Extinction Rebellion protests. Source XR
Over the past years an increasing attention towards environmental justice is gaining more public attention through media, activism and civic participation. The PUJ project in Prato, Italy, has explored many ways to engage local inhabitants into decision making over the forestation plan of the city, such as the Junglathons. This essay explores how citizens' participation in environmental issues is crucial as it plays a significant role in shaping sustainable and environmentally responsible societies. Firstly we will delve into a broad description of the main trends in the field, especially looking into youth eco-activism, then we will explore different case studies of deliberative democracy in Europe which have been applied to environmental issues, such as citizens’ assemblies. 


A lot of the civic response to environmental issues is to refer to eco-anxiety, the emotional and psychological distress experienced by individuals in relation to the current and anticipated impacts of climate change and environmental degradation. Such feelings can be triggered by various factors, including extreme weather events, loss of biodiversity, rising global temperatures, deforestation, and other environmental threats. The realisation of the scale and urgency of these issues can lead to a range of emotional responses, from general unease to more severe symptoms such as panic attacks, depression, or feelings of helplessness. Eco-anxiety is largely present amongst young people, connected to the concerns about the future, the fear about the well-being of future generations, combined with an awareness of environmental injustice, hence the disproportionate impacts of environmental issues on vulnerable communities. Therefore, youth involvement in the call for environmental justice stems from the recognition that they will bear the brunt of the long-term consequences of environmental degradation, climate change, and other ecological issues. 

The global youth climate movement Fridays for Future, inspired by activists like Greta Thunberg, has mobilised young people to demand action against climate change. They are witnessing the increasing frequency of extreme weather events, rising sea levels, and other manifestations of climate change that pose threats to their future. Young people often feel that they are not adequately represented in decision-making processes that shape environmental policies. They are advocating for a more inclusive and youth-informed approach to environmental governance, they ask for  global solidarity because they recognize the interconnectedness of environmental challenges and the need for collective action on a global scale.

Just Stop Oil climate campaign group threw tomato soup on Vincent van Gogh's "Sunflowers" and glued their hands to the wall beneath the painting at the National Gallery in London, UK. Photo Getty Images. 

Many young activists are pushing for innovative and sustainable solutions to environmental problems. They are actively engaging in initiatives related to renewable energy, conservation, and sustainable practices. Amongst them, Extinction Rebellion (XR), a global environmental movement, has gained great media attention because of the pacific and provocative actions to advocate for urgent action in addressing the climate crisis and biodiversity loss. Based on these actions, that range from throwing organic paint on art pieces to blocking car traffic, many activists are being legally persecuted. They claim for a declaration of climate emergency from Governments, Zero Carbon by 2025, a more transparent communication and the development of Citizens' Assemblies to ensure that decisions regarding climate and ecological issues are made by representative groups of people rather than solely by governments or corporations. 


Deliberative democracy practices 

Deliberative democracy emphasises informed and reasoned discussion as the foundation for making collective decisions. Citizens engage in open and inclusive deliberation on important issues, considering different perspectives, facts, and values before arriving at decisions or policy choices. The goal is to ensure that decisions are made through a fair and rational process that involves public input and discussion.

Deliberative democracy is seen as a way to address some of the limitations of traditional representative democracy, where decisions are often made through periodic elections and by elected representatives. Proponents argue that deliberative democracy allows for a more thoughtful and participatory decision-making process, potentially leading to more informed and legitimate outcomes. However, it also faces challenges, including concerns about feasibility, the potential for manipulation, and the need for widespread civic engagement. Various deliberative methods and formats, such as citizens' assemblies, deliberative polling, and consensus conferences, have been employed to put these principles into practice.

Deliberative democracy is particularly relevant and valuable in addressing environmental issues because it provides a framework for inclusive and informed decision-making on matters that often have far-reaching consequences for communities, ecosystems, and future generations. 

Citizens’ Assembly on Climate in Paris. Photo by Missions Publiques

Examples of deliberative democracy in environmental decision-making include citizens' assemblies focused on climate change, public consultations on natural resource management, and participatory processes for land-use planning. While challenges exist, such as ensuring broad representation and addressing power imbalances, the application of deliberative democracy in environmental issues holds promise for more effective and equitable decision-making.


The Vorarlberg Citizens’ Councils

This is a participatory tool that allows citizens to collaborate with the Federal state of Voralberg in Austria on decision-making processes. The Citizen’s Council is a permanent process regulated by a guide and a constitutional amendment. A random selected sample representative of the population of approximately 20 people participates in the Citizen’s Council at each level. The approach uses three different instruments in three different steps of the process: dynamic facilitation, citizen’s café and the responder group. The recommendations advanced by the participants are not binding, but they are sorted according to priority, importance, and usefulness for different contexts. Even though, not all recommendation can be implemented, the public representatives never had the case of rejecting all of them. The government found that citizen’s results are easier to implement and the experience led to calls for more participatory processes and more cost-effective method than planning cells or citizen’s assemblies. Amongst the tools adopted, is the Dynamic Facilitation method is a way of facilitating a small group of people to face and solve difficult issues. It helps people face critical issues and then helps them to be creative in addressing them. Rather than asking participants to hold back their emotions, stay on the agenda, abide by guidelines, follow a step-by-step process and to generally be rational, the Dynamic Facilitation method encourages people to just speak. 

Furthermore, the World Café methodology is a simple, effective, and flexible format for hosting large group dialogue. It is a creative process for leading collaborative dialogue, sharing knowledge and creating possibilities for action in groups of all sizes.The technique builds on the notion of group intelligence. By organising several discussion rounds where people are invited to discuss a topic of mutual interest in small groups, the technique enables bringing together individual ideas into one comprehensive message. In this respects, great attention was posed on environmental issues and climate change. 

Vorarlberg Citizens’ Council. Photo by Vorarlberg Citizens’ Council

The Vorarlberg Citizen’s Council process, despite initial tensions between representatives and citizens, claryfing the roles and the need for consultation was crucial and it proved to be successful in promoting collaboration and citizen participation. Although, there may be limitations to its effectiveness. For example, the recommendations produced by the Council are not binding, which may limit their impact on decision-making. Additionally, even though less expensive than the experiences were built upon, the process may be resource-intensive, requiring significant funding and investment from the government. 


The Opinion Festival in Estonia

This is an annual participatory event that began in 2013 in Estonia as a response to societal challenges and a perceived breakdown of civil society. The festival is organised by the NGO Arvamusfestival, who work tirelessly throughout the year to orchestrate this impactful event. This event by accommodating around 110 to 120 discussions about crucial topics in Estonia has become a platform for open dialogue and democratic participation, helping to repair civil society and promote a culture of active citizenship. 

The idea for the Opinion Festival was born 11 years ago, however, the genesis of the festival in Estonia can be traced back to the societal challenges faced in 2012. The country experienced significant upheaval, marked by high-profile scandals, including the Harta 12-Charter 12-and revelations of corruption within a major political party. Culture activists, NGO members, and esteemed individuals, including university professors, collectively addressed the government, highlighting the perceived breakdown of civil society and the urgent need for repair. The other significant event, still in 2012, unfolded when a prominent member of the leading political party openly admitted to bringing substantial amounts of money to the party. The shocking revelation included the assertion that laws could be purchased, essentially implying that legislative decisions were negotiable commodities, highlighting the breakdown in the fundamental principles of governance. During this tumultuous period, Estonian President Thomas Hendrick Ilvesconvened a meeting known as the ice cellar round table. This meeting aimed to address the low point in Estonia and explore solutions. 

The foundational premise behind the Opinion Festival was the recognition that the societal conditions in Estonia were dire. The willingness of people to come together, openly discuss critical issues, and seek positive change provided the impetus for the festival's growth and establishment as a platform for civic engagement.

Their presence at the festival is essential for creating a meaningful dialogue between the public and policymakers. This direct interaction provides attendees with a unique opportunity to express their views and concerns, making it a vital aspect of the festival's success. Moreover, the festival should be rooted in the principles of a non-governmental organisation (NGO) project. Building a dedicated team of volunteers who share a passion for the festival's mission is crucial. These individuals, driven by a common belief in the festival's objectives, can contribute significantly to its success. Some of the team members work tirelessly during the summer months, volunteering full-time for the Opinion Festival because they believe in the impact of the event. 

The Opinion Festival in Estonia. Photo by the Opinion Festival in Estonia

The Opinion Festival in Estonia is a unique and innovative approach to participatory democracy that has gained international recognition. The Festival thrives on a decentralised structure: public discussions on a broad range of topics, from national security to health to social innovation, are suggested and run by people and organisations following a open call for ideas each spring. Ideas can be sent by organisations, groups of people or individuals. If an organisation’s suggested topic is successful and accepted into the festival programme, it is that organisation who is responsible for and sets up the discussion about that topic. Over the past years greater attention has been posed on environmental issues as a transversal topic in relation to societal, economic and cultural debates. The festival's rigorous selection process and focus on quality ensure that the discussions and activities are meaningful and impactful and it became a platform for open dialogue and democratic participation, promoting a culture of active citizenship and helping to repair civil society. However, while the festival provides a platform for discussion and debate, it may not necessarily lead to concrete policy changes or improvements in governance. The effectiveness of the festival's participatory democracy approach may also vary at different government levels, as local politics may overshadow the genuine concerns of the community.


World Wide Views on Climate and Energy

In 2015, the World Wide Views on Climate and Energy (WWV) initiative engaged over 10,000 citizens in more than 100 locations worldwide to deliberate on climate change and energy policies. Participants were provided with balanced information and encouraged to discuss and express their opinions. The results of these deliberations were compiled into policy recommendations, which were presented to policymakers at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris. WWV aimed to provide a platform for public input on global climate policy discussions, raise awareness about climate issues, and underscore the importance of involving ordinary citizens in shaping climate and energy policies on a global level. 

The participatory process began in 2007, having different citizen participation methods throughout the years and giving advice to the National Government of Denmark. When the climate summit came to Copenhagen in 2009 it was an occasion to explore how a citizen participatory process could develop on a global level. The global decision making process of the UN is a unique and complicated process because whilst the Member States have ways to interact with the negotiations, there are no mechanisms in place for ordinary citizens to interact. After the World Wide Views in copenhagen in 2009, there was one in 2012 connected to the Biodiversity COP in Doha and finally one in 2015 within the COP summit in Paris. 

The UN has no funding for initiatives like this. The UN itself is struggling for finance from parties to the Convention and is primarily tends to seek funding for its own priorities. 

In terms of participants’ recruitment, the model was to have 100 people in each country, regardless of whether it was held in. The reason for this logic was that materials were being developed for the UN decision making processes, which is based on one country, one vote notion. Demographic criteria such as age, gender, occupation, educational attainment, membership of green organisations were used, as a proxy for engagement in the climate cause. 


World Wide Views on Climate and Energy. Photo by World Wide Views on Climate and Energy

It took a long time to figure out what the central questions would be, engaging with different COP negotiators, different civil society organisations to anticipate and understand what the most important questions were going to be discussed at the COP in Paris. The method itself had a multilevel impact, it could trigger both local, national and global debates and even regional ones. Yet, it did not manage to bring citizens from different countries together to join one conversation. 

The Prato Urban Jungle experience 

The PUJ project focused on three pilot areas where the forestation strategies have been discussed with local inhabitants through a series of Junglathon participatory workshops. 


Nature takes care of us, and we take care of nature

Arch. Valerio Barberis, Deputy Mayor for Urban Planning and Environment of the City of Prato.

The Junglathon represents a fundamental path of the Prato Urban Jungle project, dedicated to the participation and involvement of citizens. The core focus of the Junglathon is the co-design workshops , through an innovative approach applied to a design thinking process, involved the citizens of the Soccorso and Macrolotto 0 neighbourhoods in the Junglathon path, aimed at raising awareness, citizen participation, civic imagination and co-planning of sustainable urban futures.

As a first step, during the months that have preceded the Junglathon LAB, a group of researchers and experts have employed ethnographic research in these neighbourhoods. Through this research, they observed, interviewed and intercepted inhabitants or passers-by in order to gather the citizens’ needs, expectations, direct the following activities, and to engage the different stakeholders.

After the preliminary ethnographic research,  three days of co-creation sessions were held. Experts, researchers, designers and architects, and also citizens, attended these workshops. The co-creation sessions were preceded by a participatory mapping, where researchers highlighted the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and related threats of the intervention areas. By doing this, they raised awareness and a broader understanding of the situation among the participants. Importantly, these workshops have seen an intergenerational approach, where young students and elderly citizens from the study areas confronted each other and together.

As a result, the City Council of Prato took on board the indications coming from the citizens in order to include them in the planning process of the forestation within the Prato Urban Jungle project. 

Take aways

  1. Engaging citizens in environmental issues empowers communities. When people are informed and involved, they are more likely to take ownership of local environmental challenges and work collaboratively to address them. This empowerment can lead to a stronger sense of community and shared responsibility.
  2. Citizens' participation fosters accountability and transparency in environmental decision-making processes. When people are actively involved, it encourages governments, organisations, and businesses to be more accountable for their actions and policies, reducing the likelihood of environmentally harmful practices.
  3. Education and awareness through participation in initiatives such as community clean-ups, conservation projects, or environmental education programs, allows citizens to gain a better understanding of the interconnectedness of environmental issues and the importance of sustainable practices.
  4. Policy Effectiveness is enhanced by public participation as this entails that these policies are more likely to reflect the needs and concerns of the people, making them more relevant, acceptable, and easier to implement. 
  5. Behavioural change and environmental advocacy contributes to strengthening the democratic fabric by promoting active civic engagement.

About this resource

Daniela Patti
Prato, Italy Small sized cities (50k > 250k)
About UIA
Urban Innovative Actions

The Urban Innovative Actions (UIA) is a European Union initiative that provided funding to urban areas across Europe to test new and unproven solutions to urban challenges. The initiative had a total ERDF budget of €372 million for 2014-2020.

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