Public Consultation: Say Hello to the Bad Guy!

If you’re not a ‘people person,’ you may want to pursue a different career!

As Planners, our responsibility is to represent the public interest or the ‘greater good,’ which means working with the public throughout (most) projects. While public involvement varies (based on project scope, budget, location, etc.), most projects have at least three meetings with the public, including:

  • Visioning Session – This happens early in the process, often before much work has been completed. The idea is to introduce the study, and get input that helps you understand the study area. Topics are pretty open-ended, such as “what do you think is missing from the study area?” or “what type of uses would you like to see on ______ Street?” The goal is to get an understanding of the key issues and opportunities in the study area.
  • Options Session – Whether you’re creating a plan or policies, it’s likely that you’ll have a number of different options. These will typically be presented at a public meeting, and participants will be encouraged to say what they like and dislike about each option. To keep things fun, this meeting is usually structured like a workshop, where groups are encouraged to sketch out their ideas, build models, and complete other fun activities.
  • Final Session – Once you’ve prepared a draft report, the key plans and recommendations will be brought back to the public. Because you’ve been seeking feedback throughout, the input at this point should be minor and will (ideally) just result in small tweaks to your report. This final meeting often takes the format of a traditional open house, where the consultants presents their report, and is available after for questions, discussions, etc.

While these three sessions are pretty standard, some projects may have more, and some may have less. They may also vary greatly in presentation. Some may take place in the sketchy basement of a local church, while others can be grand events at a beautiful venue with guest speakers, media, etc.

Sounds like fun, eh? Well…

I’ve done a lot of these sessions, and they’re generally fun. However, there are a few things to keep in mind:

Remember when I told you people won’t understand what you do when you say you’re a Planner? Yeah, a lot of people at public sessions are going to think you’re there to build something, and specifically that you’re there to build something that will either raise their taxes or lower their property values. To these people, you’re the enemy. While it can be hard (depending on how aggressive they are), my recommendations is to see these people as a challenge. Rather than getting defensive, try to help them understand. Even the angriest people are often (not always) willing to talk. Explain to them what your role is (i.e. creating a plan in case the site redevelops so the landowner/developer will not be able to do anything they want), outline the realities of the project (i.e. many people don’t know that Cities have growth targets, and that specific areas are identified for growth long before we arrive), and help them to understand the rationale behind your recommendations. If all else fails, tell them they’ll likely be dead before any of these plans happen (actually don’t do that, though this did happen once at a meeting I was at and quelled most people’s concerns).

Despite your best efforts, you’ll never be able to please everyone. That’s okay, it’s not your job. Your job is to represent the ‘greater good.’ Opinions are subjective, and you’ll run into people who want more density, less density, more transit, less transit, bike lanes, no bike lanes, and of course, people who think any change is bad. You’re responsibility is to listen to all of these concerns, weigh them, and provide your professional opinion based on best Planning principles, experience, and context.

Finally, and you’ll learn this quickly, it’s very hard to get people out to public consultation events. People are busy, and it’s a lot to ask them to come out for a three hour workshop in the evening. You may spend a week preparing, drive three hours, and have only six people show up. This is frustrating, and certainly does not provide a representative population sample. There is no easy solution for this, but the onus is on us as Planners to continuously evaluate our methods to ensure we reach the greatest number of people (but I’ll save that for another post).

That’s a quick overview of the consultation process. I’ll come back to this a lot in future posts as it’s a very interesting subject. In the meantime, let me know if you have any specific question related to public engagement.

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