Friday, February 26, 2016

Oyez, Oyez, Is Anyone Listening?

A typical downtown setting
Changing the world, whether moving with more alacrity toward walkable urbanism or some other beneficial change, comes in two steps.  The first is getting the public to listen to the logic for the new way of thinking until they agree with it.  The second is alerting them to the moments in time, the tipping points, when they can advocate and make a difference.

The two steps have a common element.  Getting the attention of the public.  And that’s a far from trivial task.  Indeed, it may be one of the most difficult tasks in 21st century public involvement.

In common with most who’ve have a role in public involvement, I have many, many stories on the subject.  I’ll share three today.

(1)  I was the member of a development team for a mixed-use development near a historic single-family neighborhood.  The mixed-use proposal was consistent with the wishes of the city, but the developer feared that the neighborhood could raise enough objections to make the city skittish.

To forestall the risk, the developer, soon after the project was conceived, prepared a flyer about his plans and walked the neighborhood, knocking on every door for blocks around.  When someone answered, he introduced himself and his project, and then asked about concerns.  When no one answered, he left a flyer with a personal note.

Many were also invited to a public meeting where the developer provided free food and a further chance to talk about his project.

Two years later, after the project had gone through several changes as a result of the city entitlement process, the developer again walked the neighborhood, knocking on every door and leaving flyers behind.

When the project was finally cleared for a public hearing in another couple of years, everyone within 500 feet was officially notified and the developer hosted an open house to answer any final questions before the formal hearing.

So what happened the night of the hearing, nearly five years after the development process has begun?  Several people, who lived behind the doors on which the developer had knocked, complained that the developer was trying to rush the project to approval without involving the neighborhood, that the city was abetting his effort to exclude public involvement, and that the hearing should be deferred until the developer had engaged in meaningful outreach.

(2) More recently, I watched a developer solicit comments on a conceptual plan by scheduling a public viewing, with meeting announcements running in the local paper for four weeks before the meeting.

A week after the meeting, I bumped into someone who hadn’t been there and who was contemptuous toward the developer for only publishing a single notice on the day of the meeting.  When I pointed out the notices had run for four weeks, my acquaintance dismissed the extra notices with “Well, I didn’t see them.  The developer should have tried harder.”

(3) Also recently, Petaluma Transit developed a plan to modify bus routes to better connect with the coming SMART train.  As a member of the Transit Advisory Committee, I was pleased by the effort and the concepts, so made an effort to bring people to the meeting where the proposed reroutings would be introduced.  I wrote a post on the subject, announced the meeting on Facebook, Twitter, and, and corralled a number of acquaintances on street corners to alert them to the meeting.  Also, the agenda was on the City website and announced by City email.

How many folks attended the meeting as a result of the outreach work?  Zero.  However, when someone who could benefit from the new routes learned of the meeting a week or so afterwards, I was told that I hadn’t done enough to notify the public.

 With one exception, I’m sympathetic to the concerns expressed in these three stories.  In the 21st century, we’re deluged by facts and it can be difficult to extract the information that’s truly important, a fact that should concern us.

(The one exception is the willingness of the people in the above anecdotes to blame others for their lack of awareness.  When I forget about a meeting I had planned to attend, and it happens more often than I’d like, I put the blame on myself and think about ways to modify how I process the information that crosses my desk.  I’m disappointed when others look for scapegoats.  But I’ll also admit to the possibility of a selection bias, with the stories of those who unreasonably look to blame others sticking more firmly in my memory.)

While pondering this question of public notices, I came across a story out of Burlingame about a man who has taken it upon himself to become the town crier, securing certification from the association of town criers, and, with the backing of the local historical society, walking the streets of Burlingame giving local updates in booming, 125-word Old English scripts.

Although City Hall seemed nonplussed by his initiative, I think Richard Aptekar might be onto something.  I suspect that information imparted in Old English by a gentleman in a 19th century cutaway coat and with a gold medallion around his neck is more likely to stick in our memory than a Facebook post which we can scan past in moments.

I’m not suggesting that a town crier wandering North Bay downtowns would ever be anything more than a curiosity.  But perhaps we can build off that concept to find an alternative that would be better attuned to our currently sprawling cities.  I won’t claim that what I offer below is a fully-formed idea, but it’s a start.  Others are welcome to offer improvements or alternatives.

Imagine a truck with a state-of the-art speaker system cruising the downtown, shopping districts, and neighborhoods on Saturdays and Sundays, stopping at designated times and places to announce the five most important community facts that everyone should know about the upcoming week.  The announcements could be city council meetings, classes, public festivals, pre-election forums, or even pivotal high school sporting events.

Obviously, there are a number of logistical issues behind this vision.  For one, the announcements are likely barred by most municipal codes so the endeavor would need to be sanctified by the city council.

Also, there would be a question of who selects the announcements.  Again, I think the city council must be the body to establish rules, probably in the same resolution by which they allow the roaming truck.

Perhaps the council can call for a vetting committee of seven people, three appointed by the council, one by the Chamber of Commerce, another by the local service clubs, the sixth by the downtown merchants, and the seventh by the first six appointees.

However, I see a problem here.  This has the potential to be an old white guys club, and even I as an old white guy don’t want that.  Perhaps the local high schools or youth organization could have a seat, but that still doesn’t capture the 20 to 40 year olds who I’d consider crucial.  Perhaps the council appointments could have age restrictions.  I’m sure that solutions can be found.

The committee, once configured, would solicit weekly suggestions from the community for thirty-word announcements to be included in the weekend circuit.  The committee would then meet every Friday over breakfast to select the top five.  I’m sure that a fascinating culture of horse-trading would evolve from the weekly meetings but, as long as the committee is correctly configured, the results should represent the community.

Would the concept work?  Perhaps I’m not typical, but if I knew that community announcements were to be made at a corner near my home on a Saturday morning, I’d wander down with beverage in hand to listen and to chat with neighbors.

What about folks who are away for the weekend?  There should be emails that would repeat the information in the announcements, but those emails shouldn’t be sent until Sunday evening.  If you want timely information about which to plan your week, you need to be a listener, not a reader.

I expect this idea, as described here, is imperfect.  But I think it’s a step in the right direction.

Others are welcome to add their thoughts.

When we talk of walkable urbanism reducing car usage, we usually think of being able to leave cars in garages while we undertake some tasks.  But the bigger goal is allowing at least some folks to live without cars or garages, instead fully living their lives, including travel, on foot, bicycle, and transit.  A friend recently told me a story that fits into the travel part of that discussion.  I’ll tell more when I next write.

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

1 comment:

  1. Good post. I think it'd be a big help if we were introduced to local government in high school. Learning about the Constitution and federal government is great, but I think we'd have more local engagement if, at some point, all of us were required to learn about planning, local budgets, etc.