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Reimagining Public Participation in City Planning

Published:  December 12, 2012

Last month I attended a workshop for the City of San Francisco Planning Department led by facilitators from Groupaya, an organization to encourage collaboration to solve problems affecting diverse stakeholders. At the event, attendees were asked to use a variety of tools to investigate the question: How do we make it easier and more fun to participate in the planning of our city?

The tools allowed for very different kinds of engagement with the question, and very different results. Using visual mapping techniques, participants analyzed the definition of participation and suggested ways of reaching out to diverse constituencies to invite meaningful participation. Workshop participants presented their campaigns in pictures, reducing the barrier to entry and producing creative approaches to answering the question of how to make participation in planning easier and more fun.

A dialogue mapping exercise produced another way of tackling the problem. In this approach, a facilitator used a computer program to organize and link barriers to easier and more fun participation in planning, devising common-sense solutions to each. Those in attendance identified the opacity of planning code as a key barrier to effective engagement with the planning process by the public. By showing that they acknowledge that they understand the public’s concerns, planners can play an important role in reducing public frustration. The YouTube video, “Hello City Planner” -- in which a woman hoping to open a small restaurant encounters the maddening red tape and nonsensical classifications in San Francisco’s restaurant regulations -- is a good example of how planners, themselves, can encourage greater engagement from the public.

In the systems thinking approach, participants analyzed the dynamics of the system of city government and its constituents, trying to identify the root causes of the problem of difficult and tedious participation in planning by the public and planners, alike. This mode of analysis revealed a complex and circular relationship between citizen participation and complexity of law. As citizen participation increases, that feedback is inserted into laws that become ever more complex. Yet it is precisely that complexity of regulation that makes public engagement difficult and tedious.

However effective these three approaches of visual mapping, dialogue mapping and systems thinking are for exploring different aspects of the question, it’s ultimately not about the technique employed; it’s about the outcome and the solutions proposed. Of course there’s no quick fix to encouraging easier and more fun engagement with planning. But maybe the solution to the problem resides in encouraging a different type of public participation than in the past. It’s not only about providing flexible alternatives to community meetings, but also about involving the public in the process of planning, itself.

For example, in brainstorming ways to help make the planning process easier for the general public, the systems thinking approach yielded the idea for establishing a case manager or ombudsman position to guide citizens through the departments, code and forms necessary for opening a restaurant or to build an addition to a house. But expenditures needed for this personalized and labor intensive service would likely be exorbitant. But what if there was some way to empower citizens to perform this service themselves? This would not only cut down on costs and reduce the burden on city planners to make the process accessible, but it would encourage a new kind of civic engagement and a new awareness of the impact of citizen demands on already-complex codes. As one participant at the workshop pointed out, through its Citizens Planning Institute, the City of Philadelphia has already begun this process of turning its citizens into knowledge sources about planning, and encouraging residents to offer informed approaches to improvement.

Reframing the question to how to change citizen participation to produce more liveable and bureaucratically navigable cities, rather than simply encouraging easier and more fun participation allows planning departments to make use of participation, rather than regarding it as a end in-and-of-itself. The workshop for San Francisco’s Planning Department showed that lots of tools can be helpful in this investigation. But what matters the most is getting to solutions that think about public participation in new ways.

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