Citizens should take advantage of planning rules of public engagement

By Guest Columnist DENISE STARLING, executive director of Livable Buckhead Inc.

Imagine you’re getting ready to enjoy dinner at a top-notch restaurant for a special occasion. You’ve been looking forward to eating there for years, envisioning the delicious dishes that await you. When the evening finally arrives, you take your seat at the table, look over the menu and tell the waiter, “Just let the chef decide what we’ll have tonight.”

What? You’re going to let someone else decide which meal you’ll have? Sure, the chef will select something fabulous, but what if it happens to be something that isn’t quite up your alley? The chef doesn’t know that you are allergic to peanuts or that the thought of escargot makes you gag. How was she to know?

A similar scenario often occurs during the public engagement phase of a community project. Community members see a proposed concept and presume that they don’t have any opportunity to shape it. They assume that the meal has already arrived at the table, when in reality the planners are waiting to hear what type of dressing they’d like on their salad. Through public engagement, residents and business owners can add their concerns and their ideas to the vision, shaping the project to better meet the community’s needs.

Denise Starling

As any good planner will tell you, public engagement isn’t a “check the box” step in the planning process. It is a key element of the design phase, and good public engagement makes the project better.

The public plays a vital role in shaping the course of a project as it moves from concept to reality. Planners need to understand what the community wants from the project, and what concerns need to be addressed.

I’ve worked on many projects in Buckhead during the past 12 years, and I’ve seen that hold true time and again. Our face-to-face meetings with community members can be some of the most productive, positive portions of the entire project. It’s in my interest as a planner to make sure that a project responds to the community’s concerns. There’s no better way to make that happen than by sitting down and talking through concerns and possible solutions.

These days I am spending a lot of time with various Buckhead community groups, getting their input on the concept for the GA 400 Trail. We’ve already received several good suggestions that may be small in the overall scheme of things, but which will make the trail a better, more successful project in the end.

How does public engagement work? The exact process varies depending on the project, but,generally speaking, it takes place on several levels:

• Communication via mass media (newspapers, TV, etc.)

• Direct communication via social media, neighborhood newsletters, etc.

• Direct communication via public meetings

• One-on-one conversations

The ultimate goal is to let everyone who will be affected by the project know about the concept and provide a means for them to give their input. That’s a big challenge. After all, going door-to-door isn’t a realistic way to get the word out to hundreds of people.

So let’s say you pick up the paper (or log on to the SaportaReport) one day and you see that a new park or trail has been proposed for a stretch of unused land next to your neighborhood. What do you do? You have two choices:

a. Wonder why in the world you’re just now hearing about this. Shouldn’t someone have let you know before you read it in the paper?

b. Realize that this is the perfect time to learn about this project. The public meeting is just a couple of weeks away. You can work with the planners to shape the project, minimizing any negative impact on your neighborhood and making sure that they’re considering the project from your perspective. After all, you are the expert on how your neighborhood works.

Obviously, the second option is much more productive. You – the neighborhood expert who lives and/or works here – can provide valuable insight on what you value in your community and how the proposed project might affect that. In return, planners can provide information about specific aspects of the project and discuss possible ways to address your concerns.

For public engagement to yield the best results, there are a few basic rules to follow:

Rule #1: Show up. The best public engagement process in the world can’t be successful if the “public” doesn’t participate.

Rule #2: Educate yourself. Public meetings are a great place to get information, but you need to do a little legwork on your own too. Take a field trip to similar projects and see how they’ve turned out,or read about them online. You’ll be more informed and ready to offer the best input possible.

Rule #3: Don’t go looking for a fight. Planners want to hear your concerns and will do what they can to address them in their design. In most cases, you want the same thing – a good project that will benefit the community.

Rule #4: Not everyone will be happy. Keep in mind that Rule #3 doesn’t mean that everyone gets everything they want. Compromises will have to be made, but in the end a collaborative process always yields the best results.

Remember that public engagement is not just a formality. Planners are openly seeking your feedback and expertise. If you want to shape the future of your community, this is a great place to start.

Denise Starling is executive director of Livable Buckhead, a nonprofit organization with a mission to ensure the long term vitality and prosperity of Buckhead through community-based strategies and programs. For more information on Livable Buckhead, visit www.livablebuckhead.org.

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