Citizen Engagement in the Shrinking City: Toward Development Justice in an Era of Growing Inequality

53 Pages Posted: 7 Apr 2014 Last revised: 17 Jul 2014

See all articles by Barbara L. Bezdek

Barbara L. Bezdek

University of Maryland - Francis King Carey School of Law

Date Written: 2013


What are the aims of the revitalization conducted by local officials: for which social goods? Good for whom? By what means can the city’s people understand and influence the tradeoffs made by their government in the redevelopment of city blocks already occupied by residents. This is more than a matter of development finance or physical redevelopment. It is a question of social justice, of whose reality counts in the legal process utilized to reach development decisions and approve significant public subsidy for the projects that are remaking American cities.

Sherry Arnstein, writing in 1969 about citizen involvement in planning processes in the United States, at the height of American racial and economic tensions, described a typology of citizen participation arranged as a ladder with increasing degrees of decision-making clout ranging from low to high. The Arnstein rungs ascend from forms of “window-dressing participation,” through cursory information exchange, to the highest levels of partnership in or control of decision-making. Arnstein’s Ladder has remained the touchstone in assessing the meaning, or lack thereof, in public participation in local government decision-making that allocates scarce development dollars, because it succinctly juxtaposes powerless citizens with power-holders. It resonates with swaths of “the public”: residents of city neighborhoods who find their needs discounted in the development calculus.

This paper argues that enhanced public participation rules are necessary and feasible in local government-level decisions to provide public support for urban economic redevelopment projects. Typically the city and developer justify public supports on grounds of increased prosperity in the form of jobs, wages and rising tax base. Present minimalist participation procedures are insufficient to redirect a discernible share of promised benefits and public goods to under-served residents. The paper examines the burgeoning field of community engagement practices and process models; and considers their utility to enhance the critically important but often missing public participation of traditionally under-included poor and minority people in redevelopment decisions. Part IV then preliminarily restates and revises the Arnstein ladder, proposing additional functional and legal dimensions. Part V proposes principles for the design of citizen engagement practices in municipal development decision-making, and identifies steps for citizens and city officials to take toward development justice.

Keywords: Arnstein's Ladder, local government decision-making, political participation

Suggested Citation

Bezdek, Barbara L., Citizen Engagement in the Shrinking City: Toward Development Justice in an Era of Growing Inequality (2013). St. Louis University Public Law Review, Vol. 33, 2013, p. 3-, U of Maryland Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2014-20, Available at SSRN:

Barbara L. Bezdek (Contact Author)

University of Maryland - Francis King Carey School of Law ( email )

500 West Baltimore Street
Baltimore, MD 21201-1786
United States

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics