Purpose – This article aims to examine the mechanisms used by municipalities to stimulate public participation and, in part, to argue that contrasts between the socio-economic make-up of central cities in the USA and Canada explain these divergent techniques. Design/methodology/approach – The article is based on a survey of planning departments measuring the types of public participation strategies used by local governments. Findings – The article’s findings indicate that Canadian municipalities adopt a broader range of public participation techniques related to: voluntarism and public engagement, neighborhood and strategic planning, and e-government. In contrast, the article’s findings indicate that US municipalities are more likely to promote public participation through mechanisms such as annual community meetings and referendums on public issues. Research limitations/implications – The conclusion of the article offers recommendations for expanding the scope of public participation and developing strategies that maximize citizen input in community development activities in both countries. Practical implications – The survey was conducted to identify the scope of public participation techniques used by local governments in the Niagara region. One limitation of this methodology is that it does not gauge the effectiveness of the participation techniques used by local governments or the intensity of public engagement. However, the results from this study provide future researchers with a mechanism for focusing future analysis. Originality/value – The findings can assist in identifying new directions for enhancing public participation in the USA and Canada.