CPTC: Planning with Community Support

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Training module given by the Citizen Planner Training Collaborative, on November 9, 2022. Ezra Glenn of MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning presented.

Planning with community support is the only kind of planning that makes sense. Every time we need to plan, we need to plan together.

When asking people for their input, let them know that they were heard, and how you intend to respond.

Planning asks where are we now, what do we want to be, and how do we want to get there? It's the process of deciding what to do, along with how and where and when. It's an investment in doing things better.

The planning process is typically broken down like this:

  • Define a problem and set goals
  • Gather information
  • Make projections and forecasts (think about the future)
  • Define alternatives (planning is about choices)
  • Select a preferred course of action
  • Implement

Once you've done these steps, go back, evaluate, and repeat as necessary. It's really a circular process. To plan with community support, you include the public in all of these steps. Here are some tips for including groups in the process:

  • Go to their meetings (rather than making them come to yours)
  • Make it fun and creative
  • Provide information ahead of time
  • Connect with people where they are
  • Make it their meeting, not just yours
  • Make it their process too
  • Keep on track and show progress

The challenge is that you don't control the process, but are still expected to produce a result.

Planning matters; the decisions you make will affect people's lives. People benefit when things work well.

In Massachusetts, common plans include Master Plans, Housing Production Plans, Open Space and Recreation Plan, preservation programs, and Brownfield Area Wide Plans.

Getting the public on board. The goal is to have public participation throughout the entire process. Try to get diverse representation. Adopting and implementing plans is much easier when you have community support.

Transparency, trust, and equity should be part of the process. Transparency means that everyone should know what's going on. Trust depends on relationship building. Equity and inclusion matter because planning is a moral field. When we focus on equity, we're more likely to get it.

Consensus is another important part of the process. Consensus involves hearing everyone's opinions and making decisions that respect those opinions. Consensus is not unanimity or a majority; it's something we agree to move forward with.

Respect that some people will be more affected than others. Ask and listen. Ask participants how they will participate; the first step is agreeing on why we're here.

Follow through. Let participants know how their income affected the outcome. Acknowledge the input that people gave.

Tools and techniques. There are several frameworks for involving the public. One of them is the steering committee to guide and oversee the planning process. The committee allows citizens to shape the plan and recommendations. Steering committees are often composed of members of existing groups.

Work can be done with or without a consultant. When you're working without a consultant, its the members of the steering committee that will do all of the work. Only create a steering committee if you're willing to let them steer. The are other alternatives, if a steering committee isn't appropriate for your situation. Working groups or advisory committees, for example.

Your effort may have a website or social media component. Be sure to have a strategy in place before starting to work on the website or setting up the social media accounts. Decide whether on-line communication will be one-way or two-way. Ideally, you'll want to find people who are familiar with these mediums and are able to use them well. Realize that some members of the public don't use these forums. It's best to utilize multiple channels for communication.

Consider having an implementation committee, to oversee implementation, to evaluate, and to propose modifications as necessary. Think about who's going to do this.

Focus groups and stakeholder interviews are other tools for public engagement. These are an effective way to reach specific groups.

While you should do workshops, meetings, and events, these shouldn't be the only outreach tools you use. Think about who you want to be there, what you want them to know, and what you want to get from them. Examples are SWOT (strength, weakness, opportunity, threat) analysis, open houses, visioning sessions, neighborhood forums, field trips, charettes, and group mapping exercises.

Imagine having a map on the table. People will engage with it more than a map hanging on the wall, or projected onto a screen. Provide markers or sticky notes for people to put on the map.

Surveys are useful tools for gathering input, and survey results should be reported back to the public. Good surveys require a lot of thought. The survey and the questions themselves should be as concise as possible.

Public hearings are often a required part of the process, but they're not a great way to form proposals. Hearings should be the last engagement strategy that you use; never the first.

There's a difference between community-based engagement and project-based engagement. The former focuses more on community building; the latter generally involves something more specific. Project-based engagements are easier when you have the community's support. Community engagement is the long game.

There's a range of public engagement options. You can inform, consult, involve, collaborate, or empower. Each involves getting something from the public, and giving something back to the public in return.

Question: What are your thoughts on neighborhood defenders, who might not be interested in consensus, or who might prefer not to see a particular problem solved?

Answer: You can diffuse any concern that a decision has already been made. Start with "we expect that there's a problem, and we want to see if there really is". Sometimes opportunities come from where people think you're going to go. It's also possible to expand the scope of who "the public" is.

Regional planning agencies can be an asset here, and generally have resources to provide.

Question: Do you have any suggestions for encouraging people to answer surveys?

Answer: Send the surveys out to as many people as you can. You might consider having a drawing from among survey respondents. Make the survey simple and quick to do.

Question: What about groups that form to push in a particular direction.

Answer: Naturally, there will be groups that support and oppose particular ideas. Try to bring them both into the conversation.

Question: How do you navigate the desire for local autonomy vs the need to address regional challenges.

Answer: Both have stakeholders. Navigating this balance requires conversation, respect for each other, and building trust. Remember that planning processes are deliberative democracy.