'Civic Theater' at Its Best

Like many others, I tuned into the CNN/YouTube debate a few weeks ago. As a firm believer in citizen involvement, to the point of recently writing a book* full of case studies of public process in action, I found CNN's broadcast of real people with real questions in real time to be utterly fascinating. The public taking hold of technology, influencing candidates with their frank questions, and getting answers that sounded less scripted and on message-it was a sight to see. YouTubers' questions of the nine Democratic candidates were succinct and to the point. And no, I did not hear the other 3,000 submitted questions, but the ones that aired on live TV were brilliant. Anderson Cooper even quipped that it might be the end of newscasters.

Often interviewers ask me if people's interest in public process is a fad, a farce, or the real thing. Of course I think it's the real thing, or I would not have spent two years writing a book about it. I'm always amazed when designers tell me that the public is not really interested in projects or process or design. Or worse, when my colleagues tell me that public involvement dumbs down the plan or design. Rather, if the public process is transparent, with all relevant information presented and explained in detail, and with the media and elected officials involved, I am convinced the public will make the right decision. If one of these elements is missing then, yes, people become paranoid, confused, and negative. You and I would, too.

With YouTube and many other Internet sites constantly keeping people informed about what's going on, it is hard to imagine that public process will ever become obsolete. A New England planning official told me that citizens in the Northeast are addicted to public meetings-it is high entertainment. And so it should be. I participated in that entertainment while working on Boston's Big Dig. It was "civic theater" at its best, one of the themes (and the inspiration for the subtitle) of my book.

Just as YouTube provided the first glimpse of the electorate directly challenging the presidential candidates, imagine what your hometown's city council meetings would look like with interactive technology. Activists could sit at home on their sofas and broadcast their questions directly to their elected officials. And we could hear the answers in real time. Many more could follow the process from the comfort of their own homes. It is not that far off.

In a recent interview on the Today Show, the founders of YouTube mentioned that they began their site in 2005. So the way I see it, we have about two years to make public process as entertaining and transparent as the CNN debates. People deserve the real thing. And I'm convinced the public will settle for nothing less.

*Designing Public Consensus: The Civic Theater of Community Participation for Architects, Landscape Architects, Planners, and Urban Designers (Wiley, 2005)

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


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