I recently was asked to present on a panel focused on public engagement. This was an opportunity for me to gather my thoughts on Public engagement and how I utilize all of these tools in the communities I have worked. It also provided me the opportunity to share how I have managed over planned, under performing communities.
Many communities are exhausted from years of planning. The Charrette is a tool, but unfortunately a Charrette has become a term that has lost a positive meaning. Many times it misses the mark of public engagement. We joke in our office that we need to get off the cart, and take action.
A little history, Savannah is master planned community and hands down one of the most exciting plans. Most planners talk about the squares and the block structure. However, we forget about Oglethorpe and his tent in the foreground, We need to remember that someone was in the tent implementing this plan.
As planners, we need to stop being shelf fillers. We are all really good at making great plans. we create these plans, package them with wonderful drawings and eloquent text, and everyone once in a while we pull them off the shelf. Too many of us have long shelves. We need to get off the shelf and into the tent.
These communities are over planned and the plans have under performed. Although we have great plans, there have been very little physical changes. Tactical Urbanism has provided my department some clarity on this issue. It is a mistake to think Tactile Urbanism is guerrilla warfare against sprawl. Tactical urbanism is living approach to community building.
Micro Action Planning (MAP) provides an action oriented bottom up approach to planning. This chaotic but smart approach empowers local residents to improve their community at the level of the block and lot. Micro Action Planning has the following keep principles:
- Action Oriented: Physical things need to happen
- Bottom-Up Approach: Ideas must come from the Community, not the Planner
- Chaotic but Smart: Accept that there will be a level of failure in our actions
- Empower Local Residents: Allow Stakeholders to emerge and take ownership
- Improves the Community at the Level of the Block and Lot: These projects are at the smallest level of development and not broad strokes
Because I represent government, we needed a bureaucratic system that could operate without bureaucracy. This type of planning had nothing to do with urban design, but with city managment. We created a vessel to manage our urban design projects. The hard work is making this look difficult to the paper pushers, make it look simple to the public, and utilize the minimum amount of staff time from my department.
Our program is a process for implementation. We start at the bottom with community desire. We empower the public through a local stakeholder group, and we manage expectations. With a focus on projects under $10,000. For the beuracrric staff we focus on their realm of procedures, policies, and rules. We have to provide a system that they are familiar with and can thrive in. These are the measures of local government and utilized by your local planning staff. Micro Action Planning must operate in this system, but should never be driven by this system.
Now the Achilles heal of local government and the legitimacy for the public gathering comes in the form of the “Trinity” of a successful public process: Sign-In, Public Stakeholders, and a Logo. The Sign-In sheet proves that many people met which shows desire. The public is a gaseous form avoided by most staff. Finally the logo is the flag that legitimize and provides authority to the process. In my experience, I have used my department logo and name. If you community does not have something like this, then spend a couple of minutes to create a civic community action group like a Garden Club, Civic Club, or Homeowners Group.
Desire comes in many forms, and we need to embrace this desire. We need to be on the ground and work with our communities. Our process involves harnessing this desire by asking these residents to invite their neighbors to a public meeting. We also invite a local planner to host an evening workshop, and provide technical support, ie we print maps and post agendas.
The government is not involved, neighbors work with neighbors and talk about their neighborhood.
We document the meeting and we listen. This is not about solutions, it is about listening. This can be very hard, but we do not want to be at the center of this the goal of this supportive role, is to empower the residents to take action in their own community. The resident is presenting the plan to his community, and staff is on the right and does not have to talk.
We document what we hear into a simple plan. Each idea or need is mapped. This drawing allows residents to prioritize projects and allows the county planners to go loose. While they are completing their studies we are taking action in the community. This also allows for Staff to organize the community’s needs. During one of our Micro Action Planning sessions, we documented 50-60 items that needed attention in a community. On the surface this was overwhelming, and led to complacency. However, when we organized these issues, we found that 100% of the issues could be resolved through the daily operating procedures of Public Works. These are budgeted projects that occur on a daily basis.
What we are finding is much of the work is within the parameters of our county’s daily operating procedures, and we are able to improve the community. This buys us time to attack the harder projects where we may not have the policies, rules, or procedures in place to act. It also builds trust between the Community and the Government. I cannot stress how valuable this social capital.
Micro Action Planning can be applied to any location, and can be initiated by residents or manciple staff. It is about making physical improvements and taking action at the level of the block and street. Small steps on your way to larger improvements in your community.