Saturday, September 6

Public participation actually works

Public participation has been the official goal of the planning profession for a few decades now. Planners have realized that no level of data analysis abilities or technical design expertise can create, by simple fiat, cities that people actually want to live in. Citizens have to build their own cities, and planners are there to organize and lend a hand in this effort. This role of a "community organizer" is no less important than that of a master architect, but it can feel a bit tedious as all of the messy, overlapping interests and identities of a place seem to be a tangled knot. Sometimes you can hear slight (off the record) murmurs, "why can't they just listen to us experts? This is a matter of design, not politics." But that would take us back to square one.

This is why it's good to hear, from time to time, that all of the messy efforts of democracy are worth the time. I just discovered the insightful blog of a fellow planning student living one state north of me, Rob Goodspeed. He links to a new study by the National Academy of Sciences which purports to show that the level of public participation leads to better environmental decisions. Better both in terms of the quality of the actual polices and the ability to move the policies into implementation. (I don't want to buy the report, so I can't vouch the evidence itself.) This is refreshing to hear.

Goodspeed mentions a couple of other studies related more specifically to planning and concludes,

"I think the lesson from the National Academies panel must be driven home to the urban development community. Since we are so intimate with participation, we lose perspective on its broader importance and role. Given the legal requirements for transparency and professional approaches to participation, the key is to look beyond an obsession with the intellectually vague “NIMBYism” and design processes that foster consensus and prevent Morriss Fiorina’s “Extreme Voices” from having a monopoly. In particular, I think it means designing processes that are less time-intensive and allow involvement on a wider scale of commitment levels."

Here, here.

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