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Thread: Professional planners helping out confused citizens?

  1. #1
    Cyburbian Wannaplan?'s avatar
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    Professional planners helping out confused citizens?

    As a planning consultant, I experience many forms of citizen particpation throughout the various stages of the planning process. The one theme that is always persistent is the luck of knowledge that the average citizen has about the planning process, especially the technical lingo that we use everyday pertaining to uses permitted by right, special use permits, and rezonings.

    On a typical master plan, we can have two forms of public input, one is a mailed survey and another is a community open house where anyone can come and provide feedback, input, and ideas. The extent of how broad we can be in gathering community input is determined by the master plan project budget. Oftentimes we are gathering and analyzing the input, never educating the public.

    Then at planning commission meetings, the public shows up and tries to use their NIMBY creditials to stop projects or deride and impugn the local officials. They think a use variance is the same thing as a special use, or that a referendum that reversed an earlier rezoning stops all future development on the property in question all-together.

    And the sad thing is, because they don't understand the process or the lingo, they get lost in the shuffle. The important issues they raise get ignored because it appears they don't know what they are talking about, or their credibility is severely diminished because the only time they participate in the planning process is when it is a NIMBY issue. These are scared people trying desperately to save their lifestyle. They don't like change and they try to engage public officials. But everything they say falls flat and goes nowehere.

    And I am frustrated. Here I am, a planning consultant working for local units of government, getting paid by the hour, attending night meetings, oftentimes hearing the locals talking the talk, but not really getting it right. I want to educate them so bad. But it's not in the budget. I want the planning commissioners to take a five minute break and do some explaining, but then that looks like they're talking down to the locals, and we all wanted to get out of there five minutes ago. I want them to learn the process. But outside of their own neighborhood, it seems they don't really care. The planning basics are fairly easy, but the local newspaper misconstrues the facts, even using biased secondary sources as the basis for the main thesis in an average article.

    How can it be this bad? Am I the only planner out there who wishes the locals were more informed? And if you've done it before, what works when you educate the public? They are not the enemy just because they don't understand the planning process.

  2. #2
    Cyburbian mike gurnee's avatar
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    I explain over and over and over again the process: in reports and recommendations, at the meetings...just as much to remind the board members as the general public. It is never ending. The best experience was when I had a local government news reporter around long enough to train. (Pam, I miss you)

  3. #3
    Forums Administrator & Gallery Moderator NHPlanner's avatar
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    Maybe I'm just fortunate to have a good Planning Board, but I've found that my Board will go out of its way to try to explain process and how-to's with the public, and my door is always open to help members of the public understand process and how projects/plans could impact them.
    "Growth is inevitable and desirable, but destruction of community character is not. The question is not whether your part of the world is going to change. The question is how." -- Edward T. McMahon, The Conservation Fund

  4. #4
    Cyburbian hilldweller's avatar
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    Planning Board hearings here are such a horrific experience because the Commissioners are just as confused as the public. When they open the hearing for public input it is like the blind leading the blind And then some clueless local reporter reports on this nonsense the next day. Sometimes you just have to laugh at it all....

  5. #5
    Unfrozen Caveman Planner mendelman's avatar
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    As a municipal staff planner, I try to explain the process to the public whenever asked, but there is only so much I am able to do.

    Setting up monthly "discussion/education" sessions open all invovlved would probably be a way to go, but I worry about low attendance.

    As everyone has mentioned before, it is hard to get the general public interested in the process in general when there isn't something specific they're opposed to.
    Last edited by mendelman; 02 May 2006 at 3:35 PM.
    I'm sorry. Is my bias showing?

    Let's not be didactic in this profession, because that is a path to disillusion and irrelevancy.

    Six seasons and a movie!

  6. #6
    Cyburbian Wannaplan?'s avatar
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    I should probably wait for more answers before I inquire further. But what the heck, let me get right to the point: Why are planners so easy to give up on educating the public? Shouldn't that be the job we do best? We're supposed to be the bureaucrats who are focused on process, and citizen participation fits right in there.

    I'll tell you, as a private planning consultant, there are those who'll tell me that I work for the mayor, or whoever the elected head honcho is supposed to be, and to forget about all those dumb NIMBYs who get in the way and waste time. But that is so wrongheaded. The fees that I earn are paid by taxes collected from the local citizenry, and in effect, I work directly for the people who live in the commuities that I serve. Yet, I am most distant from them. Ironic, isn't it?

    Is that what I am supposed to do, just shrug my shoulders and not care? To keep a safe distance from those who are too dumb or too insulated from the nuts & bolts of government and dismiss them altogether?

  7. #7
    Cyburbian Plus
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    Community Education

    I am probably one of the lucky ones in this area because my Council is very supportive of Community Education, especially when it comes to planning and we have a small enough community (7000 people) that it is possible to really get in contact with most people on some level. Our Council expects us to bend over backwards to attend community meetings and answer any questions people have. We also send out newsletters and have Open Houses. Admittedly it can be frustrating when you spend days preparing and only a few people show up, but it seems like everytime we hold a new Open House more people come (it helps that we now bribe people with hotdogs).

    The Open Houses showcase all of our municipal departments so Public Works brings in the new grader so people can look at it, and planning shows off the newest aerial photos. People can check out the new police vehicles and ambulances, and there is opportunities to meet all Councillors and Department Heads. It is a great opportunity to talk about all levels of planning from the neighbour's new barn to the fact we are thinking about reviewing our subdivision policies. And it draws in a larger crowd because people know that there is more to do than look at some pictures of a proposed subdivision.

    My Council has also supported me going to the local Chamber of Commerce and Rotary Club meetings and has sponsored information sessions for local contractors. I've visited the local real estate board to talk about upcoming changes to our development compliance programs and have even made myself available to school groups and the girl guides to do interactive planning activities. Granted some of this I have to do as volunteer, but it is so valuable because it builds community and is an important step in sharing about what planning is and how people can get involved.

    I find the best way to get the community involved is to get involved with the community. Don't wait for them to come to you. This can be time consuming but it works so much better to meet people in their neighborhood than try to drag them into your office for a meeting!

  8. #8
    Cyburbian Plus Zoning Goddess's avatar
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    The most crippling thing about trying to explain the terms and processes in a hearing is that the public is already hostile and not interested in listening. They've written up their comments to read and are ready to roll.

    The best success I've had is when I can meet with some community leaders well before the hearing, go over the application, explain the process, and offer some suggestions like limiting the number of speakers, keeping on point, what isn't relevant, etc. They then filter this info downward and we have a more knowledgeable crowd in attendance.

  9. #9
    Super Moderator luckless pedestrian's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by alh
    I find the best way to get the community involved is to get involved with the community. Don't wait for them to come to you. This can be time consuming but it works so much better to meet people in their neighborhood than try to drag them into your office for a meeting!
    Wow - excellent point! I also am impressed with your Open House effort, that is very cool...

    I also hold Neighborhood meetings (and try to have it near the development) on contentious projects so they can air their thoughts and I can explain how it all works (and put in a plug for comp planning) - they seem to work to at least make sure people understand the project and the process - but I will say that I have had many a person walk out of a meeting and not get one thing I said and sometimes there's nothing you can do about that

  10. #10
    Cyburbian
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    Community councils are the way to go. they are informal in nature and people feel more comfortable discussing things when they are in their neighborhood instead of city hall. I try to be very concise and use as little jargon as possible in my staff reports. I have been criticized by other planners in my dept. because of some of the info I include in my presentation (if I hear "the planning commission already has that information, why do you have that in your presentation" I'll puke, it is for the audience you idiot) I have been able to turn NIMBY's around during a public hearing because of my presentation.

  11. #11

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    First, there are some communities where the nature of the populace and/or political history make it virtually impossible to get people involved. Having said that, I think that you can educate folks in most places, but you - as a consultant - are in a difficult spot. You have to educate the folks who are signing the checks that public education is an important part of the process.

    When I consulted my proposals always explicity featured training/discussion sessions. If people didn't want to do it that way, they didn't hire me, so my experience is skewed. But a lot of that experience is encapsulated in the book Karen and I wrote for the Nat'l Association of Counties, The Planning for Results Guidebook and it might give you some ideas.

    Some bits of my approach:

    No surveys. They are expenisve if done properly and seldom of much use even when done properly. What a representative sample of the population thinks has very little to do with the politics of planning issues in most communities. Surveys waste money that shoudl be spent on fully interactive events like planning street fairs, charrettes, training workshops, etc.

    People like well-designed, well-presented training about basic topics IF you can get them in the room. The trick is to channel the energy attached to particular issues that do get them to come into the training and a broader view. It can be done (though again, not in every community). When I was in private practice and working for the Sonoran Institute, I routinely managed events that included significant educational material and attracted 100's of people. It isn't easy and, of course, it is expensive.

    The bottom line is that you have to design the training aspect into your original proposals to the communities. If your firm is too bottom-line oriented that will be tough. Most - though not all - of my real successes in public involvement were financially tenuous. But if you care about public education, you are going to have to build it in, in a way that most clients assume is routine.

  12. #12
    Cyburbian Wannaplan?'s avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Lee Nellis
    Having said that, I think that you can educate folks in most places, but you - as a consultant - are in a difficult spot. You have to educate the folks who are signing the checks that public education is an important part of the process.
    You are absolutely right. I need to find a way to make education a component in some of our future projects. It won't be easy convincing the principals, so I need to think this through and take my time. I need to get your book and read it.

  13. #13

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    Not knowing your competition or your clients, I don't know if a good public education component is a marketing strategy. When I was consulting it helped me, as a sole practitioner, compete against larger firms in some cases. It was a distinguishing factor, and I coudl afford more time for that function than a large firm (overhead drops quite a bit when you are working out of a spare room in your house). But even then, I couldn't afford not to make every (well, almost every) trip to see a client serve multiple duties. I think you can design some fun, basic stuff into the projects if the client is interested.

  14. #14
    Cyburbian SW MI Planner's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by NHPlanner
    Maybe I'm just fortunate to have a good Planning Board, but I've found that my Board will go out of its way to try to explain process and how-to's with the public, and my door is always open to help members of the public understand process and how projects/plans could impact them.
    Same here. I also give presentations to realtors, service clubs, etc that help to educate the public

    Quote Originally posted by Wanigas?
    Why are planners so easy to give up on educating the public? Shouldn't that be the job we do best? We're supposed to be the bureaucrats who are focused on process, and citizen participation fits right in there.
    I think planners should be willing to educate the public, however the public has to want to be educated. The general public (generally) doesn't give a crap unless you tell them they can't build a three story garage. And then, they don't really want to hear what you have to say.

  15. #15
    Cyburbian Wannaplan?'s avatar
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    I know this thread is over two months old, but a couple recent articles in the NYT about economic development in Racine, WI, and another about the Abrhamoff scandal have got me thinking about civic duty and transparent municipal operations. Are there any non-profit organizations out there that advocate for improved transparency between government and the citizenry? There's tompaine.com but I think it's too broad. Any help?

  16. #16
    Super Moderator luckless pedestrian's avatar
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    Wanigas - in New England, you can't much more transparent - we have town meeting, a committee for everything, even with strong charters -

  17. #17
    Cyburbian Wannaplan?'s avatar
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    While not exactly what I'm looking for, here's something close, William A. Schambra, Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal, but their focus is on philanthropy.

  18. #18
    Cyburbian
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    The city of Bozeman, MT has created an interesting position that they call a "neighborhood coordinator". The woman who's got the job spends almost all of her time trying to find ways that members of the public can usefully insert themselves into the process. THis requires pretty significant education, and I think she spends a heck of a lot of time at neighborhood meetings and on the phone with people. I've personally been impressed with the results and think that its been a success.

  19. #19
    Cyburbian Wannaplan?'s avatar
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    I'm looking for information about national non-profits or think-tanks that advocate for public transparency and write about corruption.

  20. #20
    Cyburbian Michele Zone's avatar
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    It isn't exactly what you asked for, but there are books and articles here that might be of interest to you.

    Also, books like "Getting to Yes" and "The Heart and Mind of the Negotiator" indicate that negotiation aimed at manipulation and gamesmanship gets an advantage by keeping the other party (or parties) in the dark. It is, essentially, an attempt to take advantage of people. I think that most people are exposed to this type of negotiation more than any other type and it leaves them inherently suspicious of the motives of their "opponent". However, the paradigms promoted in the above books -- the "win/win" scenario -- work better if everyone knows the rules... ie. when there is the "transparency" you speak of. "The Heart and Mind of the Negotiator" was a special order book when I had to have it for a class called "Negotiation and Conflict Management". It is based on research and is the only book of its kind. I think "Getting to Yes" is also based on research but does not cover the broad scope of specific topics covered by "heart and mind". "Getting to Yes" is a quicker read and promotes some of the same ideas but lacks the depth of the other book.

    Some of my thoughts:
    1."Educating the public": All too often, "the public" is looked down upon by well-educated professionals. While educating the public about how the process works is valuable, if there is any suggestion that they are simply idiots, explaining process will just empower people to hate you more effectively. "Educating the public" tends to imply effective one-way communication. An underlying goal for me is to establish effective two-way communication. That is often alluded to by phrases like "open door policy".

    2.
    And the sad thing is, because they don't understand the process or the lingo, they get lost in the shuffle. The important issues they raise get ignored because it appears they don't know what they are talking about, or their credibility is severely diminished because the only time they participate in the planning process is when it is a NIMBY issue. These are scared people trying desperately to save their lifestyle. They don't like change and they try to engage public officials. But everything they say falls flat and goes nowehere.
    It is possible to act as a "bridge" or "translator". It is a role I very often take on, as I did when I proposed this subforum to help professionals planners and concerned citizens communicate more effectively. If you stop and take someone seriously or take their concerns seriously in spite of the lack of proper lingo, formal education, and so forth, two things happen: 1) the person feels heard and respected and is likely to get cantankerous 2) other educated "in-crowd" types will begin to listen as well. You can work with someone to reframe what they are saying and help them communicate more effectively and start breaking down the hostile prejudices which keep people from being heard -- the assumption that they are "incompetent" because they don't know the lingo of a specific profession or "stupid and have no valid point" because they come from a different culture or because they generally are lacking in formal education.

    3. It is generally easier to respond to conflict and be either defensive or offensive than to try to build rapport and build a sense of community. I suspect that we are hardwired to respond first to threatening situations -- that it is part of our survival instinct. But responding to threats first and foremost means that we keep putting energy into building up conflict. Some things I have said (or thought) on various occasions about conflict in online forums:

    A. Fighting against the fighting is still fighting.
    B. The conflict stays alive as long as we keep pouring our energy into it.
    C. The best antidote to complaints that the list has become "unsupportive" is to start giving people support.
    D. Just as "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure", biting my tongue and NOT saying something grumpy/hostile/mean usually outweighs many, many posts worth of trying to undo the damage.

    I have found that all the things I have learned about being diplomatic in online forums translates very well to "in person" interactions -- which makes perfect sense since, as I have noted before, I learned a lot of what I know about diplomacy from trying to politely argue with doctors in a way which had some hope of getting me results rather than getting me more insults.

  21. #21
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    Americaspeaks

    Quote Originally posted by Wanigas?
    I know this thread is over two months old, but a couple recent articles in the NYT about economic development in Racine, WI, and another about the Abrhamoff scandal have got me thinking about civic duty and transparent municipal operations. Are there any non-profit organizations out there that advocate for improved transparency between government and the citizenry? There's tompaine.com but I think it's too broad. Any help?
    YES! I have just recently begun researching this myself. Check out a few resources I have found so far...
    americaspeaks (dot) org
    communityplanning (dot) net/index.htm

  22. #22
    Cyburbian Wannaplan?'s avatar
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    The Center for Public Integrity was the sort of thing I was looking for.

    And thanks for the link to America Speaks, which looks interesting.

  23. #23
    Cyburbian The One's avatar
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    Hmm....

    Well, the last place I worked had a citizens academy designed as a multi-week event (with food and drink and a big party after- a budget of $1000+) Granted they make application and must be "invited," but I think in the long run it will help. This did a good job with the general big picture stuff and planing issues got discussed in about 2 hours. Take a look at the City of Lakewood, Colorado for a public education process that might work well.

    A problem I run into all the time is people that have part of the story or some of the rules and fill in for the rest where it works best for them.... The pre-application or initial meeting is the place to educate applicant's and code violators. The general public can be slowly educated through special meetings and comprhensive plan meetings. It is wise to build this into a budget, but others might not want to create "informed" NIMBY's
    Skilled Adoxographer

  24. #24
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    Strike while the iron is hot...

    The average citizen truely does not know a set-back from a quarterback. It is ESSENTIAL for local governments to make an effort to include the public and engage in discussion. I'm new to this....but as a social psychologist by training, my intuition tells me that while virtually no one would come to a meeting to learn zoning terminology, they might be receptive to learning a thing or two as part of a community forum on a hot topic. Although people might "switch off" if they felt patronized, I think they would listen intently if the "education" portion of the forum was framed as providing citizens with a "TOOL KIT" for having a voice in the development process.

    Your post could not come at a more perfect moment for me. My community is in a very ugly mess because of the very problems you describe. The Planning Commission and Village Board made a zoning decision (lot coverage ratio) without any community input first. No open forum, no workshop, no postcards or surveys...zippo. The result has been inflammatory fliers, community outrage, extreme defensiveness from Village Hall, and a lot of miscommunication. Angry citizens read prepared statements at recent Board meetings, and were dismissed out of hand. Partially, I think, because the Village felt they were ignorant and misinformed. This is a shame. Many of them are actually intelligent, resourceful people who could be part of the solution if their participation were encouraged. And as far as ignorance....it would have helped IMMENSELY if someone from the PC had taken the time to stand up and explain the situation intelligently with facts.

    Our Village government, like many I'm afraid, seems to think that "community involvement" begins and ends with the required legal notices of Plan Commission meetings in the back of the newspaper. Check out the reaction I got when I asked our Plan Commission to use some basic tools for community participation (either hiring a consultant such as yourself, or holding an open public discussion forum). The Chair presiding over the meeting actually said, "we did the required notices, to suggest otherwise just shows your ignorance." WOW, now that is a novel way to encourage a back-and-forth dialogue with the community, eh?!?! Required legal notices isn't the point....

    THANK YOU for putting some thought into methods to involve planners and average citizens in constructive communication! I applaud some of the ideas posted by others thus far ... neighborhood coordinators, public meetings, etc..

  25. #25
    Cyburbian Wannaplan?'s avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by glp642
    It is ESSENTIAL for local governments to make an effort to include the public and engage in discussion.
    I agree.


    Quote Originally posted by glp642
    Our Village government, like many I'm afraid, seems to think that "community involvement" begins and ends with the required legal notices of Plan Commission meetings in the back of the newspaper.
    This is unfortunate. I've seen this quite often. In addition, let's not forget the communities that actually do get people to show up at the noticed hearings and provide input, only to have the planning commission vote in favor of a controversial development when the public voiced many legitimate concerns that should be addressed. Sometimes I think planning commissions think their sole purpose is to expedite development.

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