Shaping the Tools of Re-Invention

Good Citizens, Better Communities

By Dave Davis, President, Initiatives

A community’s civic infrastructure is just as important as its physical infrastructure. How we involve the men and women, seniors and children, businesses and neighborhoods, in our communities must play a crucial role in how we build our buildings.

We shape our buildings, thereafter, they shape us.

Winston Churchill

The shape of a community begins with its citizens, and, ultimately, with their participation in making the key decisions about its future. Citizens shape the way a city’s public and private places look and feel. Over time, the way citizens live, work and play will inexorably reinvent that community–for better or worse.

Across the country, communities of all sizes are turning to a wide variety of citizen participation techniques to collect and communicate information about what people like and dislike about their town, about what people need and want in their community.

These tools can be hi-tech, like simulating a new set of buildings on the computer, or no-tech, like walking around your downtown with a pad and pencil. What these tools of reinvention all have in common, however, is full, early and ongoing involvement from all segments of the citizenry.

Like a good marriage, successful citizen participation requires mutual respect and commitment. Local governments seeking citizen participation must want and be willing to accept citizen input. Carrying out a citizen involvement process and then ignoring the participants’ comments will lead to public mistrust of government leaders.

Tools of the Trade

Successful citizen participation usually involves employing a variety of techniques in combination with one another. Combining different tools will lend greater credibility to a participation process, generate more meaningful, diverse response, and solidify long-term support for completing specific development projects and implementing broader policy goals.

Here are just a few techniques:

Guided Tours acquaint participants with the existing conditions and potential enhancements of a chosen area. The tour brings together a diverse group of people (community groups, business leaders, decision-makers, and citizens) to increase their awareness of a project area, solicit their input on proposed changes, and eventually arrive at agreed-upon solutions.

Simulation Games are hands-on exercises that involve asking members of the public to create land use plans by placing “icons” on maps. The icons represent a full range of land uses–homes, shops, parks, civic buildings, workplaces, transit stations–and can be moved around on the “town map” to allow citizens to experiment theoretically with various layouts of a city or neighborhood, including the location of buildings, streets and parks, and the placement of commercial, residential and industrial districts within communities.

Computer Simulation involves using computer modeling and photographic imaging techniques to let people see the potential results and impacts of planning and development projects. By turning a two-dimensional plan into a 3-D experience for citizens, simulation techniques can help communities “look at” proposed street layout design, building heights, architectural guidelines, and housing options.

The Visual Preference Survey asks citizens to view and evaluate a series of slides depicting a wide variety of streetscapes, land uses, densities, site designs, building types, parks, civic spaces, parking lots, roadways, and sidewalks. The scores (on a +10/-10 scale) let participants quantify what they like and dislike. The results allow citizens to get a clearer picture of what they want to see–and not see–in a reinvented community.

Visioning doesn’t involve slides but rather establishes written statements about the community’s goals for the future. The visioning process consists of a series of workshops to provide citizens the opportunity to offer their input about critical issues and future possibilities for reinventing their community. Ideas are recorded, major themes are identified, and, from that, a “vision statement” is drafted to incorporate the public’s views into a coherent document outlining its “blueprint” for the future.

Design Charrettes are one-to-seven day intensive, collaborative efforts bringing concerned citizens and stakeholders together with a team of design professionals to develop a detailed and finished design plan for a specified area of town. One of the quickest and best methods for developing consensus, charrettes offer a compressed period of intense design combined with the relevant information and the extensive involvement of citizens and government staff. Charrettes are solution-oriented, and if successful, guarantee quick decisions because they involve all the right people with all the right information–they “get the plans right the first time.”

Facilitated Meetings and Groups involve using a person who does not have a direct stake in the outcome to help disparate groups solve complex problems and arrive at collective decisions. A facilitated process can be sponsored by an agency or organization with the intention of resolving a complicated, multiparty conflict, such as a project in an environmentally sensitive area or a high-density housing project in an established area. Facilitators can also be used in the context of larger citizen participation processes such as town meetings, charrettes, and community forums.

The experiences of towns which have successfully invented–and reinvented–their communities teach us that the quality of the citizen participation process used to reach development and planning decisions goes a long way toward defining the character of that reinvention. In short: Good citizen participation shapes better communities.

Why is it worth the time and money to involve citizens?

1. Ensure that good plans remain intact over time.

City councils, planning commissions, city managers, and city planners tend to come and go. Even the best of plans can be dismantled or watered down over time. A plan created by citizen involvement will have a long-lasting, stable constituency.

2. Reduce the likelihood of continuous battles before councils and planning commissions.

Arguments over “density” and “use” have become the center of attention rather than the more concrete questions about whether or not a particular development will enhance or damage the area. A proactive process with a well-designed citizen involvement component allows citizens to understand exactly what it is they are getting and assures that everyone will be happy with the plan and the individual projects at build-out.

3. Speed the development process and reduce the cost of good projects.

Well-designed projects which have not included citizen involvement may face citizen opposition, which will slow or stop the project. There are considerable costs associated with this for both the city and the developer.

4. Increase the quality of planning.

Professionals are not the only ones generating good ideas. Conversely, citizens are not necessarily more wise than public officials and professional staff. Programs and projects that are the result of an informed citizenry, guided by experts, deciding what it is they want their community to be are likely to be superior in the long run. Sharing makes good citizens–and better communities.

Dave Davis is president of Initiatives, a policy design, strategy and communications firm established in 1983. This article is adapted from the second edition of “Participation Tools for Better Land-Use Planning,” which Davis co-authored for the Local Government Commission in 1997.

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