September 10, 2012
Jen Horton, Policy and Planning Fellow, US EPA, for the Smart Growth Network
Think about this: as someone interested in achieving a healthier community, integrating smart growth approaches, and/or incorporating sustainable design in your own community, how often do you reach the people you want to? Engaging a large percentage of a community in new community plans and visions is a goal of many local planners, government leaders, and organizations. However, bringing together an inclusive group of citizens that represent an entire community is no small task. Because of this difficulty, many people are trying to find easier ways to engage entire communities in planning processes.
Jennifer Hurley, an urban planner with Hurley-Franks & Associates in Philadelphia, facilitates public engagement in planning and development. Hurley says the most important challenge communities will face in the future is increasing capacity for community dialogue and collaborative decision-making to better address complex issues.
Below is her submission entitled, “Collaborative Decision-Making: The Killer App”
'The truth about communities is that there's always the next big issue. This year it might be saving farmland, cleaning up contaminated land, building affordable housing, protecting groundwater, or creating jobs. But whatever problem we tackle, whatever cool thing that happens, there will always be another "big thing" we need to wrestle with to create the places we want our communities to become. What all of these issues have in common is that they are complex, the conversations can be contentious, and it takes many hands to solve the problem and make a change for the better. Government, residents, businesses, advocates, non-profits, and many others all have important contributions to make.
The "next big thing" that would be the killer app for making our communities better is collaborative decision-making. We need new forums, better tools, and more community capacity for talking about the things that really matter, for understanding important trade-offs, and for coming to enough agreement that we can move forward.
Communities everywhere are experimenting with new tools and new processes for shepherding community discussions about the future of place. Decatur, Georgia used study circles to address contentious issues like school board elections, zoning battles, and gentrification. One ward in Chicago used participatory budgeting to set priorities for local infrastructure investments. Urban designers around the country are using charrettes to engage the full spectrum of stakeholders in neighborhood and regional planning, brownfields redevelopment, and zoning reform. New tools for virtual engagement and participation are sprouting like mushrooms.
We can't know what big issue we'll face next year or twenty years from now. If the past is any guide, the only thing we can be sure of is that tomorrow's issues are likely to be more complex, more difficult, and involve more people than today's. The most important issue for our communities to tackle now is to build that collaborative decision-making muscle, so we have more ability to tackle those hairy issues in the future.'
One online tool that is making it easier to engage multiple voices in decision-making is the website MindMixer.com. The team at MindMixer bases its work on the belief that civic engagement can be implemented more effectively. To achieve this, MindMixer developed an online public participation forum that moved beyond the traditional community meeting where participants had to show up in person. With the online option for public involvement, citizens can access and share ideas, solve challenges, and engage with local leaders. MindMixer is just one example of ways people are trying to create new forms of community engagement. [video:youtube:BZWbpCWfF2c]
If you have tried to develop more meaningful public decision-making processes, are there specific planning practices that worked better to engage a more diverse subset of the community? How do we move past traditional public input sessions that often cannot be as collaborative and engaging as we would like?