By Dom Nozzi
March 31, 2017
A staff member from a college town transportation department learned that I would not be able to attend the first meeting of a citizen workshop pertaining to the redesign of a street on the eastern periphery of the urbanized portion of the town.
Because I was serving on the city transportation advisory board, the staff person thought it would be helpful for me to suggest ways the first meeting could run more smoothly and productively.
The following is my response.
In my 31 years of experience at public workshops as both a citizen and a professional, the two most important lessons I have learned in getting a group to operate smoothly and productively is that the process must start by having a skilled, non-threatening professional expert provide a summary of design principles.
That summary should describe what is known from research about the impacts and effectiveness of various design treatments, what might work locally, and lessons learned from other communities – in other words, the typical way to start a design charrette.
Without this upfront education, group members tend to be coming from vastly different perspectives and lack of knowledge that significantly increases the likelihood that differences of opinion cannot be resolved (and that there will be so much frustration about not being on the same page that hostility arises). A lack of knowledge on the part of some/all of the group members also amplifies an enormous problem in public meetings: The LESS someone knows about a topic, the MORE CERTAIN they are about the thought that they are right.
Two tools that are very helpful in providing quick, informed awareness, and meaningful input, for a non-professional group: (1) maximize the use of easy-to-understand graphics that visually show conditions, issues, and design principles (such graphics must be very simple and minimize the amount of irrelevant engineering clutter that distracts from the important issues that need to be conveyed). (2) Use real-time visual preference (and other) surveys to assess group preferences during the meeting. The use of clickers to do real-time surveys of a group was extremely effective and useful at the traffic mitigation workshop the City sponsored a few weeks ago by the City.
I would also note, with regard to that traffic mitigation meeting, that I found it very useful to clearly point out at the beginning of the meeting that people need to LISTEN to others and be RESPECTFUL of others.
Overall, it is essential that the group start off with a clear understanding of the overall land use and transportation objectives for the corridor. If the objective is to, say, create another strip commercial corridor, the street to be redesigned at the workshop will need to have a higher speed design that makes free-flowing car traffic the imperative. If, on the other hand, the objective is to support safe, walkable, smaller scale retail, office and residential, the street under analysis will need to have a slower speed design that supports transportation choice and making the pedestrian the design imperative.
The staff person also asked me to imagine that, at the end of the day, I didn’t get everything I wanted for the street being analyzed, but I found myself really pleased with the process. I was, in other words, able to say that it was both credible and meaningful. What would have happened, this staff person asked?
I told her that given the high level of contentious hostility and ridiculing we were seeing at public meetings in this town, it would be essential that meetings are designed to make it safe for all viewpoints to be expressed – even those viewpoints that are relatively controversial – and that even those who are relatively timid in expressing their views feel comfortable in expressing their views. The use of the real-time clicker surveys is a good way to do that, as are a few other methods (such as allowing people to submit written ideas).
For me to feel as if the meeting was credible and meaningful, it is also essential that the group be provided with upfront education as I mentioned above. Without that, the group is likely to be little more than an uninformed, emotional mob with axes to grind. As a result, too many expressed citizen objectives end up being a random free-for-all of personal, parochial bias that ignores community objectives.
Another important way for me to feel that the meeting was meaningful comes from a feeling that the group has fully expressed their hopes and dreams (their visions). Too often in public workshops these days, I have a strong sense that attendees are either overly bashful about expressing their visions, or are not even aware that certain visions they may have are even feasible. This bashfulness or lack of awareness is another important reason why upfront education from a professional design expert is important, as doing so makes it much more likely that attendees will be less bashful or more aware of the full range of possible visions.