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The Effective Planning Commissioner

Do You Have the “Write” Stuff?

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There are two ways planning staff communicates with the public: verbally -- over the counter, personal meetings, on the phone, and at commission meetings; or through written notices, announcements, FAX, letters, and formal documents. The advantage of face-to-face, or even voice-to-voice, communication is that an alert listener can look for body language or voice inflection to get some idea about what the other person is thinking and try to clear up any misunderstandings.

A written communication does not have those advantages. It is one-way. You compose it and send it out, hoping the receiver will get the message and interpret it your way. Planners use writing as a primary mode of communication in many instances, expecting the public to understand the subject or issue and respond appropriately. And too often, the words are written to satisfy legal requirements, with little or no consideration for the receiver, generally a layperson with only vague knowledge of planning jargon.

This is an example of a real notice sent by a Planning Department USA. Its style should be familiar to most planning commissioners and staff.

Notice of Hearing to Rezone Property

Regarding Petition No. 178922 PB, related to former Petition NOl5588210 PB, tax parcel 089345-214-576. The city is entertaining said petition from Thomas Henderson, owner of property at 2900 Elm Street, to rezone the property from RS-2 to PS. The first public hearing will be held ...

Read this notice from the citizen's point of view. If you think there is nothing wrong with it as the primary way to communicate about proposed planning actions, look again. It may satisfy all the legal requirements, but it fails to help the lay reader understand what may happen to an area of town they probably care about. ...

End of excerpt

photo of Elaine CoganElaine Cogan, founding principal of the Portland, Oregon planning and communications firm of Cogan Owens Cogan, has consulted for more than 36 years with communities undertaking strategic planning and visioning processes. Cogan has been honored for her work on a variety of citizen involvement projects.

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