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Why Public Participation in Planning Matters

City planning might sound like something best left to governments and organizations, not something that everyday community members should be involved in. While it’s an incredibly important course of action for making sure our communities are well-equipped for future growth, and governments are ultimately the ones responsible for carrying out the plans, public participation is essential.

The people who are most invested in the development of a space are those who occupy that space. The plans for urban and land development have a significant impact on the success and happiness of both present and future communities, so the residents who have families and livelihoods there are the true experts on what can help their community thrive. Civic involvement is essential, especially in fast-growing places like Bellingham and larger Whatcom County.

Despite this, not all citizen stakeholders know that public participation is so vital to city planning. According to an article from the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting, a 2018 survey showed that half or more respondents across 10 global cities said that they were interested in their city’s infrastructure, but didn’t feel like they could provide feedback on the planning.

If someone does not know how or when to get involved in their city’s planning, then they aren’t able to contribute their knowledge and experience of their own community. In this article, we will walk you through what you need to know about city planning and how you can make your voice heard.

City Planning 101

In simple terms, city planning is just what it sounds like — the planning that goes into the development and growth of an urban area. It can determine many things, such as commercial development, the creation of infrastructure, zoning, and what sort of houses can be built and where.

All of these things are critical for cities, so thoroughly planning for growth is necessary. The decisions that are made during city planning will inevitably affect the day-to-day lives of the people who live there, not just through the development itself, but also because the residents’ taxes will help shoulder the burden of that growth.

On a national scale, putting careful consideration into the growth of cities is critical because even though cities geographically don’t take up that much physical space in the country, they are where most people live. A 2018 article from Bloomberg contained the below statistics:

● Urban spaces take up 3.6% of the contiguous country, but 4 out of 5 Americans live and work in cities

● Cities contribute significantly to the economy, with the 10 most productive cities contributing to roughly 40% of the 2016 GDP

● City living is not a trend, in fact, America is getting more urban at the rate of about 1 million acres each year

Not accounting for the urban public’s input with statistics like that would be disastrous. To look on the brighter side, including the public and bringing them along on the city planning process can be extremely successful. A 2016 example from Los Angeles County, the most populous American county, found that the mayor’s efforts of “building strong public engagement” resulted in the approval of a sales tax that will supply billions for future infrastructure.

Getting Involved with Planning For Whatcom County

Bellingham might not be the size of Los Angeles, but we are a rapidly growing city that is confronting a housing crisis. Changes like diversifying housing types and reevaluating buildable areas are solutions that can help. On the City of Bellingham website, it states that “at least 742 people in Whatcom County are homeless on any given night. One in four of our local working families can’t afford their basic needs.”

Part of the comprehensive plan process, mandated by the Growth Management Act, is the Public Participation Plan, which was approved by Whatcom County in May of 2021. According to the program, its objectives are as follows:

● “Provide a roadmap for the public, outlining a clear and accessible public process for comprehensive plan and development regulation amendments;

● Ensure input is sought from a broad base of public participants and is elicited in a timely fashion, considered, and incorporated as appropriate into review of Comprehensive Plan and Development Regulation amendments;

● Make a concerted and continuous effort to ensure that elected officials and staff are fully aware of and understand community and stakeholder concerns.”

The Comprehensive Plan and accompanying development amendments are grouped into statutory requirements and docketed requests. Some statutory requirements include Buildable Lands/Review and Evaluation Program, as well as matters pertaining to forest practices, rural school utilities, and shoreline management. Docketed requests include Bellingham UGA Amendments, Whatcom County Code Amendments, and Affordable Housing Amendments.

To find the approach that will be used for public participation for each matter, you can refer to the program document linked above. In general, however, there are various town hall meetings where you can go to voice your thoughts, and there are opportunities for submitting concerns via email or regular mail. If you cannot attend public hearings, you can stream them and stay connected to the issues.

The Washington state population is expected to increase by more than two million people by 2040, and that growth is happening in cities like ours, Bellingham. If things like access to affordable housing, protecting our beautiful green spaces, public transportation, and parking are important to you, then it’s essential for you and your neighbors to participate in the future plans of Bellingham and Whatcom County.


Housing for Bellingham is a community resource that works to explain the fundamental processes and terminology associated with housing related decisions in effort to inform the public. When the people understand land use planning processes and terminology, everyone can make more informed decisions about housing and land use policies in their communities. Learn more at



Contact your Bellingham City Council representative and tell them you support a proactive plan for sustainable growth.

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