A Tale of Two Public Processes

Over the last few weeks I've had the opportunity to attend public meetings in Europe and the American South. I find public meetings to be an entertaining challenge. Let's face it, a public meeting is always a gamble. You're at the mercy of whoever shows up and whatever they perceive about the project. You have to think on your feet and make quick decisions to guide the process, without looking like I'm-in-control-here-Alexander-Haig. 

The meeting in Europe was beautifully organized, with many members of the press and elected officials in attendance, headsets for translation on every chair, screen and projector in place, and all the microphones tested and ready to go. The developer began the meeting by giving a short overview of the process and the site. The project is a four-block redevelopment in a downtown area between a major rail station and a large piazza. The site is vacant and has remained undeveloped for over 60 years, dividing existing residential areas with a multi-acre swath.

 Just as the lead developer was about to introduce the design team, we heard screaming people storming the entrance. There was visible concern among the attendees, and I believe the first thought of everyone in the room was "Are these people armed?" 

The press moved to greet the meeting crashers, cameras rolling. The developer quickly regained his composure and invited a member of the group to cease yelling and address the meeting. After about 20 minutes of ranting about not being listened to---which was ironic because we were all hearing him very clearly---the leader of the intruders ran out of steam and returned the microphone. The architects began speaking and the meeting was back to its earlier format. The mayor appeared to say a few brief comments, surrounded by serious security. Later we learned that the group was about 15 students upset that new development was coming to the area; all were "against the capitalist scheme." The locals later agreed that, while alarming, this is how public process works in some EU countries. 

Not long after, I attended a meeting for a development in the American Southeast. A large landholder is planning to develop 50,000 acres of suburban land around a midsize city. Almost everyone associated with the project, including the developer, local governments, and neighbors, are concerned that this project will unleash sprawl. So 200 people attended the meeting to find out what was up with this intended development. Since the process is currently being led by the public relations firms, there was really nothing to present regarding the master plan at the meeting. The PR firms' intent was to learn what people thought of possible development. Well, you can imagine what people thought--- over a three-hour time span we learned that people are angry that they had moved from the city to the county only to find more development coming to the county than was expected in the surrounding cities for the next decade. The neighbors were mad. From the beginning to the end of the meeting, the developers tried to answer questions regarding a development in the conceptual stage and master planning that has barely begun. How much development? How will this affect taxes? Who will pay for the infrastructure for all these new residents? At the end of the meeting, the people who are disinclined to support the development seemed satisfied they were heard but irritated there where no answers. They left ready to come back and fight another day, at the next public meeting.   

So both meetings had their issues. In Europe, the NIMBYs were denied access and forced to storm the meeting to present their message, while in the US, access was open and a negative response anticipated. In Europe, those most strongly against the project were not invited to attend. In the US, everyone was invited but there was no plan to respond to.

The European meeting offered little transparency but plenty of facts; the American meeting was all about transparency but few facts were available. Both projects are necessary to stem development pressure and will no doubt be approved and built in some form. Both publics are skeptical and irritated by an unnecessarily dumbed-down process.  

The public is educated, alert to change, and wants the facts. Failing to provide appropriate access and information is a sure way to make anyone who is interested in the project skeptical, irritated, and negative. The public are stakeholders too, and they deserve to be treated as partners in the project. Next time the meetings will need to be open, transparent, and informative. Or it could be the worst of times for the developers.

Barbara Faga, FASLA, is a principal and executive vice president of EDAW, an international landscape design and planning firm.




Despite the unfortunate generalities that make rebuttal of this post difficult, I shall try anyway. First, there are plenty of meetings in Europe(depicted in the article as a monolith) where development opponents are allowed to make their views known through the funnel of a public relations firm or related entity. Conversely, there are countless instances in the US where people storm the gates of public meetings creating chaotic discourse.

That said, what is absent too frequently in the states as well as other parts of the world, is outreach at the early stages of a development process. This is a gradual educational and communication process. Developer, government agencies and the citizenry interact over time. Public relations firms need not be part of the process. They manage media, what requires management is education.

A charrette or series of charrettes are also helpful in engaging the public.
Moreover, it helps if a certified public meeting manager(a program is offered by the National Charrette Institute--I found it most helpful), can mediate the discussions and direct the meetings.

In summary the announcement of a development project needs to unfold over time with two way communication, education, alteration as necessary, charrettes and meetings managed by professionals. This will go a long way toward mitigating problems on both sides of the pond. The differences between the US and Europe really are not that stark--particularly in this area of international development teams.

Chuck D'Aprix [Charles D'Aprix]
Economic Development Visions
The Downtown Entrepreneurship Project

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