by Susan Hopkins, AICP
We're excited to announce a new initiative called Opt-In, an online panel we created to gather feedback and understand public opinion on a variety of topics impacting the future of cities, such as transportation, parks, economic development and quality-of-life.
We aim to understand public opinion and delve a little deeper on particular topics so we can understand why people feel the way they do. Participating in Opt-In is quick, easy, and confidential. We won't contact you more than four times a year and the results of each survey will be shared on Highland Planning's Facebook page and website.
by Christopher Dunne
We came. We saw. We knocked.
Last week my esteemed colleague, Jen Topa, and I made the trek to Brownville, New York, a village of about 6,000 residents situated several miles west of Watertown on the Black River. A key crossing of the River is in need of replacement and possible relocation, a process the local Metropolitan Planning Organization wants to hear from residents on.
That’s where we come in. Decked out in our finest neon vests, we braved the elements to knock doors and leave flyers letting residents and business-owners along the project corridor know about an upcoming stakeholder workshop. With an assist from Mayor Pat Connor of the Village of Brownville and Mayor Steve Macaulay of the Village of Glen Park we were able to cover the corridor despite a distinct lack of cooperation from the weather.
The response we’ve gotten definitely made all the trudging worth it. Not only were people extra appreciative of our efforts to personally reach impacted residents, many soon followed up with calls and emails to our Project Manager, Sue Hopkins, to find out more about the workshop. We even got some news coverage to boot. A well-attended meeting at this early point in the process will help ensure that the recommendations made about the bridge will be fully informed by the people who use it most.
With the door-knocking done, we can look forward to a productive and informative workshop next week. Did I mention that it's indoors?
by Susan Hopkins
The Highland team held an in-house training this morning (in the conference loft) to review and refresh some of the foundations of our work, including promises and values we bring to the table as practitioners of public engagement. Sue shared some key takeaways from the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2) training last fall.
It's great to refresh our knowledge and share important lessons we've learned practicing in the real world. There's a lot of knowledge in this loft.
We also provide training for public agencies, developers, and neighborhood organizations. Topics include the basics of engagement, designing a solid engagement process, and using innovative techniques.
If you would like to organize a training for your organization, contact us to learn more!
by Tanya Zwahlen
We stepped away from the office today for some team building and strategic planning. And playtime. Playtime that included burpees.
by Tanya Zwahlen
Highland Planning had a great 2017. Our team gained two talented members – Sue and Christopher. We incorporated some new tools into our practice – Textizen, Metroquest, a few iPads, and a wagon that we don’t know how we lived without before. This fall, Sue trained with the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2). We worked with federal agencies, private developers, non-profit community development corporations, housing authorities, cities, villages, counties, universities, metropolitan planning authorities, water and sewer authorities, and transit agencies. Revenue grew by 45% over 2016. We were all a little worn out, but things slowed down for us in December.
The coming year looks equally promising. Andre is expecting his second child and Christopher is buying a house. We will be starting several projects in Rochester, Buffalo, and New York. On behalf of the Federal Transit Administration, Sue and I will travel to Miami, Tampa, New Hampshire, Lake Charles, Savannah and El Paso to train regional transportation planners and emergency responders on All Hazards Transportation Recovery Planning. We are holding a training at our office in February, and the American Planning Association accepted our proposal for a session about public engagement at the April 2018 National Conference in New Orleans.
Appeal to the Bottom Line
When Highland Planning began in 2007, I wasn’t sure anyone would buy what we sold. A decade later, I realize public engagement appeals to the bottom line of any project, plan or policy. Not only that, but ignoring stakeholders is no longer a risk worth taking. Everyday we are seeing uncivil discourse and mob mentality in the public arena. Instead of understanding each other’s differences, we are demonizing the other side and dismissing them for not agreeing with us. In my view, engagement processes that allow space for dialogue and debate are needed more than ever. Projects cost more in time, expense and political fallout when they bypass community input.
In 2018, I would like to incorporate three concepts into my practice. These might seem obvious, but they are sometimes forgotten.
Happy New Year. Here is to avoiding stagnation, accepting difference, and listening until we understand.
by Susan Hopkins
I remember the first time I facilitated a public meeting at which people showed up angry. As a representative of a big box retailer, I was in charge of hosting a public meeting to discuss their plans to build a new store in a small town. Residents of the community came to the meeting in droves to express their outrage. Before the meeting even started, they had already called me every name in the book. The meeting was a total failure and public outcry eventually killed the project. I had wasted my client’s time and money and possibly damaged the community’s trust. The promise I made to myself and my client that night was: this will never happen again.
Public Meetings Gone Wrong
Fast forward to 12 years later and I find myself in a hotel conference room in Toronto with 30 other planners, reviewing the foundational tenets of public engagement, with the help of the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2). We’re talking about why good public engagement is so important and why bad public engagement is so harmful. And I suddenly see how that terrible meeting years ago was actually one of the most important moments in my career.
It’s true that we learn the most from our failures. Let’s just say I’ve learned A LOT over the years. The IAP2 training, led by the excellent father/daughter duo Jess and Richard Delaney, took me on a three-day journey in which we dissected and picked apart that fateful meeting (and many others) and somehow stitched it all back together into a coherent doctrine of public engagement. Tanya has been practicing these key principles and innovating public engagement techniques for a decade--and her commitment to engagement is what drew me to Highland Planning. I’ve summarized my take on these principles below.
1. Engagement isn’t just an event. It’s an ongoing relationship with your stakeholders. Municipalities, public agencies, non-profit organizations, and companies all have stakeholders: individuals or groups with an interest in the outcome of a project or a decision. It is helpful to think of engagement as a journey, rather than a single event (like a public meeting). Implementing a long-term engagement process, across different projects and departments can help an organization build credibility and trust, which ultimately can help your organization make better decisions more efficiently.
2. If there is no opportunity for influence, there is no engagement. At its core, public engagement is a process that provides the opportunity for the public to influence a decision. The level and scale of shared influence is dictated by many factors. But if there is no opportunity for influence, we’re not actually engaging. This is the difference between public relations and engagement. One is about managing a narrative, while the other is about building relationships by listening, and being transparent and accountable.
3. Good engagement can help make better decisions. A common misconception is that technical decisions should only be made by experts and trained professionals. It’s true that experts need to be involved. But decisions become much better and more durable in the long-term when we incorporate local knowledge and perspectives.
4. Good engagement creates an environment of no surprises. No one wants to get blindsided at a public meeting by upset community members sharing issues and concerns that haven’t been considered by the team. The solution is straight forward: Talk to people early on in the process. Before making any decisions. Before creating any plans (yes, even if those plans say “draft”). We call this the “pre-engagement” phase during which there is an opportunity to start building relationships with stakeholders and learn about their concerns before asking them to participate in tough decisions.
5. Don’t let techniques wag the dog. I’m often asked to list out when and where and how many public meetings I plan to host before I even begin working on a project. But a public meeting is not a one-size-fits-all approach—and in some cases it may not be as effective as other techniques. A public meeting is just one of over 140 different engagement techniques we use that range from one-way communication to group decision making. When we design an engagement process, specific techniques are the last thing we choose. It is essential to first determine the objectives of engagement, and then select techniques that best meet those objectives.
6. Engage people on values first, then positions. One of the most important things I’ve learned the hard way is this: If you provide technical information in response to stakeholders’ emotional concerns, you will create outrage and people will become more entrenched in their positions. If people feel their values are being undermined, there is no amount of evidence that will sway them. People will rarely compromise on their values, but they can be convinced to compromise on positions. For example, if a stakeholder says your road project stinks because his kids may get hit by a car, you may think he is just complaining, or that he is simply uninformed. But he is actually expressing a value based on his experience. That value is safety. If you can engage on the level of values, you may be able to convince him that safety is as important to you as it is to him. If you can convince him his values are being upheld, you can move towards a more productive discussion.
7. Create a durable engagement process. This is probably the most important factor in successful engagement. Develop a solid framework for engagement and a step-by-step process that can be scaled to any size project. You will be rewarded with authentic stakeholder relationships, trust, increased capacity within your organization and resiliency to change.
8. Have fun. Don’t forget that stakeholders are humans. Humans like to have fun.
And finally, the term “Career Gold” is a phrase I use to describe how it feels when you find work that truly speaks to you, that gets you out of bed in the morning and gives you purpose in life. That is how I feel about public engagement and facilitation. At its essence, it’s about helping people understand each other. I love this work and look forward to doing more of it…failures and all.
by Tanya Zwahlen
Sue went up to Toronto this week to take the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2) Foundations in Public Participation course. It's a three day course, and she's been radioing back to our team through Slack to tell us how it's going. In summary, she is fired up. Look for a zillion blog posts from her when she returns after the holiday.
by M. André Primus
This fall, Highland Planning organized and staffed an EcoDistrict Launch event with our partners at Greentopia to celebrate the completion of the EcoDistrict Plan. The event marked the start of the project moving from planning to implementation. The NYSERDA-funded EcoDistrict Master Plan will provide a framework for the High Falls Neighborhood to move towards ambitious environmental and social justice goals. It was one of my favorite projects that I have worked on to date at Highland Planning. It is great to see the EcoDistrict moving forward.
We advertised the event using digital engagement on Facebook. Using our organic-reach-focused strategy, we reached over 20,000 people and interacted with over 1,500 people. We also used a Facebook event to connect with vendors, non-profits, and volunteers who were interested in being involved in the project. Some event participants, like the wedding party that jumped in on a game of four square, happened to be in High Falls on the afternoon of Saturday, October 7th.
The EcoDistrict Launch event had two areas, an EcoFair and the EcoDistrict Launch Project. The EcoFair was designed to highlight the EcoDistrict as a destination and help people envision a revitalized neighborhood as enabled by the plan. We had copies of the plan, summaries, and renderings to help attendees catch the vision, and we were on site to explain the plan and the process in depth. The event featured vendors and organizations from inside the EcoDistrict, such as Airagami and Monroe Community College, combined with eco-focused groups from around the region, such as the Stormwater Coalition and the Monroe County EcoPark. In addition to the engaging and educational exhibits presented by our partner organizations, the event featured vegan food and compostable utensils from Marshall Street Bar & Grill food truck, electric vehicles to test drive, a station explaining the new Zagster bike share system, face painting, chalk drawing, live music, games with Rec On The Move, a magician, and more! Overall, our 30 exhibitors, 10 vendors, three performers, eight activities, and six goats added up to one great Saturday for the approximately 600 attendees to the event.
The Launch Project, the first of many events in the EcoDistrict, initiated one project in particular, the revitalization of a greenspace beside the Genesee River gorge which is envisioned to become a part of an “EcoLoop” walking trail. A herd of goats were brought in to clear out the invasive brush along the trail, fossil-fuel-free, in preparation for the human volunteers. On the morning of the event, about 20 volunteers gathered in the EcoDistrict to clean, weed, and plant along the trail.
Part of our event was live streamed on Facebook Live, drawing over 125 more views. By taking a non-traditional approach to a public meeting format, Highland Planning and Greentopia were able to engage a much larger part of the community in a much more meaningful way. This robust and varied engagement sets the stage for a very successful implementation of their EcoDistrict Plan.
by Christopher Dunne
It’s been a whirlwind two months since I started as a Senior Planner with Highland Planning and only a little longer since I’ve been able to call Rochester my home. I’ve already had the opportunity to help our region’s public transit system Reimagine itself, build a MetroQuest survey to gather input for one of the City’s riverfront park projects and, of course, furiously scribble down notes on a butcher pad at meetings in Buffalo and Cayuga County.
All of this has been new but also familiar. My background is in state government in Massachusetts. After college, I worked in three state senate offices where I did everything from answering the phone to drafting legislation and budget amendments on healthcare, education and transportation. Serving constituents and working on political campaigns taught me the value of listening and the importance of breaking down technical jargon into words that everyone can understand. While working at the State House, I earned my Masters’ in Public Administration from UMass Boston where I authored blog posts about autonomous vehicles, a study of escalator passenger behavior in the area’s subway system and a review of the state’s lobbying laws among other projects. After getting my MPA, I made the move from Boston to Rochester this past September.
Part of what excites me about working for Highland Planning has been the opportunity to get quick crash courses on the communities that we partner with throughout New York. Having worked for the people of cities like Springfield and Pittsfield, Massachusetts, I’m no stranger to the post-industrial challenges that Rochester, Buffalo and other cities in our region face. Seeing firsthand the dynamism and creativity that people in these communities use to address these challenges though has been moving and it’s great to have a role to play in that transformation.
I’ve also loved the opportunity to think more about my personal passion for urban cycling and walking. As Monroe County looks at updating a decades-old transit system and Buffalo and surrounding communities explore transit-oriented development, I’ve had the chance to think more about the obstacles and opportunities communities encounter when trying to increase bike- and walkability. There is a wonderful intersection of engineering, politics and social psychology in these questions.
I sometimes half-jokingly sum up my career as “democracy cog.” The machinery of our system relies on human beings involved in law-making, campaigning and translating what the public wants into action, and I’ve been fortunate enough to work in roles in all of those areas. In my past positions, I listened to the concerns of communities and helped make policy. I’m now thrilled to be working for a firm that amplifies the voices of those who are affected by policy decisions like the ones I used to help make.
If you want to talk politics or policy, tell me about an opportunity to engage the community or just pass on your favorite vegan recipes, shoot me an email.