Marine spatial planning (MSP) is a novel tool for marine governance that has gained rapid and wide acceptance worldwide. However, MSP is still a tool under construction with deficiencies and limitations. One of the main critiques of MSP is the tokenistic nature of stakeholder engagement. Fostering a meaningful engagement of stakeholders requires an approach that empowers them. Empowerment allows stakeholders to influence the planning process meaningfully. In this context, using a participatory approach (PA) in MSP is workable since it empowers participants and builds decision-making capacity.
The participatory approach has been widely used in planning processes. It is a flexible approach that encourages the participation of all stakeholders in decision-making, and it is conceived as a way to explore participants’ knowledge. Four elements characterize PA: 1) democracy, PA allows the engagement of all people; 2) equity, it fosters fairness and impartiality; 3) PA is liberating, it fosters freedom from oppressive conditions; and 4) PA is life-enhancing, it allows the expression of peoples’ full human potential. These characteristics operate through PA principles, which are particularly attractive to MSP as they ultimately foster stakeholder engagement. Principles include co-learning, collaborative and equitable partnership work, communication and information dissemination, knowledge integration, bias rejection, and camaraderie.
Co-learning is a reciprocal process of transferring knowledge, skills, and capacities among planning technicians and stakeholders. Through knowledge, stakeholders strengthen their arguments (knowledge is power); therefore, arguments acquire relevance in the arena of the decision-making process and consequently can influence MSP outcomes meaningfully. Moreover, communication and information dissemination are crucial in PA. Hence, information is accessible to experts, planning technicians, and stakeholders (public access information). The information access increases the transparency of the planning process, creating a feeling of trust which encourages stakeholder engagement.
PA encourages collaborative and equitable partnership work. All parties participate and share control, so technicians act as facilitators and not as directors of the process. This cooperative and fair condition allows stakeholders to push their concerns, aspirations, and issues into the planning process, so stakeholders develop a feeling of belonging that incentivizes their participation. Furthermore, PA also fosters knowledge integration. This integration happens in an equity environment, so both scientific and stakeholders’ knowledge have the same importance. Consequently, stakeholders are motivated to participate as they recognize that their knowledge is useful and can influence decision-making.
PA fosters respect for everyone who participates in the planning process. In PA, stakeholders and technicians set a standard for participation. They create the norms and rules, so they are more likely to feel comfortable following them. Moreover, in an environment of respect or camaraderie, stakeholders feel more confident to intervene in decision-making; therefore, the engagement is strengthened. Finally, PA seeks to avoid bias. In decision-making processes, stakeholders often try to highlight their interests over others’, causing bias in the planning process. PA fosters an equity environment where stakeholders’ opinions have the same level of importance; thus, stakeholders are motivated to participate as they feel their opinions are heard and not displaced.
Although PA has the potential to enhance stakeholder engagement, it is not the solution to stakeholder exclusion in MSP. MSP is a tool still under construction and has a lot to learn. Therefore, MSP must be open to other aspects of marine management (e. g. indigenous marine governance) to continue improving.