Friday, June 8, 2012

Involving the Public Effectively

When my father was in his late 70s, he was convinced to join a citizens committee that would develop a vision for an unincorporated area in which he and my mother lived.  It was to be part of a General Plan update process.  After his upbringing in a small town, his career in building freeway bridges, and his conversations with me about urbanism, he thought he had something to offer.

Over twenty citizens convened for the first meeting.  A callow planner from the county conducted the meeting, explaining the anticipated schedule and process.  But my father was puzzled by an apparent absence from the room.  After the meeting, he asked the planner who the senior planners or consultants would be.  The people who could help educate the committee about physical and financial feasibility, so that the good intentions of the citizens could be channeled toward effective solutions.

The planner advised him that there was no budget for that type of committee support.  Instead, the final product of the committee would be a report on the citizens’ wishes, unvetted by reality.

Dad thought that was a dumb idea.  Nonetheless, he attended a few more meetings, tossing out ideas like increased neighborhood commercial in the parts of the community that were almost exclusively car-dependent.  No one else on the committee liked his ideas and he gradually drifted away.

When the report was finally issued, he liked poking holes in one of the recommendations.  The committee proposed a long bypass tunnel for the entire length of a major arterial, without intermediate exits.  He agreed that that there was a traffic problem on the road, but it was overwhelmingly local traffic that caused the congestion.  A bypass tunnel would carry almost no traffic and would be prohibitively expensive.  Dad didn’t regret his decision to drift away from the committee. 

That story came to mind last evening while sitting through a meeting of the Petaluma Station Area Plan Citizen Advisory Committee, which was pretty much the diametric opposite of the process in which my father participated.  There has been a consultant involved from the beginning.  And the consultant has provided both good ideas and effective direction.  The citizens on the committee felt engaged, which showed in the quality of the interaction last evening.  Meanwhile, city staff has effectively managed the process.

Which is not to say the process is particularly exciting to outside observers.  Eight members of the general public were present when the meeting began.  After two hours of watching the committee comment on minutiae in the draft report, only one remained.  (I thought she deserved a medal.)  But the meeting was nonetheless part of an effective process, hopefully building a long-term commitment among the citizens and the city staff toward implementation of the station area plan.

Many commenters have thought about how best to engage citizens in an effective process.  Otis White lays down a well-explained theoretical strategy and then gives examples of both good and bad applications.  I found the Florida example particularly enlightening, in a bad way.  

Kaid Benfield has returned frequently to the topic of citizen involvement.  (I have an admission to make.  Whenever, I read one of Benfield’s posts, I’m tempted to shut down this blog, instead posting a message saying “Go read Benfield instead.”  He’s becoming one of my heroes.)

Benfield writes about the Washington, D.C. developers who are using the internet to solicit thoughts about the best use of their vacant building.  I blogged about the developers back in March, but Benfield gives more detail.  The point that I found most compelling was the hope that investors could be convinced that consumers would have an interest in supporting the business for which they lobbied, resulting in greater revenues.  I’m not sure it’s true, but I hope it is.

Next, Benfield collaborator Lee Epstein weighs in with thoughts about how technology can change and improve citizen involvement.  I don’t see technology as a panacea for citizen involvement, but think it offers opportunities.  It’ll be up to us to use the new tools well.

Finally, Benfield talks about the extensive and successful citizens’ involvement for a Denver neighborhood redevelopment.  To me, the key point was having a central committee for citizen involvement under which multiple engagement processes were conducted.   Something like an ad hoc planning commission for a neighborhood.  It’s an approach that may have value to places like the Petaluma Station Area.

Lots of creative ideas about citizens’ engagement.  The challenge will be to implement them effectively.

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Weekly notes: (1) The next meeting of the Station Area Plan committee will be Thursday, June 21, 6pm at the Petaluma Community Center.  Prizes may be given to members of the general public who remain present and awake for the full length of the meeting.   (2) The monthly Petaluma Urban Chat will be Wednesday, June 13, 5:30pm at the Aqus CafĂ©.  The subject this month will be urban travels.  With summer almost here, we can talk about what cities in which we’ll vacation this year and perhaps share tips about urbanist features to experience.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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