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To build the communities people really want, we need to talk less and play more

When it comes to community planning, we’re doing public engagement all wrong.

To build the communities people really want, we need to talk less and play more
[Images: Indysystem/iStock/Getty Images Plus, raven0246/Blendswap/OpenStreetMap]

What do you want to see in your neighborhood? What do you want to see in your park? What do you want to see on your street?

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These are questions that seem inclusive, democratic, and generous. And they are some of the most common ways that towns, cities, and consulting firms—and even community groups—conduct public engagement: hold a visioning session, listen to what people want to see in their neighborhood, record what is said, and weave the feedback into a community plan.

Tapping into neighborhood knowledge is at the core of effective and forward-thinking urban planning and design, landscape design, architecture, and the efforts of everyday residents to better their neighborhoods and communities. You uncover insights that no outsider, however astute, could on their own. Yet merely asking people what they want to see does not always generate the kinds of meaningful feedback that can paint a nuanced and layered picture of the community or of the neighborhood’s knowledge and aspirations. In fact, when we are asked point-blank what we want, we oftentimes default to something that contains very little in the way of aspiration or nuance, and instead focus on perceived threats or immediate needs—the most common being more parking, less traffic, and no density.

What kind of frosting do you want?

Rarely is community engagement conducted independently of a proposed project or plan. More often than not, by the time a consulting team or crew of planning staff arrives on a neighborhood’s doorstep to solicit input, there is already a project in the pipeline. To many residents, this can feel like soliciting feedback on the frosting for a cake that has already been baked—a cake people may not have wanted in the first place. As a result, this approach, however articulately presented and well-packaged by consultants or planning staff, can come across as patronizing and disingenuous.

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Meanwhile, community engagement can be both a form of exclusion and competition. Whether it be in the style of an open-format, visioning-style meeting, or soliciting feedback on a particular project or plan, oftentimes only those with the time to spare will show up at a public meeting in the first place. In this way, what appears as a democratic process can, by its very nature, be acutely self-selecting and exclusive.

“The people [in San Francisco] who are accessing opportunities to engage are generally already very privileged,” says Robin Abad Ocubillo, director of Shared Spaces for the City and County of San Francisco. His observations perfectly square with those of Miroo Desai, senior planner for the City of Emeryville, California: “In my experience,” she explains, those who attend public meetings “are older—almost all retired.” And, she added, they tend to be predominantly white. Desai notes that residents rarely attend public meetings to oppose or challenge new office space or, in the case of Emeryville, the numerous biotech hubs. Rather, they show up to challenge new housing and mixed-use retail/residential projects.

Complicating matters further is what takes place once the meetings begin: not everyone will speak. It takes a particular kind of person who is ready and willing to speak in front of a crowd and before a panel, board, or committee. “I’m terrified of public speaking” is a commonplace sentiment.

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An individual’s cultural background, where they’ve grown up, and their economic status, among other factors, can play a significant role in shaping their comfort level vis-à-vis different modes of expression.

In a public meeting setting, an extra layer of complexity exists: the presence or perceived presence of conflict and disagreement. In an era when cities are growing and changing at rapid rates, residents can have particularly strong concerns and opinions about what their urban future should look like. Invariably, these concerns and opinions can translate into heated debates, disagreements, and sometimes even acute anger. This dynamic can end up excluding all but the most emboldened and those unafraid of conflict. So, what appears on the surface as a fair and democratic process—the public meeting where people are free to speak their minds—can inadvertently end up being an exercise in competition, might, and, by extension, exclusion.

Talk With Your Hands

Precisely in response to the limitations and drawbacks of conventional community engagement, there have been numerous efforts in recent years to rethink public outreach. We’ve seen the rise of the Post-it Note in public meetings and on boards as a way of both visually recording and prioritizing residents’ ideas; we’ve seen the rise of stickers as a way of giving everyday residents a means of ranking proposed planning ideas. We’ve also seen a rise in online surveys, apps, and startups that seek to be one-stop shops for facilitating a range of information-gathering and measuring results.

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While these attempts to create more meaningful and effective modes of community engagement are welcome alternatives, they fall short on one key point: they still rely heavily on the word, both written and spoken.

While language indeed offers up rich opportunities for expression—in essays, literature, poetry, for example—when it serves as the primary medium of expression within community engagement, it tends to be a limiting factor in terms of both who speaks and what is said.

Getting all of us to a place where we can start to entertain more creative ideas starts with creating a space of comfort and ease so that we are open to giving the talking brain a break. Through play and using our hands, we can tap into new ideas, become aspirational, and engage in expansive ways of thinking that would otherwise not be possible.

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For example, in a recent workshop on climate change that we were a part of but did not lead, participants were asked to divide up into groups and write down a list of ideas for how to tackle climate change. Across the board, the responses focused on mere amplifications of what people already knew: more electric vehicles and electric-vehicle charging stations. The responses were a pitch-perfect example of those old grooves and habits we get stuck in, here in the form of the everyday car but with the exhaust taken out.

However, when we recently built a pop-up model of downtown Los Angeles at a sustainable engineering conference and had people use their hands to build their ideas for a more climate-resilient, sustainable, and walkable downtown, people built well outside of their current realities and infused the city with their dreams: bioswales, pedestrian zones, unearthing creeks long covered over by asphalt, storage sheds and bathing facilities for homeless people, more light rail, lower curbs, urban farms, more intimately scaled buildings. And the list goes on. In fact, not one person built a model of an electric vehicle or charging station.

Community engagement typically generates a false sense that we are really taking the public’s pulse on the range of ideas and aspirations within neighborhoods and communities. In favoring the word and language as the primary medium of expression, and packaging that opportunity for expression within the setting of the public meeting, planners and design professionals generate a particularly limited and skewed set of ideas and opinions; ones that are oftentimes neither rooted in aspiration nor representative of the community as a whole.

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Fifteen years ago, when we were developing play-based methods as a new mode of community engagement, we saw the limitations of language-based engagement over and over again. We knew we needed to figure out how we could get anyone and everyone dreaming—and dreaming big—about their neighborhoods and communities, and to do so without having to rely on speaking alone to articulate these ideas.

[Image: Island Press]
We immediately began seeing the stark contrast in group dynamics and outcomes between conventional forms of engagement and the hands-on, sensory-based ones we were creating and leading to create the kinds of enduring spaces and places we all need in our lives. While it’s tempting to write off community engagement as hopeless, we know from our own work in engaging people with their hands and senses that community engagement can indeed lead to truly creative ideas and a constructively empowered public.

From Dream Play Build: Hands-On Community Engagement for Enduring Spaces and Places, by James Rojas and John Kamp. Copyright 2022 by the authors. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

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James Rojas is an urban planner, community activist, educator, and artist who runs the planning, model-building, and community-outreach practice Place It!. John Kamp runs the landscape, urban design, and engagement practice Prairieform.  

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