Who Is the "Public" at Public Meetings?

Here at Strong Towns, we've spotlighted the shortcomings of conventional public participation in the development process before. When the public is asked to weigh in on development and infrastructure decisions, it is often in ways that are, at best, outside their expertise, and at worst, actively corrosive of civic trust because of public engagement's tenuous or nonexistent connection to real, implementable outcomes.

Yet make no mistake: public participation in government is absolutely crucial. A strong town can and should be shaped from the bottom up by the opinions—and perhaps more importantly, actions—of a broad spectrum of individuals with a stake in the town's success. This is crucial to any place's resilience and long-term prosperity. A city built by many hands will experience painful, but manageable, feedback if things aren't working, and then they can correct course. A city disproportionately shaped by a few hands is much more fragile: its leadership may make catastrophic mistakes that can become irreversible by the time the extent of the harm becomes clear.

Public input is valuable. However, conventional mechanisms of public input may provide a distorted picture of what those with a real stake in a place actually believe or want. Whole classes of people might be marginalized from the process, while elected officials end up catering to a perceived "public" that is actually much narrower and more homogenous in its views and interests.

A new study from Boston University confirms that formal public hearings held by local governments have exactly this shortcoming. This likely won't be news at all to anyone familiar with such meetings, but it's still valuable to have empirical evidence. The problem: the "public" that shows up doesn't look that much like the whole public, in terms of either their demographics or their attitudes.

A team of researchers compiled a database of 3,327 public comments made at planning and zoning board meetings in 97 Boston-area municipalities between 2015 and 2017. They classified the comments as to their sentiment and topics addressed. They also matched up as many of the commenters as possible to voter rolls, allowing further analysis of demographic characteristics and political affiliation.

Route Fifty summarizes the study's conclusions:

Women made up 43 percent of commenters, while making up 51 percent of people in the voter file, indicating that men were over-represented among commenters. The average commenter age was 58, while in the overall voter file it was 50.
While older and male community members were more likely to make comments, age and gender were not good predictors of whether a person would be for or against new development.
Assessing homeownership was more difficult. But the researchers did match 85 individuals who participated in meetings in the town of Arlington with property deed data. Although 39 percent of the town rents housing, just 22 percent of meeting participants were renters.

But perhaps even more importantly, there is evidence that when it comes to what, exactly, these meeting-goers want, they aren't particularly representative of their larger neighborhoods, either. That's particularly true when it comes to conversations about building new housing: 

It found that opposition to new housing construction was strong among meeting participants even in places that showed support for affordable housing measures when voting in elections....
They later added that “while voters in these towns supported affordable housing construction in the abstract, a significant majority of those who attended development meetings opposed the development of specific project proposals.”

The demographics provide some possible reasons. One is that homeowners are disproportionately represented among the "public" that shows up to public meetings. Homeowners and renters may have opposite financial incentives: the former may stand to gain from rising home prices, while the latter usually have a lot to lose.

There is also the simple fact that opponents of a development proposal are likely to feel stronger in their opposition than supporters do in their support. Development in cities is characterized by concentrated costs and diffuse benefits, a recipe for a classic Prisoner's Dilemma situation. And many of the beneficiaries of development are hypothetical: those who might live in an apartment building if it is built, for example, have no skin in the game at the point at which the apartment proposal faces a yes or no vote. Opponents thus have a far greater incentive to show up and speak out against it. Those who fight against new housing will, by this logic, be overrepresented at meetings. And this is exactly what the Boston University team found. Again via Route Fifty:

Among their findings were that 63 percent of all comments analyzed were in opposition to proposed housing development, while only about 14.6 percent were in support.
Opposition was common across party lines, with only 19 percent of Democrats and just shy of 13 percent of Republicans backing the housing proposals they weighed in on.

A last reason is that a subset of politically-active citizens attend public hearings frequently. These people are disproportionately represented at hearings compared to one-time attendees, and many are activists with passionate (and sometimes extreme) viewpoints about development.

This does not mean that public hearings should be scrapped altogether, of course. The authors of the study are careful to discuss the reasons why public engagement is crucial, and the particular virtues of these sessions: they are a cornerstone of local democracy and a bulwark against the domination of urban politics by the voices of connected developers and their allies (what sociologist Harvey Molotch dubbed the "Growth Machine").

It does mean, however, that elected officials need to take what they hear at meetings with a grain of salt. The public in the room probably doesn't look quite like the public outside the room—so be aware of whose interests aren't represented in the meeting minutes. In a truly effective public engagement process, testimony at formal hearings needs to be only one source of information among many.

(Top photo source: Wikimedia Commons)