Marina Lindell | Deliberative Walk – citizen participation in local-level planning processes


Deliberative Walks (DW) is a method where participants, by deliberating in small groups and joining facilitated walks, tackle a complex policy issue that has highly intertwined social and physical dimensions. DW builds on the principle that two participatory methods, Citizens´ Jury and Development Walk, are joined together. The origins of Development Walks can be traced back to women’s safety audits, developed in Canada in the late 1980s and in Sweden in the early 2000s, as a response to increasing concerns related to insecurity and violence against women. The focus on safety walks is on both the physical and social dimensions of the localities, the underlying idea being that the ones who have the greatest knowledge of the local environments are those who actually live there.

Studentlab Deliberative Walk

In October 2017, 19 students participated in the “Studentlab Deliberative Walk” at Åbo Akademi University in Vaasa. During five days, they deliberated about the development of the university campus and its surroundings. Although formally arranged as a master´s course, with the aim to introduce a new method for learning and citizen participation, it was organized as a DW, including a citizens´ jury and a development walk.

In practice, a development walk is arranged within the frame of a citizens´ jury. The Studentlab Deliberative Walk was realised in five 4-hour sessions. During the first two sessions, the participants received information and had the opportunity to cross-examine selected experts. The aim was to give participants different insights into the issue. It was interesting that they did not accept the experts´ visions all together, but they started to visualize and make their own visions in the small group discussions that followed. Discussion rules (and a facilitator) emphasized open-mindedness, respect for other´s opinions, and encouraged them to express their opinions and try to justify them.

The third session included the development walk. A walk-leader gathered the group on campus and guided them on a pre-scheduled route. During the walk, six experts were waiting at different locations, giving a short introduction about their specific area and expertise. The main idea was to give the participants an overview of the university and the surroundings by visiting places, seeing and feeling them. The participants had the opportunity to pose questions to the experts, to discuss with them and with each other while walking to the next stop. Some of the presenters joined the walk to discuss some more and to learn new things themselves. Informal discussions between the stops clearly increased informal interaction between decision-makers and participants as well as enhanced an open exchange of thoughts. After the walk, smaller-group discussions followed. It was clear that the mindset had changed for many of the participants after these first-hand experiences and getting to know more about the different places at and surrounding the campus.

Reflections on Deliberative Walk

Interviews with participants highlight the development walk as the most important element in enhancing learning and increasing interest to participate, but it is the variation and combination of methods and learning situations that is the most important feature of DW. The results also indicate that it is fruitful to experience an issue with all senses. It is astonishing that there is such a big increase in civic engagement despite the process not being fully connected to real decision-making.

The approach offered by DW offers openings for wider and deeper citizen engagement in democratic processes. The combination of the formal citizens´ jury and the informal development walk as well as different discussion formats allows for both rationality and emotions to be included in the deliberative process. Many liberal democracies are under attack from anti-democratic forces these days. Promoting active citizenship and developing civic skills seem more important than ever.

Marina Lindell
Research Fellow at the Social Science Research institute, Åbo Akademi University