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Notes from the Editor

You Can Help Fight “Apathy”

Last night I watched a terrific short TED Talk by Dave Meslin of Toronto. It focused on a question many planners and planning commissioners think about: “just why don’t more people in the community seem to care about the important issues our community is facing?”

Meslin turns the idea that people don’t participate because they are apathetic on its head. Instead, he says the real problem is found in the obstacles we place in the way of public participation. Take a look at his seven minute video.

We’ve also noted the importance of public notice signs — but not as memorably as Meslin does in his TED Talk.

Over the years in the Planning Commissioners Journal — and now on — we’ve regularly reminded planners to try to put themselves in the public’s shoes. Don’t assume people know how the planning process works. Avoid jargon. Provide clear explanations of items on the meeting agenda.

Here’s some of what Elaine Cogan noted in First on the Agenda is the Agenda!:

  • Do everything possible to make the public comfortable. Print sufficient agendas for all to have one … Also, make sure there are sufficient copies of any graphics or explanatory material.
  • Make sure the agenda is written in words and phrases easily understood by the public. How long did it take you, as a layperson, before you finally understood planning jargon? Put yourself in the shoes of the citizen who is attending her first meeting. You probably need to use legal terminology when you are actually voting, but that should not preclude an explanation on the agenda that is in plain English.
  • Are you expecting a turnout of non-English speaking people? Translate the agenda into one or more other languages beforehand and engage interpreters to be available at the meeting.
  • Provide a simple explanation of the board’s procedures on each agenda or on a separate handout. What is the purpose of a first reading? Second? Do you require simple majorities or unanimous votes? What general rules of procedure do you follow?