Public Engagement – Planners’ Number One Responsibility 

By Leonard Bauer, FAICP, and Joyce Phillips, AICP

A good definition of a successful plan is one that results in:

  1. Its recommended actions being implemented with full support of the community, and
  2. Those actions leading to the realization of the plan’s goals and vision. 

As professional planners, we know the key to such a successful plan is a public engagement process with meaningful and significant contributions from a broad spectrum of the community. Without such a process, a plan may simply be the opinions of staff, a consultant, or a few “regular citizens” who come to every meeting. Even when adopted by a council or commission of duly elected representatives, a plan developed without significant public participation is hardly likely to embody the sentiment of the entire community.

It’s challenging to have that type of engagement from an entire community of very busy people. We planners often find ourselves lamenting (or to be more honest, whining and complaining) to each other that it seems almost impossible to get people to attend public meetings. I’ve heard more than one planner say it’s inevitable that, except when a well-organized opposition group has formed late in the process, only the “usual suspects” will participate in planning processes. 

We must resist that kind of thinking.

It is the primary obligation of our profession to empower communities to articulate a future vision and strive to achieve it.[i]  In other words, it is our responsibility as planners to facilitate community-wide discussion – after all, only the whole community can formulate a community vision. If the methods we’re using to elicit input from the public aren’t working, we must continue to explore other methods to truly engage them. 

Yes, it is a significant commitment of time, resources and creativity. But the benefits are worth it. As Ryan Hughes, AICP, said in last month’s The Washington Planner:

“Once that vision is developed and a viable pathway to realizing the vision has been discovered, the excitement and anticipation is palpable. In short, there is no limit what an empowered community can accomplish.”

Here are a few of the ways the City of Olympia is continually reaching out for more participation:

  • Schedule open houses, forums and workshops on different days and times throughout the process – for example, Saturday mornings, weeknight evenings, extended lunch hours – so people with varying schedules can participate.
  • Distribute eye-catching announcements about upcoming meetings at all public buildings, and at businesses and gathering places throughout the community.
  • Find out about as many different groups in the community as you can and offer to attend their meetings, especially early in a planning process. People appreciate a personal invitation to participate. 
  • Specifically invite all City advisory commissions (Heritage Commission, Parks Commission, etc.) to open houses and workshops.  Commission members are often well-connected and will spread ‘word-of-mouth’ advertising.
  • For current planning:  Hold a neighborhood information meeting within the first week or two of receiving a land use application.  Since we started this, we have had no appeals of land use decisions.
  • Online surveys can be very helpful if judiciously used, especially when a few major policy questions have been identified.
  • Interview people on the street; create pop-up information stands at public places and festivals.
  • Make it fun when you can (e.g. voting with instant polling results, distribute pretend money to ‘spend’ on different priorities, hands-on mapping activities)
  • Most importantly: Find ways to let people know their comments are heard and considered.  For example:
    • Publish summaries of comments and offer staff’s proposed response for more public feedback before decisions are made.
    • Once a plan is adopted, track and demonstrate how its recommendations are being implemented (See Olympia’s Action Plan as one example). This also has an extra benefit of continuing to remind the public what is in the plan that had received their support, and to help new residents learn about the plan.

I encourage other planners to use this newsletter to share other communities’ successes and ideas for increasing public engagement. 

[i] There’s a great reminder to us, whether AICP certified or not, in the AICP Code of Ethics, Section A.1:

Our primary obligation is to serve the public interest and we, therefore, owe our allegiance to a conscientiously attained concept of the public interest that is formulated through continuous and open debate. 

To comply with our obligation to the public, we aspire to the following principles…

e) We shall give people the opportunity to have a meaningful impact on the development of plans and programs that may affect them. Participation should be broad enough to include those who lack formal organization or influence.

Our Washington State Growth Management Act also requires “early and continuous” public participation in planning processes. See especially RCW 36.70A.140.

Return to the January/February issue of The Washington Planner