Emotions and Frustrations: An Analysis of the Failure of a Democratic Participative Process
Tanika Join and Lise Serra

The article examines how emotions influence the co-construction of an urban renewal project. The case study is located in Saint-Denis, Reunion Island’s main city, in a French overseas department in the southwest Indian Ocean. This work aims to analyse the links between an urban project, the professional stakeholders involved and the territory in which it is developed. The outcomes of the research describe how emotions linked to memory and the quest for legitimacy hamper the implementation of the co-construction process within the conseil citoyen (citizens’ group). Three interviews with women involved at different levels in the urban project have been fully analysed to rebuild a multiview comprehension of this three-year process, at the end of which the conseil citoyen had all but ceased to function. Our results show that emotions linked to historical dynamics are difficult to share and that this limitation might be the main issue of the conseil citoyen under study. The research also highlighted the difficulty of stakeholders to express their emotions about their set goals and what they finally managed to achieve with the inhabitants. The inability to communicate emotions between opposing stakeholders of the urban project impact the democratic process. Citizen participation processes should be based on a solid common ground on which to build discussions and allow participants to move from confrontation to co-construction.

Emotional dynamics of a citizen participation process in urban planning

Emotions exert a complex state of feeling which can influence human behaviour 1 and give rise to collective mobilisation 2, 3. Research in neurobiology 4 and psychology around emotions converge on the fact that emotions have a high influence on decision-making processes. For a long time, facts and rationalisation have been considered as keys that help make decisions, and emotions have been relegated as irrelevant factors 5. In fact, in political science, many successive studies have shown how emotions can influence democratic choices 6-8, political decisions made by mayors and elected officials 9 or the important role emotions, as social bonding agent, play in diplomacy 10. However, in urban planning, the impact of the expressions of emotions within democratic participation processes is understudied 11. Devisme et al. 12 demonstrate how local stakeholders are confronted with the rationalisation of the urban fabric. Based on functional similarities between housing and urban projects, different territories grow more and more in the same way, denying citizens’ choices or cultural specificities. In the process of citizen participation in an urban project, Blondiaux 13 explores how citizens are confronted with the rational expressions of everyone’s life-improving project. This rational expression in urban projects is reinforced by subcontracted private urban engineering organisations participating in the “cross-circulation” of known urban models 14, 15.

Applying these researchers’ results to studies of urban renewal projects, we will see that these mechanisms are at work in the process of citizen participation set up in the framework of a conseil citoyen 16.

In the framework of the New National Program for Urban Renewal 17 (NPNRU) 18 (2014-2030), the conseil citoyen, a group of volunteers residents 19, was the main group of inhabitants to implement the co-construction of the urban renewal project. Following the reform of 2014, every person involved in this project (inhabitants, representatives of private urban engineering companies, social landlords, municipal technicians and town councilors) was encouraged to interact in order to design together. These exchanges brought together stakeholders with very different attachments to the territory and very different ambitions.

After a promising start, during which the citizens involved benefited from support and numerous training courses in order to become an effective democratic force, the group rapidly lost most of its members. Thus, from around 40 volunteers selected in 2016, only a dozen volunteers were present during the first weeks to drop quickly to six, then five volunteers and then no more than three in 2019.

The aim of this paper is to trace this event and explore the emotional dynamics of the participation process and the actors involved that led to this outcome. The citizens involved tackle a wide range of emotions while professional stakeholders try to keep their own emotions out of the frame. In this paper, we will describe how emotions linked to memory and the quest for legitimacy hamper the implementation of the co-construction process within the conseil citoyen. How can citizens deal with their own emotions facing a project that will modify their life dramatically? How can urbanists, engineers and town councilors collaborate successfully with the inhabitants within a project whose framework and time frame has already been so tightly established?

We will first present our case study, the reflect on whether and how others’ emotions go through the researcher’s self-mental picture and our research methodology. We will then analyze the point of view of three women being part of the conseil citoyen to understand how, for each, emotions are playing a strong role in their participation. We will conclude by discussing the different ways in which emotions influence the participation process studied.

Investigation people’s emotions within an urban project

Description of the case study

The area under study is located in the east of Saint-Denis’s city centre, Reunion Island’s main city. Reunion Island is a French overseas department in the south-west Indian Ocean. The neighbourhoods selected as case study have been undergoing renovation for several years and have been included in the NPNRU in 2014.

Following the departmentalisation of the island in 1946, the development of Saint-Denis was radical and it accelerated in the 1970s. In the 1960s a portion of the neighbourhoods around the city centre of Saint-Denis, concerned by the NPNRU, was still considered a slum. The radical transformation of the districts of the north-eastern zone, generated a rapid change in the way of life. These areas, which are now described as ageing, are home to a population that has experienced this evolution of the city. Whether they are nostalgic for the past or not, the memories of the neighbourhoods as they were before the 1970s, remain for them a reference of the changes that the city of Saint-Denis has undergone.

Since 2009, the municipality of Saint-Denis has wanted to transform these neighbourhoods. Thus, the area was already included in the perimeter of the first Urban Renewal Project (PRU) contracted between the municipality of Saint-Denis and the National Agency of Urban Renewal (ANRU) in 2009. Unfortunately, later on, as the ANRU considered the area of the PRU to large, these neighbourhoods had to be removed from this first programme (Figure 1) and included in 2014 in the NPNRU.

Situation map of the scope of the study based on the ANRU project in Saint-Denis, Reunion Island. Background map: OpenStreetMap

Research torn between field attachment and project rationality

How can researchers work in a field they have grown up in? How do a researcher’s own emotions influence their studies? Knowing that a researcher’s place in a field must always be questioned 20, we will present the authors of this paper. Tanika Join was born in Saint-Denis, Reunion Island, a French overseas department, and conducted the interviews during work on her PhD. Lise Serra was born in mainland France, she teaches at Reunion Island University. She does research on urban project building sites. As she is not local, she has a specific point of view, neither from here, nor from there but in an in between in process 21. For six months, Tanika Join also went to Nantes, France, to work on her thesis, away from the field. On 20 October 2020 in Nantes, Tanika writes in her diary:

“I’ve just finished reading an article by the geographer Eric Boutouyrie 22 about Saint-Denis. He describes the city in the 2000s as a dormitory town only designed for mobility; where meeting spaces are shopping pedestrian streets and where inhabitants no longer live in the town. I hate reading things like that of Saint-Denis, where I grew up happily. I am deeply attached to this city. I agree that Saint-Denis has a heart that can be difficult to see, and that it cannot be grasped by the first person who wanders along (…). But if people like Tom and Simon [two men I interviewed for my PhD] are so invested in their neighbourhood, it is because they defend the moments of their youth, the neighbourhood they loved. If Pierre, a 65-year-old resident I interviewed, is able to talk for so long about the workers with casual jobs that were an integral part of the life and dynamism of the neighbourhood of his childhood, it is because he loved it. How can you blame Saint-Denis for the accelerated evolution it has undergone? The soul of Saint-Denis, its essence, is elsewhere.”

At the time of writing, the thesis in urban planning and development in which this study is integrated had been underway for one and a half years. The thesis focused on understanding how relations between stakeholders and inhabitants modify the urban project. It is in this intermingling of views on the territory, with which the researcher’s view is mixed, that the place of emotions and attachments to the territory emerges as an unspoken element of divergence in the co-construction process.

Method based on semi-directive interviews

Various groups were involved in the interviews: inhabitants, professionals and town councillors. Of them, 17 Inhabitants and 30 professional stakeholders were interviewed individually with semi-directive interviews, lasting between one and a half to three hours. They were conducted between November 2019 and February 2021. These interviews were supplemented by monitoring the Urban Neighbourhood Management meetings 23, 24 between February 2019 and December 2019, in which some members of the conseil citoyen regularly participate. It is in this back-and-forth movement between the public space of expression and expression in a face-to-face interview that the role of emotions and attachment to the territory proved significant in understanding the failure of the conseil citoyen. The transcribed interviews were coded to highlight the impact of negatively connoted emotions (fear, jealousy, sadness, anger, resentment, aggressiveness, etc.) and positively connoted emotions ones (joy, optimism, enthusiasm, amusement, hope, etc.). How do these emotions best describe the way each one sees the other? Coding these speeches also aimed at revealing emotion-to-action and emotion-to-inaction movements. Cues such as tone of voice, time given by the respondent to a topic, expression of emotion-related vocabulary, revealed themes for which emotions were more or less strongly expressed, depending on whether or not these have an impact on daily life.

For this paper, three interviews with women involved at different levels in the conseil citoyen have been fully analysed to rebuild a multiview comprehension of these three years process at the end of which the conseil citoyen was almost lost.

Ignored views and partial project’s co-construction

After a promising start, the conseil citoyen had lost most of its members. This decline over time raised questions about the constraints that led to this disinterest. The failure to take into consideration the emotional part, notably the historical component and the quest for legitimacy of the group leaders, both with respect to the group members and to the stakeholders, may have caused the collapse of the co-construction process.

Personal memories that struggle to find their legitimacy within the conseil citoyen

Mélissa, 60, grew up, works and lives in the neighbourhood. Her happy memories were what motivated her to volunteer. She enthusiastically joined the conseil citoyen from the outset in 2017. She stopped her commitment in May 2019 and was disappointed and furious with her experience. She was one of the civil counsellors who talked nostalgically about her childhood neighbourhood. She knows all the stores and merchants, the different phases of evolution of the district, and the old town squares where people used to gather. Every place holds memories. She remembers where she took lessons in ballet, drama, and music, even though she was born in what used to be called a slum. This neighbourhood gave her access to many leisure activities.

“There was the Salle Saint-Jean, it was a big courtyard, it was like a theatre, with wooden seats, folding seats, we did plays by Louis Jessu… It was full of life and innovation, and then there was the Chan Liane Karate club underneath, and above it there was the Foyer Saint-Jacques, 45 years of history… Everyone came there, we learned music, much of it was self-taught, people learned music there. You learnt by ear, because that’s what it was like on the whole… We didn’t have any music lessons.” Mélissa, 21 January 2021

These happy memories gave Mélissa the courage to join the conseil citoyen and dedicate long hours to it for official presentations, discussions with other inhabitants, visits, and so on. She also wanted to be able to convey to young people the values that the neighbourhood brought her, to guide them as she already did when she taught evening classes. It was these values of solidarity and mutual aid that motivated her but that she did not find in the conseil citoyen.

“I like my district, and by participating, well, when I had the opportunity to participate I said to myself that I can also contribute something to it… That’s why I insisted on participating in the conseil citoyen, even after my long working days, even sometimes when I was working at night and then going straight on to my day job, and then in the evenings I went to meetings, because I wanted to! It was real… It really motivated me! But for the result… there’s no listening, people don’t want to listen, they don’t know this district, and they don’t even want to use you for what you can contribute. It was nonsense, it was really nonsense, I’m disappointed with this thing. At one point in May, I sent my letter of resignation, in May 2019, I said ok, that’s it, this thing is going down the drain, it’s good to limit the damage.” Mélissa, 21 January 2021

She did not find a place where people were genuinely listening to each other. For her the promoters of the project and the conseil citoyen did not care about how this neighbourhood was. They did not share her emotions about the memory of this neighbourhood. When past stories are the most precious things that inhabitants can share with the city stakeholders, the latter no longer have the resources to promote a new project that will contribute to erasing this history a little further. Through Melissa’s story, we learn how different emotional dynamics related to personal histories can weaken the conseil citoyen. Subtle power mechanisms like the meetings taking place in Sylvie’s café, the group leader (see below), pushed Mélissa even further out of the process as she felt uncomfortable or even excluded.

“At the beginning we did our meeting at the theatre (where she actually works), it’s a public space. Then she moved it to her restaurant and it became her council of ministers, I was against that, no, you have to move on. She didn’t want to move anymore, she wanted it to be there, you see this way of infantilising us like that? But not me! She didn’t infantilise me! But I can understand the group, at the beginning you are motivated, you have someone who has a restaurant, who is very articulate. At one point, no I said no, you have to stop, to make a charter it looks like you are making an amendment, it lasted I know maybe 8 months, not far from a year!”

A leader for the conseil citoyen in quest of legitimacy

Sylvie, 40, started her business in the neighbourhood ten years ago when she moved there with her children. She has a much more pragmatic speech. She does not place as much interest in the past as Mélissa.

“How has the neighbourhood evolved? For me, it hasn’t changed much in ten years… In my daily life, they have only rehabilitated one of the apartments that adjoins my building… It has been redone so it is a little cleaner, it has improved my daily life a little bit. […] I admit it’s difficult to change this district, in particular you see the shopkeepers, so from their point of view, I know the pharmacist, the one who had the beauty institute… There are always break-ins or damage, when people can’t get in and they break your shutter, it’s very difficult.” Sylvie, 11 March 2020

Sylvie was the citizen counsellor (conseillère citoyenne) to whom people had spontaneously attributed the role of leader of the conseil citoyen. For her it was an opportunity to design the neighbourhood’s future. She bought her apartment there ten years ago, she is involved in economic activities and she raises her daughters. She joined the conseil citoyen since the beginning until 2020, when the municipality decided to renew it. She expected a lot from the urban renewal project and wanted to be part of it.

“I know it will change, I know that in terms of shops and all that, it can bring me people, because if they do, if they demolish the buildings, it won’t be to rebuild housing, well, in my opinion, it’s going to be a business centre or something like that, […] So that will certainly bring me people, and then there will certainly be other competitors. […] I say to myself that this district will really be transformed, it will change.” Sylvie, 11 March 2020

She was regularly present at meetings, training, writing minutes, and giving feedback. Her leading presence and strong ideas divided opinions. The interview reveals that in the conseil citoyen Sylvie, supported by one other woman and one other man, managed most of the decisions.

The three of them had a friendly relationship. They did not share the same background, but did share the same attachment to the democratic process in which they got involved for the sake of the neighbourhood. This small group was seeking legitimacy in their participation in the project. Their common interest and their competences made them an integral part of the conseil citoyen.

“You contact three, four people, but can you say that having been in contact with them, you have had the opinion of all the inhabitants? What legitimacy do we have? That’s what bothers me most… When we speak on behalf of the inhabitants, you see when there were twelve of us, I felt better, when I spoke I felt better, because I said to myself, well, twelve, there you go.” Sylvie, 11 March 2020

To compensate for the lack of mobilisation of the inhabitants, the citizens’ group endeavoured to implement the meeting facilitation tools acquired during their training. How could the meetings be made more effective? Sylvie proposed to locate them in her café to provide a pleasant place to meet. However, this location was strengthening her dominance over the group and this ultimately participated in excluding the people who did not follow her opinions. Eventually, by acquiring urban project promoters’ vocabulary and tools, the conseil citoyen became exhausted and felt powerless. They had gained understanding but they still had no power.

“If you like, I think that if we have been able to function until now, it’s probably thanks to these training courses. It helped us, it gave us something, when we were meeting twice a month, you see, the training I did as a facilitator was useful. You see, our meetings were clear and direct, we knew what time they ended, we tried to listen to each other, it was really good. But in the end, we did nothing, we took no action. It’s something that remains unfinished. I’m not proud of it. I don’t say to myself, ‘Great, we took part in this,’ well, no, I say to myself it’s not finished, it looks a bit sloppy, it’s not… that’s how it is.” Sylvie, 3 March 2020

Ultimately, the conseil citoyen was diverted from its co-construction objectives. Their members would have liked to work on different points, closer to the project itself. They worked on a settlement as the municipal technicians had advised them to do. The inhabitants did not think that they had enough power. They believed that from the outset their demands had never been taken into account nor integrated in the project. Thus, they persisted in demonstrating their legitimacy. But this emphasis frustrated the project promoters, who listened to the same claims over and over again. Tensions emerged in meetings when stakeholders directly attacked Sylvie, even when she was not present. Sylvie grew sadder and when facing her, stakeholders grew angrier.

“I made an intervention in a steering committee where the mayor and the prefect were present, and that day I tackled social landlords, you know? And so Philippe [the project team’s human development officer] told the others, when I had just left, that my intervention was inadmissible anyway, that I should never have said that. It really upsets me, because Philippe is normally there to work with the inhabitants, he is there to support us and I struggle with that! I mean, I was stunned, when I knew what had happened after I left, as soon as I turned my back… They should have told me about it when I was there, you know… Then another educator spoke up and said, yeah, I’m fed up, she’s always criticising, she always says the same thing, well…” Sylvie, 3 March 2020

Through Sylvie we learn how emotional dynamics of hope and motivation for change encounter difficulties when she wants to represent the conseil citoyen at the stakeholder level. She felt betrayed when she realised that people were doubting her engagement and criticised her behind her back. These subtle power dynamics contributed to weakening the position of the conseil citoyen.

Stakeholders in search of the ideal project but disconnected from reality

Fabienne, 50, coordinates the urban project for the municipality of Saint-Denis. She has been following the implementation of urban projects in Reunion Island for more than 30 years. She does not live in the neighbourhood on which the project is centred.

On Fabienne’s office’s walls hang pictures of Patrick Bouchain’s experiments with architectural permanence 25, 26. For her, participation means involving the inhabitants in the project. She is convinced that it is imperative to integrate inhabitants’ voices into urban projects. But in the urban renewal project she is coordinating, the group of residents with whom she has to work did not meet her expectations because it seemed to her that there was no constructive discussions with this conseil citoyen despite their goodwill.

“They never agree with each other, but they have to agree, they are involved, fine, but what for? They go off in all directions. I don’t think that’s what they should be doing. They’re supposed to carry out actions to support the project, and there… There’s no one left. I would have liked… because I’ve seen examples, where people carry out actions of neighbourhood memory. So maybe I’m just blowing it out of proportion here, but it’ll work out eventually…” Fabienne, 11 November 2019

Through Fabienne, we learn about a stakeholder’s view, the frustration and disappointment that arises about the “failure“ of the conseil citoyen. It was a “failure” to Fabienne as the conseil citoyen did not seem to be productive. In her eyes, the members did not find a consensus. She was assuming that the conseil citoyen was a homogeneous group of people who all speak with one voice and have the same interests (which is not necessarily the case in democratic processes). The failure of citizen participation processes was a common source of tensions between members of the conseil citoyen. The stakeholders did not manage to implement projects involving a representative group of neighbours. Negative emotions caused by non-effective citizen engagement were so high that they prevented a clear analysis of the social and political reality that everyone experiences.

“No, it’s a failure, these conseils citoyens. It’s a failure. Why? Because we were supposed to create nonpolitical conseils citoyens, with absolutely no affiliation. Well… We asked for volunteers… They didn’t understand anything… There are already neighbourhood councils and these are really political groups. […] We started by explaining what the city’s policy was […] We began to have a small network all the same, and, of course, the State imposed on us that we draw lots.” Director of Saint-Denis’s municipal policy, 2 November 2020

The director of Saint-Denis’s municipal policy and Fabienne, the urban project coordinator, initiated a blame game about the failure of the conseil citoyen. Project promoters were disappointed by the difficult exchanges with the conseil citoyen. It was almost impossible to integrate their grievances and corresponding requests into the urban project, Requests concerning safety in the neighbourhood, and night-time noise, which are not within the scope of the developer’s responsibilities. In terms of how projects are developed, the real chance for the conseil citoyen to actually participate or act would have been to propose a structured little project for the neighbourhood or a workshop organised by the project team to decide over smaller things regarding the installations already planned.

In self defense, they aimed their criticisms at the law that imposed the conseil citoyen without guidance. The citizens’ role in the project was not clearly formulated and did not fit the framework. Instead of recognizing that the issue resided in negative emotions, the project stakeholders preferred to lean on contract clauses that would not have been fulfilled; and technical or juridical arguments, to explain the failure of the democratic process in a cold, technical way. Disappointment with the citizen counsellors and annoyances with the other institutions are the main emotions they expressed. Their emotional detachment contributes to discrediting public stakeholders in the eyes of the inhabitants.

Concluding thoughts on emotions in participation processes

Inhabitants are deeply attached to the places where they live 27 and the gap between emotional reactions and rational points of view can curb the co-construction process. The project’s public stakeholders on the other end, are stressed by time and budget and cannot allow themselves to lose time and money by taking into account the diverse emotions of the participants. However, a place for debate between inhabitants and stakeholders is necessary 28. But in the conseil citoyen, debates over the technical frameworks of urban projects have taken a larger role than conversations with the inhabitants 29 and attention to their needs and emotions.

In current societal code, at work, emotions have no place to express themselves and an urban project is a workplace for most stakeholders 30. Therefore, unnoted nostalgia, joy, optimism or hope finally give way to anger, frustration, disappointment and discouragement by not finding a place to expand. Mélissa’s emotions about the district cannot stay as mere emotions: they must be transformed into actions, something that can be listed, evaluated. As the research has shown, they could for example be channeled into research on local history, collecting memories and making a book, a presentation, or a video. This is an action the conseil citoyen could take to support the urban project. But that is not enough for the inhabitants involved. They are looking for a place where they could be heard, where they could share their emotions, where they would dream of being part of the project and where their diversity would be expressed in the urban renewal project. The long-term nature of urban renewal projects and the slowness of the process in relation to the daily lives of the inhabitants reinforces everyone’s difficulties.

Inside the conseil citoyen the antagonistic thoughts between Sylvie and Mélissa, should not hide other factors related to social and political generational representation that generate different emotions. Sylvie looks ahead at the future for her job and children. She participates in improving her living environment. Being part of a professional and familial project, she is already in a project approach, she has a more pragmatic vision of the territory. How the district used to be, does not really matter to her. Mélissa has no ongoing project: it is harder for her to switch to a project perspective. Mélissa’s territory is full of difficult experiences but also rich with memories. In the place she knows, inhabitants are able to build a better life, with solidarity in the midst of difficulties. She could not understand why this past should be erased for the sake of an uncertain future. These different ways of relating to time and people imply different emotional/reflective relationships when faced with projects. Fabienne, with other project stakeholders, also aims to think about a place whose future must be built. All of them, by unconsciously refusing to acknowledge the history of the people of Saint-Denis, induce anger and frustration.

Other factors could also be considered to understand the consolidation of the core group: social and generational conflicts, religion, and ethnic origin can also play a role in the way an individual looks at a territory. In this case, it was above all the personal history of the two protagonists presented here that emerged as the main factor in the expression of emotions. We did not consider other factors as they would not have been representative in the selected case study.

Misunderstandings between opposing perceptions of the urban renewal project and the emotions resulting from it, impact the democratic process, and can therefore result in a complete failure. Emotions as a social bonding agent have an important role here to explain the relation within the conseil citoyen.

Highlighting how emotions operationalise in an urban project context means identifying who expresses which emotions and how these emotions, shown and expressed or unshown and unsaid, modify the design process and the final urban project. Emotions are so important in the urban process and above all in citizen participation processes that they should be thought of as a solid common ground on which to build discussions and allow participants to move from confrontation to co-construction.

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30. Chenevez, I. (2014). Conseils citoyens : porte ouverte ou « semi-opportunité » ? Les Cahiers du Développement Social Urbain, 60(2), pp. 42-43.

Tanika Join is a geographer and a PhD student in urban planning at the University of Reunion Island (PIMENT – UMR 1563 AAU/CRENAU). She works on urban renewal projects in Reunion Island, examining the relationships between stakeholders, inhabitants and the projects.

Lise Serra is an architect, she holds a PhD in urban planning and she is a senior lecturer at the University of Reunion Island (PIMENT). She co-directs Tanika Join’s thesis with Laurent Devisme (UMR AAU/CRENAU). Her work focuses on city building processes.


Volume 5, no. 2 Jun-Dec 2022