience planning guide for buildings and infrastructure systems. Gaithersburg, MD: National Institute of Standards and Technologies.Find this resource:

                                                                                                      Oulahen, G., & Doberstein, B. (2012). Citizen participation in post-disaster flood hazard mitigation planning in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada. Risks, Hazards & Crisis in Public Policy, 3(1), 28 pp.Find this resource:

                                                                                                        Pandey, B. H., & Okazaki, K. (2005). Community-based disaster management: Empowering communities to cope with disaster risks. Regional Development Dialogue, 26(2), 52–57.Find this resource:

                                                                                                          Pearce, L. (2003). Disaster management and community planning, and public participation: How to achieve sustainable hazard mitigation. Natural Hazards, 28(2), 211–228.Find this resource:

                                                                                                            Pearce, L. (2005). The value of public participation during a hazard, impact, risk and vulnerability (HIRV) analysis. Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change, 10(3), 411–441.Find this resource:

                                                                                                              Perry, R. W., & Lindell, M. K. (1997). Principles for managing community relocation as a hazard mitigation measure. Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, 5(1), 49–59.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                Pfefferbaum, B. J., Reissman, D. B., Pfefferbaum, R. L., Klomp, R. W., & Gurwitch, R. H. (2007). Building resilience to mass trauma events. In L. Doll, E. N. Haas, S. Bonzo, D. Sleet, & J. Mercy (Eds.), Handbook of injury and violence prevention (pp. 347–358). Boston: Springer.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                  Phillips, B. D., Neal, D. M., & Webb, G. (2011). Introduction to emergency management. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                    Quarantelli, E. L. (1998). What is a disaster?: A dozen perspectives on the question. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                      Quarantelli, E. L. (2006, June 11). Catastrophes are different from disasters: Some implications for crisis planning and managing drawn from Katrina. In Understanding Katrina: Perspectives from the social sciences. Retrieved from this resource:

                                                                                                                        Rosenbaum, N. M. (1976). Citizen involvement in land use governance: Issues and methods. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute. Retrieved from this resource:

                                                                                                                          Rowe, G., & Frewer, L. J. (2000). Public participation methods: A framework for evaluation. Science Technology & Human Values, 25(1), 3–29.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                            Saban, L. I. (2014). Disaster emergency management: The emergence of professional help services for victims of natural disasters. Albany: State University of New York Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                              Sarzynski, A. (2015). Public participation, civic capacity, and climate change adaptation in cities. Urban Climate, 14, 52–67.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                Shaw, R., & Okazaki, K. (2004). Sustainable community based disaster management (CBDM) practices in Asia: A user’s guide. Disaster Management Planning Hyogo Office, United Nations Center for Regional Development (UNCRD), Kobe.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                  Simon, H. (1957). A behavioral model of rational choice. In H. A. Simon (Ed.), Models of man, social and rational: Mathematical essays on rational human behavior in a social setting. New York: Wiley.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                    Smit, B., & Wandel, J. (2006). Adaptation, adaptive capacity and vulnerability. Global Environmental Change, 16(3), 282–292.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                      Stevens, M. R., Berke, P. R., & Song, Y. (2010). Public participation in local government review of development proposals in hazardous locations: Does it matter, and what do local government planners have to do with it? Environmental Management, 45(2), 320–335.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                        Thomas, J. (1995). Public participation in public decisions: New skills and strategies for public managers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                          Tierney, K. J. (1989). Improving theory and research on hazard mitigation: Political economy and organizational perspectives. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters, 7, 367–396.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                            UNISDR. (2005). Hyogo framework for action 2005–2015: Building the resilience of nations and communities to disasters. In Extract from the final report of the World Conference on Disaster Reduction (A/CONF. 206/6) (Vol. 380).Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                              United Nations. (2016). Report of the open-ended intergovernmental expert working group on indicators and terminology relating to disaster risk reduction. A/71/644, 21184(December), 1–41.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                Webler, T., Tuler, S., & Krueger, R. (2001). What is a good public participation process? Five perspectives from the public. Environmental Management, 27(3), 435–450.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                  Weichselgartner, J. (2001). Disaster mitigation: The concept of vulnerability revisited. Disaster Prevention and Management, 10(2), 85–95.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                    Williams, B. L., Suen, H. K., Brown, S., Bruhn, R., De Blaquiere, R., & Rzasa, S. E. (2001). Hierarchical linear models of factors associated with public participation among residents living near the U.S. Army’s chemical weapons stockpile sites. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 44(1), 41–65.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                      Woodruff, S. (2016). Planning for an unknowable future: Uncertainty in climate change adaptation planning. Climatic Change, 139, 445–459.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                        Yeletaysi, S., Ozceylan, D., Fiedrich, F., Harrald, J. R., & Jefferson, T. (2009). A framework to integrate social vulnerability into catastrophic natural disaster preparedness planning. In The International Emergency Management Society-TIEMS 16th Annual Conference (pp. 9–11).Find this resource: