A Town Well Planned: Determining Public Will

This is the next article in Alexander Dukes' series, A Town Well Planned, in which he proposes a three-part system for managing municipal design. Read the first article here. Based on his background as a community planner, Alexander puts forth a set of ideas for how planners can better serve their communities and build stronger towns. Please share your responses and feedback on his ideas in the comments.

Source: Johnny Sanphillippo

Source: Johnny Sanphillippo

My previous article in the “A Town Well Planned” series declared that “the public has a fundamental right to determine the nature of their urban environment.” As the public are the owners of the urban environment, the design of cities and towns should reflect “the public will.” The public will is the composite expression of the needs, values, and desires of individual citizens within a given jurisdiction.

When a mother complains that cars drive too fast for kids to ride their bikes on the street, she is expressing part of the public will. When a commuter complains that traffic moves too slowly on that same street, he is also expressing part of the public will. When residents decry the lack of affordable housing in the neighborhood around the street, they too express part of the public will. All of these expressions combine to make up the public will “mosaic” for any given town or city.

Civic planners are responsible for transforming the public’s mosaic of public will into holistic plans. The public describes the mosaic, and planners design the mosaic. Everyone helps to bring the mosaic to life.

I.  The Neighborhood

Attempting to design an entire municipality as though it were homogeneous is folly. If a town or city’s urban environment is greater than a mile in diameter, it needs to be planned in neighborhood sections that aren’t much greater than a mile from end to end.

This mile-wide distance limitation is applied to the neighborhood concept because walkability is a principal objective of urban design.  Studies show that people are willing to walk about a half mile to any destination that interests them. Assuming a person lived in a house at the center of a neighborhood, a person would be willing to walk about a half mile before they perceived themselves to be in a new area. This “new area” for planning purposes should be considered a different neighborhood.

Source: Johnny Sanphillippo

Source: Johnny Sanphillippo

While this justification for a mile diameter is a subjective estimation for what constitutes a neighborhood, an independent study that sought to determine the size of what Americans perceive as “neighborhoods” found similar results:

In this report, I use responses from the 2009 American Housing Survey (AHS) as well as geographic information system (GIS) maps and tools to conclude that the distance from the typical American’s house to the edge of his or her community is between 520 and 1060 meters.

A mile is 1,609 meters long. Again, assuming a house in the center of a neighborhood, a half mile from the house would be 804.5 meters. This is nearly in the middle of Donaldson’s range of what Americans consider to be a community.

Of course, if your municipality is so large that it has more than 20 neighborhoods, it would probably be wise to consolidate some of them into “neighborhood groups” to facilitate outreach.

Finally, it is important that the boundaries of each neighborhood be drawn in vigorous consultation with the public. Though a good planner may think he or she has an idea of what boundaries constitute neighborhoods, it is likely that neighborhood residents may have some different ideas about where their spaces begin and end. Neighborhoods will be the basis for developing the mosaic of public will that is the municipal plan. It’s critical that this first step is done right.

II.  Neighborhood Outreach

Once there is an acceptable public consensus on the neighborhood boundaries, civic planners should start engaging with the residents of each neighborhood in earnest. The remainder of this article will describe a few (though not all) principles that should govern planners’ outreach to neighborhoods:

Source: Johnny Sanphillippo

Source: Johnny Sanphillippo

(1) Elect liaisons to represent the interests of each neighborhood.

Most planning departments only hold a few public meetings a year. Further, many residents have schedules that preclude them from attending public meetings. Because swaths of residents can’t attend the meetings, the public feedback planners receive is often skewed toward the few people that have the wherewithal to attend. In order to capture a more complete picture of the public will, a more effective means of neighborhood outreach is required.

To facilitate clear and concise communication between residents and the planning department, a liaison should be elected by each neighborhood. Each liaison should be responsible for holding frequent neighborhood meetings with residents. In these meetings, neighborhood residents should discuss issues amongst themselves and attempt to arrive at a consensus. Residents unable to attend the neighborhood meetings could simply write, call, or email the liaison to provide their commentary. The liaison would then report the meeting minutes and other sentiments to the planning department.

The purpose of the liaison is to compress the neighborhood’s mosaic of individual expressions into something planners can work with. This way, when the planning department does hold a public meeting, the neighborhood has a clear, concise message to communicate. Public meetings tend to be much more successful when constituents largely agree on what their own needs, values, and desires are.

Of course, in some cases the formula can and should work in reverse. If planners feel a particular neighborhood could be improved in some way, the planning department could ask the liaison to solicit ideas from residents. This would be a particularly effective way to encourage community driven tactical and lean urbanism ideas like MEMFix – a tactical urbanism initiative in Memphis, TN.

(2) Schedule public meetings between neighborhood residents, liaisons, and planning officials. 

Every so often, the planning department will need to conduct public meetings with neighborhoods. If they so desire, residents should be able to schedule a meeting with the planning department through their neighborhood liaison. Depending on each neighborhood’s situation, residents may want to hold meetings with planners at different frequencies. A neighborhood that is largely left unaffected by new plans or development might only need to have an annual meeting with planning officials (if a meeting is necessary at all). Neighborhoods that will experience a significant amount of change may want to hold a public meeting four times a year.

Source: Sara Joy Proppe

Source: Sara Joy Proppe

(3) Conduct public meetings with a hands-on approach

 When meeting with neighborhood residents, all planning department products should be presented to residents in a way they can touch and feel. PowerPoint presentations can be used to establish some context for understanding what’s being shown, but the majority of the meeting should be spent in direct interaction with both planners and the subject matter. This means that handouts, easel posters, and pinups should all be considered for use in a meeting.

Generally, handouts should be used in small meetings when 5 to 10 people can be expected to attend. Meetings expecting 11 to 50 should use easel posters so that a planner can stand beside the posters and break the crowd down into smaller groups of people. Pinups (or tape-ups if you don’t have corkboard walls available) should be used when you’re expecting more than 50 people to attend a meeting. Since a meeting with more than 50 people is likely to be held in a large space, planners can use easel posters in conjunction with the pinups.

Don’t be afraid to let residents do their own mark-ups on the handouts, posters, and pinups. In fact, planners should provide markers and pencils to assist in this natural tendency. Much can be gleaned from another pair of eyes working on a neighborhood design. Though these neighborhood meetings aren’t necessarily envisioned as charrettes, nothing’s wrong with a bit of improvisation on the spot. That’s what civic planning is all about. Often, the public will emerges right before your eyes.

(4) Subsidiarity – Make all decisions at the lowest reasonable level.

 When attempting to determine the public will, it is critically important that all decisions should consider the opinion of as few or as many people who are appropriately positioned to have an opinion on the subject. Many municipal problems only need to consider the opinion of the specific neighborhood affected by proposed solutions. An example of a neighborhood level decision might be whether the neighborhood’s streets should have street trees or parallel parking. Another might be a pop-up pool party on a local block (Just, call the city first. Or maybe Philly should ease up).

However, some decisions simply should not be made at the neighborhood level. The location of a future school should not be something that is left up to the neighborhood. Rather, the school’s location should be determined by the entire municipality because the geographic distribution of schools affects everyone. A good rule of thumb for attempting to apply the principle of subsidiarity is to ask, “Would this question reasonably affect others outside of the level I am examining?”

Source:  Michael Kappel

To complicate the concept further, there are some situations where the public will expressed by one constituency ought to be ignored in favor of another constituency. The Interstate Highways that plowed through vibrant neighborhoods in the past century are a perfect example of this conundrum. On one hand, suburbanites stood to gain a shorter commute from highways that ran straight into downtown urban centers. On the other hand, the neighborhoods that the highway routes ran through would surely be destroyed by the gargantuan concrete edifices.

To some extent, balancing the need for highways with the needs of neighborhoods is a question with no purely empirical answer. I imagine most people would find it hard to reasonably justify destroying neighborhoods to provide suburban residents a shorter commute…although Strong Towns' recent stories on a proposed inner-city highway in Shreveport, LA suggest otherwise.

When a highway runs through a municipality, the highway route ought to literally bend to the public will of neighborhoods. Theoretically, this would result in highways mostly being constructed along neighborhoods on the outskirts of town.

III.  Conclusion

Determining the public will is hard. As previously stated, public will is often a mosaic of differing, competing interests that don’t always line up. By using neighborhoods as the fundamental planning unit and appointing a liaison to consolidate individual expressions into concise neighborhood ideas, planners can begin to have some understanding of what that mosaic looks like. By conducting regular hands-on meetings with neighborhoods, and allowing residents to paint their vision, we can begin to see those ideas in practice. Finally, planners must also be mindful of the ethical and practicality concerns that come with balancing competing public wills. If we learn to determine what the public will is, and apply ourselves in service to that public will, our municipalities can be that much closer to towns well planned.

Read the next article in this series: "Parcels and Master Street Plans."

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