A Participatory Process for Change


by Txema Castiella / Teresa Franquesa
Technical Co-ordinators of Barcelona's Agenda 21


The expression "Agenda 21" was coined at the Earth Summit (Rio de Janeiro, 1992) to refer to the plan of action that states would have to implement in order to transform the current model for development, based on the exploitation of natural resources as if they were unlimited and unequal access to the benefits of those resources, to a new model for development capable of covering the needs of present generations without compromising the capacity of future generations. This is what is known as sustainable development, i.e. development that is durable, efficient and rational in the use of resources and equitable in the distribution of benefits.


The final document produced by the United Nations ten years ago contained a chapter (Chapter 28) dedicated to the role of cities in this ambitious resolution for change. It recognises both the responsibility of cities and their capacity for transformation. As has been observed on occasions, seldom have a few brief lines of a formal declaration provoked such an enthusiastic reaction. At present, over 5,000 cities around the world are drawing up their own Local Agenda 21s through mechanisms involving participation by the local community, with the objective of establishing shared objectives and milestones to contribute locally to the sustainable development of our planet's society. Local Agenda 21s are a good example of the old ecologist maxim "think globally and act locally".


Barcelona is one of the cities taking part in this movement and it is now completing its Agenda 21. This article aims to outline the characteristics of this complex and exciting process. Barcelona's status as a large city in the context of Europe undoubtedly makes this an experience worth studying and sharing.


In 1995, Barcelona's Town Council resolved, with the unanimous vote in favour of all political groups represented, to become a signatory of the Aalbörg Charter. This Charter was the local response to the challenge issued by the United Nations and it was a harbinger of the widespread local movement that would arise in Europe for promotion of Local Agenda 21s. In contrast with the nature of some international declarations, it was an innovative manifesto set out in an attractive style with clearly expressed aims. It was based on the recognition of the responsibility of cities, particularly in the western world, for the current situation (owing to demographic concentration, consumption of goods, services and land, transportation, energy consumption, etc.) and the observation of the capacity of cities to contribute to sustainable development from a privileged position for fostering participation, agreement and mobilisation of forces and resources. One of the specific commitments undertaken by the signatories of the Aalbörg Charter (which has now been ratified by 1,200 European cities) was to "attempt to reach a consensus in our communities in respect of local Agenda 21 by the end of 1996".


This was the first definite step in the process of drafting Barcelona's Agenda 21. The experience of our city, and that of most cities, with the exception of some in the Scandinavian countries, has demonstrated the value of the Aalbörg Charter as a trigger for the process and has also shown the timetable originally called for to be unfeasible. The process, being an ambitious one, has involved substantial conflict in respect of content, approaches and timing, and the case of Barcelona is no exception.


The Municipal Council for the Environment and Sustainability

Three years later, a delay that in itself speaks of the complexity and difficulty of the process, the Barcelona Agenda 21 Promotional Forum was created. Agenda 21 is neither a closed process nor an exercise in exact sciences: each city must select its own approach to drafting its Agenda 21, depending on its characteristics and circumstances. This was also the case with the Forum, which, in Barcelona, took shape as a Municipal Council, governed by the Rules and Regulations for Citizen Participation.

The Municipal Council for the Environment and Sustainability is a participatory and consultative body, but its objectives include the specific function of promoting development of Barcelona's Agenda 21. This is a highly significant characteristic of the process that differentiates it from other cities: the body that formulates proposals, builds consensus and takes responsibility for results is the Council and not the Town Hall.

The make-up of the Council is especially important: there is a deliberate balance between representatives of the government (Town Hall, Regional Council, Provincial Council, EMMA), the business world, trade unions, and citizen and ecologist organisations, and of universities and a group of private experts.


In 1998 and 1999 thirteen thematic working groups were formed with different members of the Council to carry out, on a basis of consensus, a diagnosis of each area, formulating proposals for future action and, in some cases, suggesting indicators for monitoring. The task of these interdisciplinary working groups is the core of the documents on Agenda 21: over 2,000 hours of volunteer work and over 500 proposals of different types and magnitude.

In 2000, the Council adopted these documents as "Materials for Debate" and resolved to undertake a phase of citizen participation and debate, through which the Council's work will be opened to other organisations and players and citizens as a whole. This is an extremely important decision for the process, owing to its ambitious nature. When the process is completed, the Council will be the body with the capacity to decide on the approval of the final content.



The Participation Process


The extension of the debate to include citizens seemed indispensable if the process was to be successful. Making an Agenda 21 with the greatest possible degree of participation not only legitimates it, but above all it allows a larger number of people to assimilate its importance and assume its objectives. At the same time, however, obvious difficulties arise, such as the size of the city, the lack of citizen awareness of the process and the complexity of the issues and the relatively limited time available.

The ability to combine ambition and pragmatism could be said to be the motto that has guided the design of the citizen participation process from the start and that has oriented the volume and provision of resources in terms of planning, technical and material means and monitoring of the process.
The main challenge, obviously, was how to attain a sufficient degree of citizen involvement, taking into account that the move from the core of highly informed and concerned individuals to all citizens could not be made in a single step. It therefore seemed appropriate to focus efforts on fostering the participation of citizen organisations and groups and to leave the door open to intervention by individuals. This decision implied adoption of a participatory approach that ensured that all views were represented, while prioritising quality over quantity.

The document "Criteria and Proposals for Citizen Participation in Barcelona's Agenda 21", drafted by the Political Analysis Team of Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, provided both the theoretical basis for the process and the operational guidelines in respect of the phases and instruments to make it possible. The framework document's proposal for development of the participation process can be summed up in the following elements:


  • three phases: information, deliberation and decision
  • two approaches to work: regional and thematic
  • two types of involvement: organisations and citizens


These structural criteria have been highly useful, although the actual situation made adaptation necessary in some cases. For example the first two phases of the process were combined in practice into a single, very prolonged phase (April-December 2001) of information/deliberation. The reasons for this were the initial difficulties in setting the project in motion and the protraction of information tasks, along with the substantial differences in the speed of work in the city's ten districts and at many of the participating organisations.


This phase opened officially on 3 April 2001, with a formal ceremony at the main lecture hall of Universitat de Barcelona, at which the mayor and the president of the Council gave a public presentation of the process of citizen participation and the material placed at everyone's disposal for discussion: Towards Barcelona's Agenda 21: A Document for Debate. This was a fundamental document that dealt with and combined all the different components of diagnosis and proposal, set out for the purpose of debate.


From that moment on, a number of initiatives were undertaken on different fronts at the same time to start up and gradually advance in the proposal for participation throughout the city. Work went ahead on distribution of the document for debate and on dissemination of the process to over 500 organisation, which were invited to take part; the web page www.bcn.cat/agenda 21 was created; meetings were held with significant groups; thematic debates were programmed in the form of "Dialogues" between experts on the issues under discussion; a virtual forum was opened at the city's website; thousands of surveys were made on priorities; three prospecting sessions were organised; the specific Agenda 21 for Schools programme was launched; etc.


Agenda 21 for Schools


This programme calls on schools to draw up their own Agenda 21, reviewing concepts and practices and committing themselves to undertaking actions for improvement. In this connection, a methodological guide and technical and pedagogical assistance are offered throughout the school year, along with a line of financial aid for public schools. A total of 70 schools at all educational levels took part during the 2001-02 school year and 97 have been accepted for participation next year. Each school chooses the issues that it will deal with, and while environmentalisation of resource and waste management predominates, there are also a large number of projects focussing on improvement of the immediate surroundings, along with the creation of gardens, use of solar energy, and the issues of mobility and noise. Results permit a very positive evaluation, both in terms of the actual implication of schools and the stimulus and support for the task of environmental education carried out by them. The programme receives support from the AGBAR Foundation.


However, the main protagonists during this period have clearly been the city's ten districts, which, once they had grasped the importance of the process, took responsibility for carrying it out on their own territory, each in its own particular manner, in keeping with its circumstances and style. The moment of greatest visibility was the formal presentation ceremony, which was organised with a certain degree of solemnity and was very well attended in all districts. This was followed by intense activity in the form of publication of informative materials and individual web pages, programmes on neighbourhood radio and television stations, contacts with organisations in the ambit and, above all, the programming of some 200 debate sessions, attended by around 3,000 people.


As a result of the first phase of citizen participation, the Technical Secretariat for Agenda 21 collected approximately 1,000 proposals, varying widely in scope and degree of abstraction. Moving on to the practical phase required the combination of all the contributions into a draft document that could be returned to the participants, so that everyone who had taken part in the process would have the opportunity to evaluate it and, where appropriate, amend it. It had to be a concise and comprehensible document, setting out the fundamentals, objectives and main lines of action. It was planned as a framework document that would provide a negotiated overview of the sustainable Barcelona that we wish to attain and to which we are all committed, each one in their own area and with their own plan of action.


The draft of the Citizen Commitment to Sustainability was prepared during the final quarter of 2001, simultaneously with design of the methodology for participation in its revision. The Council approved the draft in December and the practical phase was carried out according to plan (January-May 2002). For this purpose, a dossier was published containing the text and the procedure for taking part, and the Technical Secretariat and the districts then distributed this dossier to all the organisations and individuals implicated in the process. It was also sent to citizen organisations that had not expressed any interest so far and it was posted on the website to facilitate participation as much as possible.


With the aim of permitting the collective drafting of the text of the Commitment an extremely simple method for participation was used, based on a set of colours and symbols, to allow everyone to express easily and visually their assessment of and comments on each of the different proposals. Everyone who wished to could appraise and/or propose modifications to the objectives and lines of action. These reactions could be entered directly on the website or sent to the technical secretariat by fax, post, or e-mail. In any case, all the contributions received through the different media were posted on the website to allow viewing of the complete result.


A total of 480 users made contributions, of which 180 represented organisations and the rest were individuals. All together, 12,000 appraisals and 1,300 amendments or suggestions were presented.

Subsequently, during the months of March and April, a series of meetings (Agenda 21 forums) were held, to provide the opportunity to defend the proposed amendments and to attempt to agree by reasoned consensus on controversial proposals. Ten thematic forums were held, a specific one for each of the objectives, along with a city forum to revise the full set of ten articles. Around two hundred people, who had previously submitted their assessments, attended these meetings. The districts also worked on the draft and some of them held one or more local forums of their own. These meetings made use of the same system of positioning by colours, already familiar to the participants, through the so-called "option windows".


The editorial team drew up the amendments agreed at the forums, creating a new, clearly improved version of the document that then received the finishing touches in accordance with suggestions from the members of the Municipal Environmental and Sustainability Council. Finally, on 21 May, the Town Council approved the definitive version of the Citizen Commitment to Sustainability, with its ten main objectives and one hundred lines of action (ten for each objective).


The 10 Objectives


  1. Protect open spaces and biodiversity, and expand green belts.
  2. Defend a compact, diverse city, with quality public space.
  3. Improve mobility and make streets an attractive place.
  4. Attain optimum levels of environmental quality and become a healthycity.
  5. Conserve natural resources and promote the use of renewableresources.
  6. Reduce waste generation and foster a culture of re-use and recycling.
  7. Augment social cohesion, strengthening mechanisms for fairness and participation.
  8. Promote economic activity oriented towards sustainable development.
  9. Advance the culture of sustainability through environmental communication and education.
  10. Reduce the city's impact on the planet and promote international co- operation.

To this tangible outcome of the project, we must add the unquestionable expansion of concepts and issues related to sustainability, as well as progress in citizen commitment, a factor that is difficult to assess precisely.



Operational Instruments

Subjects for debate. The proposals of the Council's working groups have provided the basis for promoting and structuring citizen debate. There were over 500 such medium- and/or long-term proposals, with diagnostic elements, constituting a solid foundation for participation. A summary of this work was published in the Documents series and the content was incorporated into the document Towards Barcelona's Agenda 21, an accurate social-environmental diagnosis and summary of the proposals that was published and widely distributed and formed the core of the Agenda 21 website.


Habits and Values Survey. Under an agreement between the Town Council and UAB's Institute for Government and Public Policy, the Environment and Sustainability Habits and Values Survey was carried out as a social-environmental diagnostic element. The aim was to include environmental perception, a subjective but important component, in the different technical and sectorial diagnoses, adding qualitative information to this process and complementing other sources of information. This was the first Barcelona survey to focus exclusively on sustainability and it dealt in depth with all aspects of this area. The field work was carried out at the end of 2000 with a sample of 1200 individuals aged eighteen and over, through home interviews.

Participation plan. The Municipal Council drew up a participation plan based on the criteria and proposals put forward by the Political Analysis Team of Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. The objective of the plan was to design an organised process for debate with clear standards, appropriate methodology and a timetable for different phases. See further information on this subject in the text.


Communication plan. If an Agenda 21 is to involve citizens, as it must by definition, one of its necessary components is a definite communication strategy. In view of the limited resources for this type of campaign, it was decided to provide the process with a basic visibility centred on the logo. The logo represents the image of commitment by the city to the planet and its fundamental requirement was that it should be identified with the city and not with the Town Council. It was chosen from among three designs by the members of the Council at a plenary session. This brand has served to unify a diverse range of actions (publications, posters, leaflets, etc.). In respect of media dissemination, the local television station (BTV) has played the most important part, both in terms of coverage of the full process in news programmes and broadcast of short reports and spots.


Technical Secretariat. In April 2001, the firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers was commissioned through a public call for tenders to act as Technical Secretariat to the process. This Technical Secretariat has acted as an auxiliary support and technical assistance body for both the participation process and the preparation of materials.


Agent 21s. One of the key roles in the participation process has been played by the network of individuals, both volunteers and professionals, who, through their work in associations, universities, districts and other municipal departments, or in the Technical Secretariat itself, have led and galvanised the process. This highly resourceful and diverse group of around one hundred people, who refer to themselves informally as Agent 21s, has met regularly for training and co-ordination sessions.


Information and assistance services. In a process where information and dialogue are so important, personal attention is indispensable. The Sustainable Barcelona Resources Centre, open to the public six days a week providing service through phone lines and e-mail, has been the main point of information and attention. In the districts, the Citizen Service Offices have played the equivalent role, often supplemented by civic centre services. The www.bcn.cat/agenda21 website has been another, virtual, way, used by an average of 2,250 people monthly. Service has also been provided through the 010 telephone line.


Environmental Education Resources. Throughout the whole process, the Town Council has augmented the environmental training and information resources available to citizens. A good example in this connection is the set of seven environmental education guides (Mobility, Waste, Water, etc.) that have been prepared and widely distributed, the Sustainability Files collection, and the other publications in the area of environmental awareness, in addition to a broad and varied quarterly programme of activities.



Action 21: Working Prospects


The process of preparing Barcelona's Agenda 21 has been characterised by a few basic principles: strategy, broad base, participation, knowledge and joint responsibility.

Firstly, Agenda 21 is configured as a medium- and long-term strategic plan with a ten-year time frame (2002-2012), based on sustainability as the common paradigm. In fact, Barcelona's Agenda 21 is clearly committed to a comprehensive, broad-based approach to sustainability, combining social, economic and environmental dimensions, and thus reaches beyond the strictly conventional domain of environmental policy. Furthermore, as we have seen, Barcelona's Agenda 21 has been the result of the broadest possible process of participation and information. It is not the outcome of the work of experts or of a specialised laboratory, but of the contributions and perceptions of a great many people and groups with different interests that were negotiated and eventually agreed by consensus in the Commitment.


We speak of knowledge because the process of preparing the Agenda 21, and particularly the participation phases, have in themselves provided an excellent opportunity to raise citizens' collective level of environmental information, knowledge and education. In addition, however, given that effective participation is impossible without good access to information, the organisers have made considerable efforts in this connection.


And lastly, joint responsibility, because Barcelona's Agenda 21 is the set of commitments and objectives shared by the members of the Council and is put forward as the Agenda 21 for the city. It is not the Town Council's Agenda 21, and it is therefore based on the desire to gain the commitment of all players, in keeping with their potential and responsibilities, to attaining the objectives that have been set.


Precisely, the new working phase that commenced with the approval of the Citizen Commitment to Sustainability could be called Action 21. Each player, institution or organisation that has signed the Commitment agrees to work in accordance with the principles of the Agenda 21 and will specify the voluntary actions that they can take in their respective fields to contribute to attaining the shared objectives that have been set.


During this phase there will be new operational instruments to help to stimulate, orient and evaluate the processes under way. A set of indicators will serve to monitor progress and a methodological guide for preparing action plans will be available by year end, along with other instruments aimed at disseminating good practices and experience. The year 2004 offers a good immediate time-frame for showing what progress has been made.

A key stage of the city's Agenda 21, then, has been completed, and another even more exciting stage has commenced, in which everyone is invited to join in the collective effort at making a more sustainable city. As concluded in the presentation text of the Commitment, we have just begun. We have no time to waste and we have all the time in the world.