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Your planning commission has finally updated the community's comprehensive plan. After untold late night meetings, controversy, and compromise, you have approved the requisite maps and text that will guide planning decisions for some time to come. It is tempting to sit back and enjoy the lull until the next major development or zoning proposal comes your way. But by engaging citizens in planning when there are no deadlines or big issues to confront you can reap many benefits. Here are some ideas.
Nearly every community has street fairs, festivals, or celebratory events where citizens come together in a convivial atmosphere to meet and greet and enjoy each other's company. If tables or booths are available for groups to display materials or give out information, many cities take these opportunities to display their wares. Park departments show sketches of possible new or renovated facilities, schools have handouts about special programs, public works promotes recycling or conservation. Too often, however, planning is not represented even though its work affects everyone in the community in one way or another.
Join in the fun and be creative. Show photos or drawings of the different types of housing you want to encourage. Ask people to stick colored pins in that comprehensive plan map you labored over so intensely, showing where they work and live. Connecting the dots can show commuting patterns in an interesting way.
Distribute a short questionnaire. ("On a scale of one to five, with five being most important, which issues concern you most about our town ... traffic congestion, lack of bike and walking paths, changing character of downtown, etc."). The answers may surprise you and can be the beginning of community dialogue.
Consider displaying information in malls, markets, or libraries. The key is to know your community and meet and greet people where they are likely to congregate. ....
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Elaine 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.