The Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative (RMAPI) has teamed up with the Participatory Budgeting Project and will use this process to decide how best to allocate up to $200,000 granted through the Empire State Poverty Reduction Initiative. RMAPI and the Participatory Budgeting Project hosted an introductory meeting on April 18, where we learned about the fundamentals of participatory budgeting and even got to try out the process.
While the concept is not entirely new to many Rochesterians, it was helpful to get an overview and a practice run. After explaining how the process works, our facilitator, Melissa, from the Participatory Budgeting Project, pulled a $20 bill out of her purse and told us we were going to use the participatory budgeting process to decide where the money should be donated. She grouped us together into smaller groups and asked each group to develop a “proposal” about where the money should go. We picked a charitable organization and explained why we thought it was the best place to donate the $20. Each group then presented their proposal, after which everyone voted on their top three proposals. The $20 went to the winning proposals, which were for Teen Empowerment and Ticket to Ride.
It was a fun meeting—I can’t wait to see this process in action in the coming months.
Participatory budgeting (PB) is a different way to manage public money, and to engage people in government. It is a democratic process in which community members directly decide how to spend part of a public budget. It enables taxpayers to work with government to make the budget decisions that affect their lives.
by Susan Hopkins, AICP
For practitioners of public engagement, the chance to experience participatory budgeting is what I imagine it’s like for a classic car enthusiast to drive a 1967 Mustang Shelby, for hippies to go to Burning Man, or to find a Mickey Mantle baseball card in your attic. In other words, it’s the holy grail. And participatory budgeting is about as close as a process can get towards truly empowering a community to make decisions about how to spend public dollars.
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...
Opt-In is an online panel we created to gather feedback and public opinions on a variety of topics impacting the future of communities in Western New York. Topics include transportation, parks, economic development and quality-of-life.
In our first Opt-in survey, we asked the panel about how they engage, what they find most frustrating about participating in public decisions, what what makes a good public meeting. Check out the results below.
More detailed results below.
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 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 Susan Hopkins, AICP
Shared experiences and serendipity are key elements of a healthy community—and a healthy democracy.
This morning, as I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, I realized something about the work we do at Highland Planning. Community engagement is not only fun and meaningful for our clients and communities. It is essential to sustaining our democracy.
The podcast, entitled “Defending the Republic,” featured Cass R. Sunstein, a legal scholar and author of the recently published #republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media. Sunstein’s premise is that while free speech is important, it’s not enough to ensure a healthy democracy. Serendipity and shared experiences are also key elements.
What is Serendipity?
In simple terms, serendipity is something that happens by chance in a beneficial way. These are experiences that promote chance encounters and democratic deliberation. The way most of us digest news and social media today means that we have fewer and fewer opportunities to experience serendipity: things like “public forums of old,” traditional TV news, and generalist newspapers. This applies to public spaces, too. Parks, buses, plazas, and trails are all serendipitous places that foster shared experience and diverse encounters. It also applies to public meetings, open houses, design workshops, and focus groups.
Shared face-to-face experiences and unchosen serendipitous experiences, even when we don’t like them, can lead to encounters with diverse ideas. They allow us to hear opposing viewpoints and unfiltered perspectives. In other words, we’re increasing the odds that we become engaged in something that challenges our convictions, and that we will be able to understand, and learn from, people we might otherwise disagree with, distrust, or even demonize.
What Does this Mean in Practice?
Many of us have seen the viral YouTube videos featuring angry crowds at “town hall” meetings around the country. Admittedly, that is not the type of shared experience many of us want to have. What is missing from those meetings is a carefully orchestrated meeting design that elevates the conversation and gives everyone a chance to be heard.
In fact, the design of a meeting—from activities to the type of venue—is one of the most important ways to create a valuable shared experience that encourages people to see other points of view and consider other perspectives. Two techniques we use to facilitate dialogue in larger groups and/or in situations where there may be diverging values and opinions are Cardstorming and World Café.
These are just two of many techniques we use to create serendipity and foster productive discussion.
So, the next time you attend a public meeting, talk to a candidate campaigning door-to-door, or have a serendipitous encounter at a park or on the bus, consider that you aren’t just participating in your community, you are helping to preserve and strengthen our democracy.
Susan Hopkins & Jen Topa
Do-it-yourself temporary street improvements—a.k.a. “Tactical Urbanism” events are a powerful way to demonstrate the benefits of Complete Streets.
As part of a larger Complete Streets initiative, the Town of Tonawanda, with help from Highland Planning and TY Lin, organized a Tactical Urbanism event along Parker Boulevard to help demonstrate the benefits of a Complete Streets design. The demonstration included protected crosswalks, parking modifications, narrowed vehicle lanes, bike lanes, and a mini-roundabout at the Parker-Decatur intersection.
The Town used a variety of creative materials and techniques to simulate the effects of street improvements, including stormwater silt socks, cones, chalk paint, used tires, reflective tape, and temporary signs.
Highland team members Jen Topa and Sue Hopkins were on hand for set up earlier this week. Within minutes of re-opening the street, cars, bikes and pedestrians were flowing through the intersection smoothly. The Town will be collecting feedback about the demonstration through an online survey.
Kudos to Tonawanda! For a video of the completed demonstration, click here.
Redefining Economic Development through Public Engagement
Economic development can be intimidating. There is a reason we don’t see charrettes or mobile workshops or photo contests devoted to topics like “evaluating a local economy’s comparative advantages.” That is because policy discussions with the words “economic” or “economy” are both terrifying and boring at the same time.
Many of us view economic concepts as bewildering abstractions, and rightly so. While economic data is important, who among us gets excited about a planning process that features GDP, location quotients, target industries, employment growth, agglomerations, clusters, mega-regions?
Data Can't Make Decisions for Us
Economic development planning efforts often overlook the importance of public engagement--or fail to effectively engage the public at all. It’s challenging to involve community members in a highly technical and inaccessible process. Yet, engaging community members in economic development planning is crucial. The public plays an important role in developing a common understanding of what a local economy does well, what it has to offer, and what the community needs. Community members are uniquely positioned to provide the most essential ingredients of an economic development strategy; local history, expertise, understanding capabilities, needs, and vision.
The way that we talk about economic development at the outset of a planning process can have a major impact on the type of process we use to develop a strategy, the extent of buy-in and commitment from the community, and the overall effectiveness of the end product. Consider a commonly used definition of economic development:
“Economic development is the process of improving a community’s well-being, through job creation, business growth, and income growth.”
When I share this at meetings with community members and stakeholders, everyone’s attention immediately turns to the “jobs” “business” and “income” and the discussion takes off from there. While these are extremely important indicators that are the key to wealth creation and economic well-being, we risk elevating them to become primary drivers of strategy, rather than measurements of success. We jump into the hard data because it offers a reassuring sense of credibility. But data cannot tell us anything useful about a community’s goals or its determination to achieve a collective vision.
If we rely on economic data to make decisions for us, we risk prolonging (or creating) a sense of powerlessness within our communities. We miss opportunities for true community empowerment.
It's the People, Stupid
At its most fundamental, an economy is a set of behaviors and practices undertaken by…people. The public. That’s you and me and the communities we serve. We are the “economic agents” that make up a local economy and define its values, culture, history, and vision for the future. The economic domain is truly a social domain. Likewise, an economic system is about people and the choices we make, both as individuals and as communities.
Improving the economic well-being of a community starts with engaging and empowering the people that make up the economy.
Communities that integrate community engagement techniques into their economic development planning efforts are better positioned to build an enduring economic development strategy that truly empowers the community and sustains long-lasting success.
A Challenge to Planners
The question for planners and economic development professionals is: how do we make sure the economic development planning process starts with people and maintains a focus on the community?