We’ve been conducting public meetings for years. And it used to be easier. Present the plan. Discuss the plan. Talk about how your plan is better for the neighborhood/community/city/region and provide the conclusion. But things have changed.
We all saw it on the Internet—the fellow at a public meeting being hauled away from the microphone before getting wrestled to the floor and tasered during a Q&A with John Kerry. Fortunately, silencing argumentative speakers with a taser is not a common occurrence at most public meetings. While I might confess that there have been meetings where, in retrospect, one might have secretly wished one was armed with a stun gun, facilitators generally try to avoid confrontation. Yet there’s no denying that sometimes people show up at public meetings looking for a fight, begging for outrage, and hoping to irritate and inflame.
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 1950’s and 1960’s were boom times for planning and building in the northeastern United States. Projects were designed and built seemingly overnight. For those who idolize Edmund Bacon (Philadelphia's director of city planning from 1949 to 1970) and Robert Moses (New York City’s master builder from 1924 to 1968), that was the time to plan and design and implement and build --quickly.
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.