Transformation is a Citizen Away

I’ve been watching a Vermont town experience the ill-effects of a traditional planning approach.  It frustrates me to no end because it is both disrespectful to the community and unnecessary.  Chris Dede of Harvard once said that it is easier to move a cemetery than an educational institution–sometimes I’ve wondered if it is harder yet to change the way a town conducts its business.

Here’s what happened: When a local selectboard announced a major physical change to the downtown as if the decision was a fait accompli (even though it would require a town-wide bond vote) it offered, almost as an after-thought, the chance for the public to participate in an informational process.  A traditional approach.  In response, a small but vocal group of citizens questioned the original decision and this window-dressing of a process.  At first, the select board  resisted the open and transparent process demanded, and under continued pressure, finally offered “Come to City Hall on a Tuesday night” meetings– a classic example of how local governments resort to what they know and lack faith in a true participatory process. We have here a case of “Those in power know best.”

These sparsely attended public meetings (two at this point) have devoted more time to presentations than to listening, and of course, as is usually the way, only those brave enough to speak into a microphone have contributed.  Ultimately several citizens went ballistic about the lack of an authentic opportunity to participate in the process, and so what looked to be an exciting opportunity for the town could well go down in flames, not because of the merits of the project but because of bad process.

I bet this sounds familiar to people all over the country.  Indeed, this scenario is far too common and its results far too predictable.

Those of us working in land-use planning and citizen engagement talk about the day when transparent, regular and creative citizen participation will become the rule rather than the exception.  A day when the citizen will no longer be feared or neglected, but instead will be viewed as an invaluable resource and an ally, invited in to help envision and collaboratively plan the future of the town.  I have not given up the struggle–on the contrary, stories that have recently come through my inbox give me hope that this day is nearing, perhaps even here.

First is the new publication, Making Citizen Participation Legal, produced under the auspices of the National Civic League.

Courtesy of NCDD

Courtesy of NCDD

This manual, contributed to by a collection of highly respected organizations that represent many viewpoints, begins by discussing the reasons why traditional regulations must be changed: For 21st century citizens, who are more skilled and educated than their predecessors, who have access to endless quantities of information through their smartphones, and who are used to having a wide array choices open to them, these old meetings seem like a waste of time; there is little for them to learn, and little they can contribute. The consequences go far beyond miserable meetings: as the relationship deteriorates between the people and their public institutions, the legitimacy and financial sustainability of governments continue to decline.

The manual models language for communities to use in incorporating participation into the very fabric of their regulations.  Providing this road map for institutionalizing active participation is a huge contribution — every town should  read and apply this publication’s recommendations.

Next into my inbox came the publication Places in the Making published by MIT’s Department of Urban Planning. The writers view the process of engaging the public as important as the design outcome. In the introduction I found another observation I wish this Vermont town had read: By engaging in the deliberative and communal processes of shaping public spaces, citizens are changing the landscape of the past century, in which governments have centralized control and regulations, public spaces and services have been increasingly privatized, and communities lost the tradition and practice of having a local and active political voice.  The authors talk of a “virtuous cycle” where good process begets good design which begets close community which begets respectful conversations which begets invitations for additional participation, and so on goes the positive and productive cycle of citizen contribution.

The last, recent examples to bring sunshine to my cloudy fall days here in Vermont are (1) a tool developed by Code for America fellows called Streetmix to enable citizens to use in the design or re-design of their streets and (2) Santa Monica’s use of Pop Up Planning to gather input from its residents.

Courtesy of Pop-Up Planning

Courtesy of Pop-Up Planning

All of these examples share a few essential recognitions:

(1) citizens are experts about their local place;

(2) diversity of opinion is a good thing;

(3) excluding citizens from conversations and decisions is “so yesterday” and truly counterproductive; and

(4) planning can be fun while still being productive.

It used to be considered risky to involve citizens in community discussions and decisions; in fact it is far riskier to not involve them.  So c’mon, local governments…not only are there many examples of success with citizen inclusion, but now there are manuals on how to make it your everyday practice.  This work is not easy; it’s not a click away, but by opening up the process, building in authentic participation and listening opportunities, providing meaningful chances to shape and implement the future, transformation is just a citizen away.



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