|The Public Process, Replugged|
It began with a simple thought: There arm’t nearly enough people here.
On an afternoon in late 2007, I was attending a public meeting held by the Minneapolis Planning Department to garner citizens’ input on the Minneapolis Plan for Sustainable Growth. As president of the City Planning Commission, my charge is to steward the vision for the growth of the city as outlined in its comprehensive plan. Webster defines stewardship as the “careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care.” The sensation of going through the motions at this particular meeting, and not really embracing the democratic notion of people shaping their own city, struck me as wasteful. The attendance and results led me to conclude that the planning commission wasn’t stewarding anything but our own opinions and those of city staff.
I’m 41 years old. I’m a landscape architect and lover of all things urban. I cherish Minneapolis. I know that the backbone of the democratic process is the degree to which it embraces the notion of the commons: When people are engaged in crafting what belongs to them, the results are richer. If given the opportunity to engage in the nitty-gritty of city building from the . most grassroots level, people would get involved. Why? Because they are already building the commons every day-engaging in their neighborhood organizations, volunteering for charitable organizations, holding events to improve the human condition.
We needed a new vehicle for community involvement in important planning decisions. I ruminated on what kind of process people might use to stir their love for their city and its commons into action. If constituents could easily access Minneapolis’s comprehensive plan online, when they desired-and if the interface were easy to use-they would be more able to offer their opinions. If they were given action items, and could go online to represent their thoughts after putting the kids to bed, they would be more engaged in building their city than by coming to a TOO p.m. public meeting. And if my friends (with children and jobs) would do this, younger generations, who have grown up in the globally connected, collaborative universe that is the web, would certainly embrace it.
I began talking to my fellow planning commissioners, the mayor, and planning staff about how Minneapolis could adopt this collaborative technology as a new tool and a supplemental way to gather public input-and not just for the comprehensive plan, but for the larger, more visionary capabilities #2 that the technology holds for rethinking the entire public process. Unlike the mayor, the Minneapolis planning staff was hesitant to embrace the idea. However, in a truly democratic and healthy collaborative community, why shouldn’t citizens have a say in decisions that affect their future? After all, that is a component of stewardship.
So, what needs to change? The Bud- .dhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh observes: “It takes 30 leaves to make the apple. We in the West are so accustomed to thinking only about the apple that we tend to overlook the leaves, the tree, and the ecosystem.”
The public process today pretends to be a desirable, ecosystem-based, bottom-up assertion of ideas by the people-but it actually tends to be an expert-driven, one-way dissemination of ideas from the top.
What prevents us from having the citizenry engaged from the outset? The answer, as Robert Reich illuminated in The Power of Public Ideas, goes back to the era of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, when “expert choice” was the preferred method for implementing policies. Public interest was deemed nonexistent; it came to be seen as merely multiple groups competing . for influence. As Reich points out, “Instead of finding the common good … the new language of public management saw the task in pluralist termsmaking ‘trade-offs,’ ‘balancing’ interests, engaging in ‘policy choices: and weighing the costs and benefits.”
This brought us to the current process of public participation: Experts ruminate on an idea; it is crafted into a policy, then drafted and given to the “public” for “input.” That input is limitedit is received for short periods of time and is seen as data to be reviewed for relevance by the experts. This means that the ultimate decision rests with a public official, who weighs the experts’ plans and reviews public opposition before making his or her own decision. The public’s role is purely reactive. They have no say in actually creating the plans, no true integrated opportunity to express their visions.
The “experts” have more information at their disposal to frame opinions and decisions than the public, which oftentimes possesses only the information of a staff report. This is why reactions are so strong when change is proposed, because the change is typically perceived to be a threat to personal identity, which can cause emotions to flare-I see this often at public hearings in Minneapolis. It happens because a sense of place helps form personal identity. People form distinct attachments to home, neighborhood, and city.
We should all have the right and op- and refocus the process of comrmmiz= portunityto interact with our governing participation. The earlier challenge – institutions from the outset, because having no efficient way of gathering – – what is being discussed affects us all. insights oflarge numbers of people We need to have both a new vision for been erased by the power of the Interne; how we participate in our right to pub- and social media. I have made strides lie engagement and a new ideology for toward this goal by using new tools ir: what the process of public engagement ways previously untested. These include is to become. Citizens should have ac- the use of web interfaces such as wikis, cess to all the information that pertains blogs, and social media like Facebook to the issue. Our country was founded and Twitter, used with a commons on the idea of the “commonwealth”; approach, and paired with face-to-face wealth was interpreted as “well-being.” interaction. This sense of common belonging-the essence of democracy-must be the In three instances over the past three starting point for a new approach to years I’ve tested this theory, moving collaborative community engagement. the ideas forward after each test and learning lessons along the way.
We currently don’t engage the public adequately. Reich notes that bureaucracies overwhelmingly reinforce “expert opinion” because they cannot imagine a method of public engagement that would foster “an efficient way of reaching agreement in so large a crowd.” He says that “identification of alternative solutions is primarily a technical task for which the average person has no particular competence or relevant knowledge.” This approach discourages-s-even disenfranchises-those who might want to participate by offering fresh ideas.
If we continue to follow this old model of public engagement, the public will inevitably feel indifferent, angry, and cynical. A commons-based process builds early collaborations, even across jurisdictions, to shape a shared vision. The best ideas do not come from a lone genius or experts, but rather are an amalgam of many ideas. If someone is truly involved in a process, he or she takes ownership of it. It matters to individuals that they are being taken seriously and genuinely heard.
If we hope to harness the idea-generating power of hundreds or thousands of people, we need new tools to enhance
The first instance focused on creating a wild for the Minneapolis Comprehensive Plan to encourage people to engage and help draft the content of the urban design chapter, while attempting to foster interaction. The Planning Department only allowed the urban design chapter of the plan to be tested within the small network of Minneapolis planning and design professionals, and was hosted by ASLA’s Minnesota chapter. The wild was live for a month and a half and garnered 473 unique visitors, was viewed I,32I times, and logged I89 changes-averaging four changes and II visitors per day. The best result from this pilot was that the city of Afton, Minnesota, called me to request information, and then ultimately officials with the city of Melbourne, Australia, posted their entire plan online, citing Afton as an example. I take this- as an indirect compliment.
The second instance involved a small private college south of Minneapolis- Carleton College in Northfield, with whom my firm was working at the time. We were asked for ways to engage the surrounding neighbors to cultivate goodwill and gather ideas for a proposed #4 renovation of an old school into a new arts center. We created a wild page with questions to solicit neighbors’ opinions and insights on the proposed arts center. People were able to write answers to the questions, rewrite answers, and discuss aspects of the project with each other. Neighborhood representatives facilitated learning by taking. laptops around to neighbors to educate them on how the new tools worked. This was an incredible success. Neighbors felt involved in a collaborative discussion, and the college gained insights it wouldn’t have otherwise. This new process strengthened the bond between the school and its neighbors and fostered even greater engagement.
Lastly, the North Loop Neighborhood Small Area Plan in Minneapolis was an opportunity to pilot the wiki idea again. The agreement was made to allow for the plan to be placed on a wild, but only after it had been drafted by city planners. Although it was not an ideal situation, I was happy to have the opportunity and intrigued by what I learned. Despite an educational brief during a public meeting, extensive advertisement by the neighborhood organization, and instructions on the site itself, no one offered any editing changes on the document during the 45 days it was live. Why? I believe it was owing to multiple factorsunfamiliarity with the system, difficulty understanding the web page, and a very text-dense front page. But there was a success: Three times more people (from multiple countries) visited the wild site than visited the city’s official site, thus reinforcing the notion of social media fostering awareness among large numbers of interested and engaged people. Think of the creative power possible in your neighborhoods and cities when this process reaches its potential. 126/ LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE MAGAZINE JULY 2011 Applying this kind of flexibility to the public process makes it clear that each project must have its own distinct process, as a single methodology cannot be devised to facilitate all public engagement. Effective participation is best conducted on the assumption that each unique situation will require a unique design, using a new combination of these tools as part of an evolving cycle of action. Participation is also overtly “political” in that it is about human beings, power, and knowledge-which are inherently complex and make for a potent mix that requires sensitivity and careful planning.
As Reich says, “Rather than view debate and controversy as managerial failures that make policy making and implementation more difficult…they should be seen as natural and desirable aspects of the formation of public values, contributing to society’s selfunderstanding.”
People expect to participate in public decision making but frequently can’t. By using this new digitally driven approach, we reignite people’s inherent capacity to act and innovate-an impulse that, over time, has become lost to the “experts.” Embedding this new commons-based participatory process into the way we plan for the public realm will bring improvements in Minneapolis and other communities around the world. This could have a lasting effect on achieving our goals of creating places that are more sustainable and resilient.
DAVID M. MOTZENBECKER. AS LA. IS A LlCENSED LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT AN ASSOCIATE PARTNER/ DIRECTOR OF LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE AT BKV GROUP IN MINNEAPOLlS, HE CURRENTLY SERVES AS THE PRESIOENT AND MAYOR’S REPRESENTATIVE FOR THE MINNEAPOLlS CITY PLANNING COMMISSION.