Forget What You Know About Public Engagement

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What do you want to see in your neighborhood? What do you want to see in your park? What do you want to see on your street? These are questions that, on the surface, seem inclusive, democratic, and generous. And they are some of the most common ways that towns, cities, and consulting firms—and even community groups—conduct public engagement: hold a visioning session; listen to what people want to see in their neighborhood; record what is said; and weave the feedback into a community plan, an overlay, or some variation thereof. We’ve done our due diligence, listened to the community; now it is public record, and the neighborhood can change and improve in ways that truly reflect the wishes of its residents.

Tapping into local, on-the-ground neighborhood knowledge is at the core of effective and forward-thinking urban planning and design, landscape design, architecture, and the efforts of everyday residents to better their neighborhoods and communities, as you uncover insights that no outsider, however astute, could on their own; yet merely asking people what they want to see does not always generate the kinds of meaningful feedback that can paint a nuanced and layered picture of the community or of the neighborhood’s knowledge and aspirations. In fact, when we are asked point-blank what we want, we oftentimes default to something that contains very little in the way of aspiration or nuance, and instead we focus on perceived threats or immediate needs—the most common being more parking, less traffic, and no density.

Rethinking Talking

Precisely in response to the limitations and drawbacks of conventional community engagement, there have been numerous efforts in recent years to rethink public outreach across the country. We have seen the rise of the Post-it note in public meetings and on boards as a way of both visually recording and prioritizing residents’ ideas; we’ve seen the rise of stickers as a way of giving everyday residents a means of ranking proposed planning ideas. We’ve also seen a rise in virtual forms of participation: online surveys, apps, and start-ups that seek to be one-stop shops for facilitating a range of information-gathering and measuring results. These companies offer services that cities and municipalities can contract out in order to conduct their engagement and outreach if their planning staff is too busy with other work.

While these attempts to create more meaningful and effective modes of community engagement are welcome alternatives, they fall short on one key point: they still rely heavily on the word, both written and spoken. While language indeed offers up rich opportunities for expression—in essays, literature, poetry, for example—when it serves as the primary medium of expression within community engagement, it tends to be a limiting factor in terms of both who speaks and what is said.

Psychologists who weave art therapy into their practices understand this phenomenon well: what emerges from talking versus using one’s hands is oftentimes quite different. Says Patricia Muñoz of working with some of her younger patients in her family therapy practice in Los Angeles, “You will ask them, ‘How’s school going?’ And they’ll say, ‘Oh fine, oh good.’ And I’ll ask, ‘Is anything going on?’ ‘No. nothing’s going on.’” But then, Muñoz will have the young people use objects to play out a scene from their day, or draw a picture, and it becomes clear through the placement of the objects, the story accompanying them, or the scenes depicted within the drawings, that everything isn’t just fine, and a lot has happened that day, some of which can be quite negative.

As Muñoz points out, what we are doing when we are using our talking brain is in part focusing on perceived immediate needs and survival. And if your trip to the community meeting—or your day in general—involves sitting in traffic, looking for parking, and dealing with crowds, your talking mind will translate those experiences into both threats and basic needs for survival. “And unless those things are tackled and taken care of, most of us cannot be creative and cannot think outside the box, because most of us are just thinking about survival,” said Muñoz. And so, despite the expertly crafted presentation by city planners on walkable streets, we will continue to fixate on something as humdrum as parking, or rightly focus on past wrongs we feel the city has committed. Wadehra also adds that in times of great change, this kind of frozen-state fixation on perceived needs for survival is even more amplified.

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