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Community Engagement

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 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?


Comment from: Jennifer Hurley [Visitor]
Thanks, Jen, for the great post! I have one comment to add about MindMixer. Like most of the online tools currently available, MindMixer is good on the front end of engagement - providing a vehicle for people to post and discuss ideas, projects, etc. This is the idea generation phase of public engagement (sometimes called brainstorming). Unfortunately, this is also the easiest part of the engagement process. What none of the online tools do well yet is help people truly deliberate - learn about current realities, understand different community member's values and perspectives, make important trade-offs, and set priorities and make decisions. This article from Next American City articulates these limitations of the current crop of online tools:
09/18/12 @ 13:52
Comment from: Jmes Rhoda [Visitor]
Hi I work in the SA Local Government environment where the resources are considerably less and we have underdeveloped e communication infrastructure. Very briefly the way we currently adress the many challenges that we face that may be of assistance to you, is that we have established social co-operatives, so that when specific issues requires attention it is forwarded to as many people within the co-operatives. The co-operatives would then debate, discuss and engage the same way as the NCDD group. In Local Government it is one of the most effective tools of engagement and PP.
09/27/12 @ 08:30

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