The following article by Strong Towns member Grant Henninger is republished from his blog, On Prosperity's Road, with permission. Grant is the founding principal of Mobius Planning and is a candidate for city council in Anaheim, CA.

The process is about mitigating impacts, not optimizing outcomes.
— Peter Park

I’ve been to more than my fair share of public meetings, and the quote above by Peter Park rings incredibly true. I have yet to see a public input process that was participatory enough to reflect the desires of a community. I have seen a number of valiant attempts, but no successes.

The biggest hurdle is that most people don’t show up. People lead busy lives, and they’ve been trained to expect to have little input. Why waste an evening or a Saturday in a process where you won’t have much effect on the end product. This is hard to overcome and will require sustained effort on the part of developers, city officials, and the community to rebuild the trust necessary to identify and build optimized outcomes.

The process for both public and private projects are frighteningly similar.

For public projects, a requirement or goal is written into a plan that nobody pays attention to. Then, when the money is available, a project is designed to implement the goal. Once the project is designed, then it is shown to the public for input, where they are told how it implements the goals that have been agreed to for as long as anyone can remember.

The typical process for a private development is similar, but the goal is always the same. Developers design projects to maximizes their profit. Once they have a design, they parade that design out to the community for comments. Based on community feedback, some small changes to the design may be made in the name of community engagement. Sometimes these small changes will be enough to placate the community, but the design is never changed dramatically. In this process, the community never gets what it would want if it had designed the project from the ground up.

The antidote to these processes is to ask the community what its goals are, and to make those the goals to which projects are designed. For private projects, the profits of the developer are still the most important consideration, but by asking the community what they want before pen is put to paper, profits will not be the only consideration during the design process. Asking for community input as the first step in the design process can also help identify unknown potential for a piece of land, what can unlock additional profits that would have gone unrealized otherwise.

Too often our public input process does not represent the full breadth of our communities. If you attend an average City Council meeting, participants are older, whiter, and wealthier than the population as a whole. To have a project that reflects the desires of the community as a whole we need the input from the entire community.

There are many good models for engaging with a community, but they all take time, effort, and money. For instance, the City of Lakewood, Colorado has an innovated way to solicit public comments on projects before their planning commission. This is one way to get participation from younger and more busy residents, but additional strategies are needed to ensure a fully representative cross section of the population are providing input into the process.

Despite this added effort, the value of true community engagement is many times its cost. Not only can community engagement unlock new ideas and opportunities specific to the local community, it can greatly reduce the risk of community opposition and a failure of getting the project approved for both public and private projects. True community engagement has the ability to build community by building personal relationships and helping ensuring a feeling of ownership of the places in which we live.

At the end of the day, this call for a more inclusive public engagement is nothing new. However, we still find that all too often communities are not given the chance to provide robust and inclusive public input. This is just one more reason why we need to encourage urbanists to run for local office, so that both public and private projects are required to seek and implement public input.

(Top photo by Christian Fregnan)