Rethinking Public Input for More Equitable Results
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The community meeting is intended to be the ultimate democratic process. By giving every community member the opportunity to show up and make their voices heard, public meetings should lead to beneficial outcomes.
These opportunities for public feedback about housing development create veto points whereby citizen objections can delay or even stop the construction of new housing. In theory, this is a good thing: it empowers neighborhoods that were historically disadvantaged in the planning process to have a say about what happens in their community.
In practice, these meetings don’t empower community members equally. Minutes for meetings about new housing development in almost 100 Massachusetts cities and towns show that commenters are disproportionately white, male, older, and homeowners. The majority are also opposed to new housing development – 63% of all comments registered were negative.
It’s a trend that’s consistent in affluent suburbs, big cities, small cities, poor cities, and diverse cities. These meetings advantage a privileged group to protect their neighborhood boundaries.
In 2018, demand for new housing in the United States outpaced supply by 370,000 units. The meeting attendees who come out to oppose new housing are preventing communities from meeting this demand. And when developments are approved, they are more likely to be located in historically disadvantaged neighborhoods that aren’t empowered to participate in the process.
As projects proceed through the permitting process, the redesigns and additional studies that have to be undertaken as a result of pushback add significant costs for developers. Beyond the expense of producing new studies, one month of delays can add around $250,000 to the cost of a large real estate development project – leaving less room for affordable housing units and other community benefits.
A common refrain in response to these challenges is to suggest that communities change how, or when, in-person meetings are held. By shifting meeting times or offering childcare, the logic goes, more community members will be able to attend.
While these initiatives could increase attendance, they may motivate more project opponents to attend. Research on “Get Out The Vote” (GOTV) operations on political campaigns offers illustrative and cautionary lessons. While many GOTV operations produce higher turnout, greater participation does not mean more equal participation. The bulk increase participatory inequalities by turning out already over-represented individuals.
This isn’t to say community meetings should disappear. They’re a key part of the process. Rather, municipal planners and real estate developers need to offer other opportunities for community members to provide their input.
Online community engagement can provide a simple way for more people to participate in the conversation. Text-to-comment functionality, translation services, and opportunities for structured input offer pathways for feedback outside of the meeting room. These additional channels lower barriers to participation and make community conversations more accessible.
The difference between online and in-person feedback is striking. Across all projects on coUrbanize’s community engagement platform for real estate and planning, 80% of feedback is positive or neutral. Compare that to data from meetings showing that 63% of comments are in opposition to proposed projects.
More old-fashioned outreach can also be effective. Local officials could forge relationships with local community organizations to better reach underserved populations. In Milwaukee, WI, a local alderman representing a diverse district lamented the homogeneity of meeting attendees for a proposed affordable housing development in his neighborhood. He reached out to a local faith community in his district, asking them to encourage their constituents to reach out by phone to provide their views on the proposed development. In contrast to the negative in-person discourse, he found that the people contacted by phone were a more diverse subset of the population, and were far more positive towards the new housing ideas. Despite sizable neighborhood opposition—with all the neighborhood groups voting in opposition to the project—the city councilor decided to vote for it because the majority of phone calls were supportive.
Structural changes can also mitigate the impact of the vocal minority who make up the majority of comments in public meetings. In many public meetings, officials hand down decisions immediately after deliberating over public comment. Incorporating a waiting period into the process would allow board members to incorporate the full body of evidence into their decision; rather than subjecting their decision to recency bias.
Boards should publish clear guidelines about the studies that developers will be asked to provide. Boards frequently ask developers to provide additional (and costly) traffic, engineering, shadow, and parking studies (among others) – often to appease angry neighbors.
By demanding studies until one offers the desired result, communities are increasing costs & delays, and potentially basing important decisions on invalid studies. Setting clear standards for studies reduces their use as a delay tactic and provides planning boards with better information.
The public meeting is a crucial tool for communities, but it isn’t sufficient. To meet the demand for housing in our communities, we need to rethink how we hear and evaluate public input.
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Look at ZenCity as a technology to aggregate public comments.
Then there is the problem of the “scripted” public meeting.
Many public meeting are designed to exclude public Q&A which featured inclusion of all attendees. Instead, attendees are asked to walk around and talk informally with city staff experts stationed at several different points. Commonly the “post it” idea recording method is also implemented.
1) This method tamps form the public’s ability to participate in a true learning organization. This outcome denies all stakeholders the benefits of open fully informed dialogue.
2) The impression that city staff commonly orchestrates public meetings with the conclusions already foregone, is reinforced. Since there is no group Q&A allowed, even when specifically requested, the message sent to the public is clear—city staff wants a carefully choreographed meeting which yields the outcomes for which city staff is looking. This outcome erodes trust in municipal government.
3) Since no credible learning organization experience is realized, all stakeholders are denied the value of questions, ideas, and observations which were never enjoyed being part of the public discourse.
Conclusion: We all benefit when the process is inclusive and robust “all included” Q&A.
Aim high to serve the public interest.
Those interested in this topic may be interested in my paper on public participation, which has an emphasis on equity and marginalized communities. If you’d like a copy, send me an e-mail. email@example.com
This is a classic example of how structural systems, designed to reflect values like democracy and civic duty, often fail to account for human behavior. Having to stand in a group of people whom you do not necessarily know or trust, but whom you likely live around, and voicing your opinion is not something everyone is comfortable with doing. The spectrum of least to most comfortable with public community speaking may correlate with socio-economic status, language barriers, citizenship, or any number of related factors and we see this dynamic playout across a broad range of issues from PTA meetings to, as the author points out, voting. It points to a largely conflict between systems designed to reflect values—ones that require people to meet a challenge regardless of how hard it is for them or be punished in some way (school, finances, legal issues…) and democratic and social values that strive for inclusion. It is a philosophical conflict. Unfortunately, we do not have civic systems that allow sustained and evolutionary discourse in which people could work out such conflicts. The one good thing about community-developer meetings is that they are one of very few public gathering and problem solving venues we have left.