“Getting public input” is a phase in almost every urban planning decision that is made in the developed world. Too often, however, it means simply surveying the existing attitudes of stakeholders (and sometimes that thing called “the general public”), rather than doing what we humans are so good at – thinking, sharing, and being creative.
Opinion polling has so dominated media coverage of public decision making that many (most?) citizens assume that’s what we mean when we say cities need public participation. But opinions only get you so far. Polling gives you a surface view – like casting your eyes over the a body of water to see if there is any wave action. But it doesn’t tell you much about deep currents, tides, and shoals.
In the same way, standard public meetings are often just verbal exchanges of existing opinions.
Public engagement is based on the assumption that a community wants to move, to change, to improve. If we want to just maintain the status quo then we don’t need engagement.
When a city is trying to step forward with creative change, the best engagement is engagement that allows people to interact, learn from one another, and learn from the environment. One effective way to do that is to gather people in diverse clusters and walk through the urban areas that are being discussed. Some very interesting dynamics happen on a walking consultation. First, people are much less inclined to speak from positions and personal or professional interests. Interacting shoulder-to-shoulder is different than interacting face-to-face: for many people, it is inherently more collaborative and less confrontational.
Secondly, the focus in a walking consultations is on public space and what is happening in it — our focus is “out there” on the public realm, not internal. We often see, hear and sense the urban space differently.
Thirdly, walking consultation is closer to a democratic interaction than most more formalized meetings. In a meeting, the control is always in the hands of a chairperson or meeting facilitator. There are great facilitators out there but a walking consultation loosens people up and allows more side conversations and spontaneous interactions. Sure, those new perceptions still have to be brought back in some form to more formalized processes but the walking consultation allows more flexibility and creativity at the initial stages, before options are more formally weighed.
So a starting point when a city is talking about public engagement should be “are we really interested in the possibility of change?” If the answer is yes, then we need to build in engagement that allows people to do just that – to learn and to change their views – rather than processes that just harden existing positions. We must literally allow people to move – and a good start to that is getting them physically moving.