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Engaging the Public

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As planning commissioners, it is vital that you find meaningful ways to engage the public in the planning process. Too often, communities simply go through the motions of advertising in the local paper, posting a notice in a public place, or notifying property owners because state law or local policy requires it. While these requirements do have some value, they may represent little more than soliciting objections rather than constructive engagement.

Faced with a continual barrage of lengthy agendas or highly controversial items, planning boards and staff understandably, but unfortunately, tend to overlook the art of more creatively engaging the community. While engagement strategies can take time and effort, they offer a number of benefits.

  • Engagement advances the planning commission's credibility and creates an atmosphere of trust.
  • Engagement allows the public to be part of the solution, rather than just being manipulated through a jaded procedural mechanism.
  • Engagement creates opportunities for planning boards to deliver improved recommendations.
  • Engagement can help establish a more consistent framework for both appointed and elected officials to make the most informed decisions about important issues.
  • Engagement fosters enthusiasm and excitement about best planning practices, and it involves the public in important policy considerations.
  • Engagement allows planning board members and staff to extend their knowledge of their community, and continue to learn.

... Approaches to Better Public Engagement

There are many ways of engaging the public. What follows are brief descriptions of several approaches you might consider. Perhaps you're already using some of them.

Neighborhood-based planning: One of the best ways to engage citizens in planning is by going out to their neighborhoods. Neighborhood-based planning is an old concept with tremendous power, but it is not used enough. While it may work best in municipalities which tend to have more distinct neighborhoods, rural areas can benefit as well, by identifying activity centers that target organized groups. If no group exists, then ask your staff to help establish one. Meetings should be held in the neighborhood, allowing input to flow more freely and pertinent issues unfold. In Beaufort County, South Carolina, for example, geographically based planning subcommittees meet with residents and stakeholders prior to each regular planning commission meeting to discuss agenda items that affect them.

Neighborhood planning can also be linked to U.S. Census boundaries which provide an automatic demographic database from which to measure and evaluate methods and results. It sounds like a lot of extra work, but if done strategically, the dividend is worth the effort. The influence of the neighborhood increases by being incorporated into major planning documents, giving it strength in getting decision-makers to listen.

Developer Assisted Outreach: Before a development plan is submitted, call on the applicant to engage in a reasonable, yet vigorous, public outreach campaign. Such engagement can lead to significant improvements to the development plan, as the neighborhood becomes part of the design solution. At the same time, the rumor mill will be tamed, and you'll preempt heated public meetings where issues explode only to delay the process or build acrimony. With this approach to engagement, encourage the developer to provide documentation such as minutes, or even a video recording, of their efforts to engage the public.

... the article continues with a look at: Technology and Graphics; Websites; Pilot Project Planning; Discovery Sessions; and Community Planning Showcases.

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