Neighborhoods First, Day 3: Public Engagement

My personal approach to public engagement has changed dramatically over the years. Despite always wanting to help people and do the best job that I could, looking back I realize that the standard approach of the professions I worked in did not do justice to my neighbors.

Back in my early days as an engineer, I used the public engagement techniques common to the profession when required to as part of developing a project. I actually didn’t hate it as much as most of my colleagues did and so I was tapped a disproportionate amount to attend public hearings for environmental reviews, assessments and projects that were getting federal or state funding. The approach was generally the same.

I’d present three options – a massively expensive, over-engineered option, the comparatively “reasonable” option that was the preferred course of action and the disastrous no-build option which nobody really wanted. I’d listen to all the comments, the clerk would document them precisely, I’d give non-answer answers to any tough questions that were asked and then we’d close the hearing and move on to a council decision. It was all very tidy.

When I went to graduate school for a planning degree, I was introduced to the art of public participation. I now soothed my professional conscience (which hadn’t ached before, truth be told) by endeavoring to ask people what they thought before we went ahead and decided what we were going to do. This presented an interesting quandary for me as I sought to develop my own personal approach.

One of my fellow graduate students had extensively worked in public engagement. She was somewhat adamant that the role of the facilitator (the planner writ small) was to be a glorified stenographer, engaging all ideas equally, refraining from any professional judgment that might unduly influence the process.

I ultimately rejected this approach. I hadn’t stayed up late studying so that my professional insights would be downgraded below that of the local developer and the omnipresent know-it-all (who had never actually traveled outside of the county). Yes, I’d be respectful to everyone and give everyone an equal chance to weigh in, but I wasn’t going to be beyond asking questions, and keeping the floor open, until things went in a direction that made sense to me.

This worked for me during my early days as a planner, but over time I became aware that things weren’t working out. A lot of people who wanted to be involved in the future of their city weren’t part of the process. They couldn’t make the meeting, had family and other commitments that were more urgent or were simple reserved and didn’t want to be put in a position where they would need to speak in front of crowds. I started looking for strategies to reach these people.

There were a lot of novel ones, especially as it related to technology. I did one of the earliest wiki comp plans, allowing residents to sign up and then make edits to the document in real time. Lots of people signed up. Few made any changes. I knew it wasn’t because they all loved my draft document.

I really like See Click Fix, a great little program that allows residents to use their smartphone to identify things they would like to see happen in their community. There are some apps with eDemocracy and Code for America that are also really, really good and put a lot of capacity into the hands of the resident activist. But that still is not exactly reaching the average person.

We started the A Better Brainerd project with a neighborhood meeting. We had great turnout….from city officials, affiliated organizations and the litany of local activists (busy bodies) that seem to show up at everything (CYA). We had made a really aggressive effort to invite everyone in the neighborhood, going door to door to hand deliver invitations and talk to as many people as we could. A small, small handful actually showed up and I went out of my way to talk to them.

I’ve got a leaky roof and my landlord won’t do anything about it. I can’t get anyone to show up from the city.

My water heater went out and the cost of the permit is more than a replacement water heater. I don’t have the money for either.

My kids have to walk to school, but it’s dangerous. I’m nervous every time I send them out the door. I tell them to walk through the alleys and stay off the streets.

This was not the feedback one gets in a public hearing. Or a visioning process. This was the real, gritty, day-to-day concerns of my neighbors, and I was tone deaf to them.

And for the most part, so are our local governments.

I think there is a place for formal public engagement, but for neighborhoods in distress, there has to be a different process. I’m not pretending I know exactly what that is, but I’m absolutely convinced it means getting off the desk chair, getting out of the office, changing out of the tie and dress shirt and actually trying to walk a mile – quite literally – in someone else’s shoes.

For our Neighborhood’s First report, we spent a lot of time just taking note of how people lived in the neighborhood. Where did they walk? When did they walk? Where would they drive and park? How did they bike? What were the little things they would do – the streets they avoided or the shortcuts they would take – and why?

I took every opportunity I could to talk to people, not as inquisitor or authority figure but as neighbor. One night we were out taping down a temporary crosswalk. A neighbor got home from work and came out to see what we were doing. Through the course of the conversation, I found out that the lack of a crosswalk was not a big deal to them (they drive the block to the grocery store, which was safe to do albeit kind of silly) but that the security lights on the back of the strip mall across the street shined in their windows at night and kept them awake. I bought a light detector and measured it for myself. Yep, it was beyond what the city’s code allowed (and what a good neighbor would do). We’re going to approach that strip mall and see if we can get that taken care of.

That same night a single mom was walking to the grocery store and used our crosswalk. We talked to her too and asked her why she went to the grocery store so late at night. She told us she had to work and also that it was safer to walk then, that she needed to save her gas to get to work.

There are a lot of people out there that do public engagement that are shaking their heads at my naiveté. Of course you need to go and out and talk to people where they are. Do you really think they’re going to come to you?

For every one of you, there are dozens of professionals out there following one of the standard processes I used for the past two decades. They are missing the most important part of our communities: the people who live there.

We have a lot to learn yet at Strong Towns, but I’m proud of the fact that the projects outline in the Neighborhoods First report come from a deep and purposeful engagement with the people that live in the neighborhood. Any city can do this, it just takes a different mindset and a little bit effort.

And it’s critically important if we want to build strong towns.