Where Do I Live and Where Do I Park?

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:

  1. A project is announced, either by the developer or an elected official.
  2. Coalitions form in support and in opposition.
  3. Public meetings are announced.
  4. Various public meetings are held.
  5. The process is transparent and information flows over the Internet and through the media.
  6. The information presented in the meetings is accurate, there is open discussion, elected officials participate, and the media is part of the process.
  7. All concerned citizens are informed and included and everyone is encouraged to participate.
  8. The public considers the options and decides whether to support the project based on all the information.
  9. The developer or elected officials either proceed with the project, or rework the elements to make it more palatable to the public, or stop the project.
  10. The project proceeds or is stopped.

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.

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



what about no cars?

well I sold my car and moved out of the country. What if we all changed houses every couple of years?

few people have that option

While there is a large number of driving aged people in the country with no access to vehicles, in the US that is still a minority. I think the commentators point is that many land use decisions are driven by questions regarding your house, and your vehicle. These can be generalized as concepts of home and mobility. And from there the generalizations can be complicated with other aspects such as homeowners versus renters, car drivers versus the transit dependent, etc. (I don't pose these as binary opposites by the way just as examples of how a simple statement can get complicated when setting policy.)

However based on my experience of planning commission meetings in Orange County CA. every issue that came before a planning commission eventually raised the question of parking. It seems that parking or the lack thereof is always on everyone's mind. Maybe its just something tangible, that residents can complain about to individual commissioners, but it was the first and last consideration on any vote I saw.

Focus on outcomes before solutions

The two examples given are quite different. The Atlanta Beltline is a large scale project of regional importance. It is “top down” and the ten step process outlined applies fairly well to how many smaller contexts can be incorporated into the larger whole. The neighborhood traffic calming plan is a small scale project of very, very local importance. It is “bottom up” and the ten step process fails at this more intimate level where context is everything.

The conflict between neighbors over a traffic calming plan appears to be a fundamental difference in vision between those who want the streets to look like they did when Olmsted designed them and those who want the streets to function like they did when Olmsted designed them. From the description given, the proposed plan addressed function but ignored the context of form.

The process was flawed not just because of the tactics used which violated Steps 5 through 8, but because the process focused on a specific solution before reaching consensus on the desired outcome.

A context sensitive solutions process would involve three issues before announcing a project in Step 1 – determining the NEED, being an ASSET and ensuring COMPATIBILITY. In this case the need appears to be the improving pedestrian and cyclist comfort, convenience and safety by reducing vehicle speeds back towards those existing when Olmsted designed his “shared streets”. Being an asset is something all residents must decide. Compatibility in this case required addressing the historic design of the street network as well as their larger setting, since this once isolated neighborhood is now surrounded, and impacted, by other development, including an expanding university.

Failing to address need, asset and compatibility issues in crafting a broadly understood and accepted outcome BEFORE proposing a solution would in all likelihood doom any proposal with a highly sensitive context. Failing to properly engage stakeholders by violating the rules simply made things more personal and nasty . . . which only gets worse as it comes closer to where people live.

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