A few highlights below...
by Susan Hopkins
The team at Highland Planning hosted an early morning training session called "Essentials of Public Engagement" with members of RocCity Coalition. We shared some of our favorite tools and techniques. Thanks to the members of RocCity Coalition for a lively discussion.
A few highlights below...
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 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
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 Tanya Zwahlen
This weekend, my daughter, Claire, and I traveled to Kripalu, a yoga and retreat center in western Massachusetts, for a workshop on Mothering and Daughtering. The purpose of the three-day workshop, taught by Sil and Eliza Reynolds, was to work on our communication, so our relationship can grow stronger rather than weaker as my daughter enters her teen years. In addition to crafting, hiking, reading, eating, and meditating, Claire and I spent a lot of time talking about emotional intelligence, intuition, trust, and our favorite ways to spend time together.
Here's what I learned:
I could not help but draw connections between parenting and community engagement. Yes, I'm serious.
Think of it this way:
It turns out that many (most?) things in life are about communication and trust. Here is a photograph of my inspiration to communicate better. What's yours?
by Susan Hopkins
It’s been a month since we officially launched MetroQuest and we’re pleased to say it has earned an important spot in our engagement toolbox.
What is MetroQuest?
MetroQuest®—is an interactive, online engagement tool that brings surveys to the next level. It features numerous interactive screens that give users the chance to give feedback on a variety of topics, and in a variety of different formats.
Below are a few examples of the different formats:
Want to see for yourself? Check out two of our ongoing Metroquest surveys below: