Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Liberal Studies


Laxmi Ramasubramanian

Subject Categories

Human Geography | Public Affairs | Urban Studies and Planning


Regional Planning, Public Participation, Social Innovation, Process


Multi-locational living – working, shopping, playing, learning and commuting across administrative and, sometimes even political boundaries is an essential aspect of metropolitan living. Although it is anticipated that everyday experiences of the physical, social and economic inter-connectedness between urban communities and peri-urban hinterlands would automatically engender a regional outlook in planning and governance, it is currently not the case. In the New York City region, a lived regional experience does not translate into support for a regional governance structure.

While strong legislative support has ensured the public its rightful place within metropolitan regional planning, it has regrettably bred a procedural focus that has reduced public participation to an end in itself. Current approaches to public participation at the metropolitan scale limit the extent to which the public can meaningfully engage with issues of regional import, contribute their experiential knowledge towards envisioning solutions, and impact plan outcomes. This thesis presents a structural approach to public participation that redresses the current procedural focus by emphasizing the significance of the interlinkages between the governance structure, planning process and public participatory process in determining the quality and outcome of public participation in planning processes.

Applying the structural approach to the case of metropolitan transportation planning (MTP) in the United States, this thesis provides a comparative analysis of the public participation exercises conducted by two Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPO) in the New York - New Jersey – Connecticut Tristate region, the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council (NYMTC) and the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority (NJTPA). The NJTPA and NYMTC, despite being neighboring MPOs that share a common regional legacy, have responded differently to the region’s dynamics and evolved to be MPOs with very disparate organizational characteristics and regional impact. An in-depth study of newspaper articles, plan documents and government reports, and interviews of key office bearers demonstrate how this disparity impacts the design and implementation of the respective MPO’s public participation exercises.

The structural approach demonstrates that lack of a direct relationship, such as a regional tax base or regional service provision, is an impediment to public perception of and active participation in regional governance. In the absence of opportunities for direct relationship with the regional public, engaged leadership and robust inter and intra-regional partnerships emerge as significant factors for fostering public participation in metropolitan planning processes. This thesis identifies best practices for successful engagement of the regional public –adapting to emerging (millennial) modes of engagement, appropriate messaging of complex, large-scale problems in personally relatable terms and convening the public on a regional scale - exemplified in NJTPA’s public outreach strategy. Six indicators of regional governance capacity from a public participatory perspective are proposed to raise awareness and address the lack of metrics for evaluating structural support for public participation in regional planning contexts.

Finally, the structural approach demonstrates how the MPO governance structure and MTP planning process prioritize public participation as an accessory to decision making thereby undermining its potential for problem solving and social innovation. Addressing this lack, this thesis advocates for recognizing public-led social innovation as a structural counterpart to public participation for devising visionary solutions to regional scale issues. It concludes that public participation in regulatory planning tasks such as allocation of funds for transportation improvement programs is the right mechanism to implement solutions but not necessarily the right one for devising solutions.