As one of my favorite colleagues says, all anyone ever cares about at any public meeting is "where do I live and where do I park?" Public process, in short, asks people to accept changes to their homes and lives. And people generally do not like change.
Those of you reading this who have participated in public process know the pitfalls. It's our job to organize and present information so that people can make reasoned decisions about whether to accept changes that almost always mean more of something they don't want-more density, or roads, or transit, or big-box development, or office buildings, or power substations, to name a few. People tend to react with concern, anger, resistance, and other emotions that signal we are hitting close to home.
Given the obvious complications, there is no simple way to proceed. But as a participant in hundreds of public meetings for public and private projects, I've come to believe that any successful public process includes the following ten steps:
If steps five though eight are missed or too tightly controlled, then you have to start over.
In ten steps, projects are accepted or rejected. Notice that a successful process doesn't necessarily result in the project getting built. Let's acknowledge that some projects may not deserve to go forward.
But no matter how praiseworthy the project, here's the bottom line: Unless the public accepts the change, the project won't happen, or it will get held up so long by the legal system that it may as well die. If the process is limited, confrontational, misleading, or otherwise irrational, it can fall apart fast. Once the process shows any hint of failing, some person or group can and will stop the project.
Two recent projects come to mind as contrasting examples of how public process works or falls apart.
First is the Atlanta BeltLine (www.beltline.org ), a 22-mile primarily abandoned rail line that circles within two to four miles around downtown Atlanta and makes up eight percent of the city's footprint. It is envisioned as a new mixed-use area, connected by trails and transit. The funding source is a TIF (tax increment financing), known in Georgia as a TAD (tax allocation district). From June to December 2005, more than 150 public meetings were held in neighborhoods throughout the city. Churches, offices, schools, homes, and City Hall were all meeting venues. The TAD was approved by the three local governing bodies-the City of Atlanta, Fulton County, and the Atlantic Public Schools-in December 2005.
People came to the meetings with a positive and negative perception of the BeltLine plan. They helped the elected officials to understand what mattered. Housing, economic development (aka jobs), and retail were repeatedly requested in areas that have had no new development in years. People in the community reviewed piles of information, said their piece, felt listened to, and made the right decisions. In the end, the project was accepted by a majority of the participants, leading to government approval. This huge project is going forward with its 25-year plan for building parks, trails, roads, housing, and transit.
The second process is taking place in one of Atlanta's historic urban neighborhoods. Dating to circa 1915, the area is adjacent to an Olmsted-designed park, and includes stone and frame houses of the period, facing a weaving street design that takes full advantage of the topography, views, and vistas. The streets are wide, designed to accommodate the horse-drawn buggies and brand new autos of the early 20th century residents.
The current neighborhood association believes the streets should be retrofitted with a newly constructed traffic calming plan, one that narrows the streets into one lane skirting wide traffic islands and conveys all the charm of a 21st century suburban development. Traffic calming looks like a maze of obstructions-a palm tree stuck in an island in the middle of the road-that makes driving an adventure through a slalom course. Residents who are development, design, and building professionals strongly oppose making the historic neighborhood look suburban, while many of the other residents love it. This contrast has not made for friendly neighborhood meetings.
As for the public process, the neighborhood president held a few meetings to encourage residents to sign a petition in favor of tearing up the streets. The goal was to get a super majority of signatures to take to the City Council, with the naïve belief that a petition backed up by a threatened lawsuit would force council members to approve tearing up the streets. Control of information was the policy of the neighborhood association. The petition form said to sign if you are in favor of traffic calming; nowhere did it say if you sign this petition you are voting to tear up the neighborhood streets and utilities, or bring suit against the city council and mayor if they do not approve it. The neighborhood has a $6-8 million construction fund, and there have been no construction documents or professional estimates, and no real information to judge the costs. From those who do this for a living, $25 million is a more realistic estimate of the plan's costs.
All votes for or against the plan are equal, whether the traffic bulb-outs and bumps are in front of your house or not. No consideration has been given to emergency response time to those houses along the slalom course. If you signed the dueling petition against the street retrofit, you were shunned by your neighbors. If you spoke against the plan, you were booed in the meetings (I speak from experience), and told to sit down and listen. Neighbors told neighbors to move if they don't like the plan.
So after a year of public process, the neighborhood is back to square one. The process skipped steps 5 to 8, bypassing an entire group of neighbors and trying to force an outcome based on limited information and discussion. Now calmer heads are involved, and there is talk of bringing in mediators and making an effort to open the lines of communication among neighbors who are alienated and upset.
A few lessons: Experienced and intuitive people are best able to conduct proper and successful public meetings. Professionals who do not have a personal or monetary interest in the outcome should be engaged to manage the process. It's important to stick to an open, transparent, inclusive, rational public process, whether the project is a $5 billion reinvestment in a city or a $5 million dollar investment in a neighborhood. And in the end, it is only about where I live and where I park.