“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.[photo: MorgueFile]
Tim Dutton says
I want to be clear that I agree with the spirit of this post by Mr. Daniel. I have also come to believe that power differentials are fundamental to all community engagement and that the dynamics of that differential is manifest in subtle and not so subtle terms. One of those is language that reveals the assumptions. Mr. Daniel uses the phrase, “…engagement that allows people to interact…” the verb “allow” implies that some body has the capacity or power to offer up permission to participate in a process.
This may feel like a small difference however, it suggests the very power differentials that separate us.
Lorne Daniel says
Good point, Tim. Taking that even further, I believe that all people are actually ‘engaged’ but not necessarily engaged in the structured processes that organizations want. People will do and be as they wish. Structured engagement processes can aspire to be open to all the creative ways that people want to interact.
Alan Dolan says
Interesting article Lorne. It gets me thinking in a number of directions. I would really like to see an example of what walking consultations might look like. At times I am not sure whether walking consultations is more of a useful metaphor rather than something more tangible, or perhaps it’s both!
Lorne Daniel says
It’s both a metaphor and a tangible tool, Alan. Projects, as you know, often involve a physical space and walking consultations are small group walks through the space, with follow-up discussions. Of course they can be integrated with many other consultation processes and methodologies. It’s also true that the mere process of walking shoulder-to-shoulder can change relationships, so even when participants “know” the space well, walking it can bring about a new sense of collaboration. Then, as you say, it’s also a metaphor – or can be done in a virtual way (slide shows, Google Street View explorations, etc.).
Ben Ziegler says
I really like your ideas and thoughts, Lorne. And, I can see how those walking sessions would nicely extend into the cyber sphere… e.g., capturing (with minimal effort) ideas, conversations images via mobile device, and sharing in a central place – methinks Twitter hashtag… which could then be turned into Storify (for example)…. Lots of potential. 🙂
Lorne Daniel says
Yes, lots of potential for virtual / online “walking” and collaborative consultation, Ben. Imagine a webinar with remote participants ‘walking’ through a space (again, Google Street View good for outdoor venues), with ability to discuss, share links, keep a record of the conversation and so on.
Ben Ziegler says
What a concept, Lorne! And, I can relate… I attended an online forum last week in which Adobe Connect web-conferencing product (similar to Webex) was used. There were virtual breakout rooms, where we talked plus documented/recorded our thoughts on whiteboard & chat boxes. The breakouts then fed back into the ‘whole’.