Public Engagement includes Educating: from MindMixer

As I’ve written elsewhere, I came into my public engagement/urban planning/economic revitalization work through a weird side door.  I have a degree in education, and taught middle school English for a couple of years before I started my tangled professional journey.  I don’t think I know another person in this work who comes from that background.  Even though I haven’t taught in a classroom for years, that teaching perspective still pervades my approach — when I work with community members, someone usually figures out that I’m an ex-teacher within about 10 minutes of when I first open my mouth.

As a result, I’ve often felt that planning and economic development tend to give that public education element of the planning and decision-making process less attention than they should.  We tend to assume that if we tell the public once, in a dense, top-heavy “existing conditions” report, then everyone will have magically absorbed every one of the facts that we put in it.  There’s a reason why teachers don’t just thrown The Scarlett Letter at you and tell you there will be a test on Friday.  Getting you to the point of understanding it takes much more hands-on work than that.

This piece that MindMixer ran in August doesn’t get into an exhaustive review of the educational components of their projects, but it gives a decent overview of how that element played out in a variety of planning and transportation projects.  Regardless of what type of initiative you’re doing public engagement about, put some serious thought into how you can best bring the community along to understand the context and the options better.  Don’t just assume that they’ll read a think report, and that if they don’t, “they just don’t care.”

And you might find it useful to talk to a teacher.  They know a think or two about it.

Here’s MindMixer:

As Jim Morrison said, “Summer’s almost gone.”

But the approaching fall doesn’t have to just mean an end to lazy days by the pool and afternoons of freedom for school children. It can also be about renewal. New beginnings.

No one understands the value of starting fresh quite like planners and design professionals. Coming up with a comprehensive plan or drawing a blueprint for a new public library holds limitless potential. The idea of creating something from scratch is exciting, just like the anticipation of a new year at school.

Along with that sense of renewal, of course, comes the chance to learn something new. Just like in school, in design and planning there is an opportunity for the expert to not only educate the people on his or her meticulous process and grand scheme, but there is also the chance for the people to educate the expert on the things they love about where they live. The people and the plan become more informed.

We’ve worked with a number of different design professionals and planners who have made education a pillar of their projects.


In the early stages of planning the Kansas City streetcar starter line and extensions, providing information has been half the battle.

“We are constantly educating the people about a streetcar and what it can do – how safe, how quiet, how much it will cost,” explains Gunnar Hand of the architecture firm BNIM, which is leading the project.

People have preconceived notions about what a streetcar will mean for them personally and, at least in Kansas City, it has been a barrier so far to making progress on the return of rail.

Gunnar says as more people are educated, public sentiment will continue to shift, but it’s an ongoing process.

In Lindfield, Australia, just outside Sydney, the city, residents and architects at BVN Donovan Hill are getting public input on plans to transform a vacated college campus into a school for life-long learning. The “School of the Future” project is about getting an entire community to think differently about something they’ve always known to be one way.

“It’s about reinterpretation of the site, the educational model, how learning takes place, and the way in which a school might engage with a community.”

As BVN’s Fiona Young explains, that reinterpretation has to happen hand-in-hand with a re-education of the community that the school of the future will serve.

playgroundIn the Windy City, the Chicago Park District has nearly 600 parks to maintain and 2.7 million people to please. For the city, starting fresh has meant creating a budget alongside those parkgoers. It has meant asking for their help in setting the priorities for the places they love.

For many people, the priority is the children. With that in mind, the district is working with the mayor’s office to identify the playgrounds throughout the city that are most in need of rejuvenation through theChicago Plays program.

A large part of what is making that partnership work is educating people on the improvements. Of the city’s 523 playgrounds, the city explains to residents, 300 are at least 15 years old and “in need of replacement.” Over the next five years, they will all be addressed, with neighborhoods lobbying to get their playgrounds at the top of the list, and agreeing to maintain them once they’re rebuilt. Before any of that happens, 600 people have participated in the playground nomination process atImprove Chicago Parks.

palmtreesSouthern Florida governments and the National Park Service are working together to create a path that would make access safer and more sustainable in the treasured Everglades National Park. It’s a controversial topic, and residents raised questions about the project’s impact on the delicate environment and the wildlife that inhabit it from the beginning.

In stepped education. Planners held regular and methodical public meetings across the region, inviting people to learn more, and share their concerns about the path’s effect. Supplemental information was made available and questions were answered round-the-clock at theRiver of Grass Greenway engagement site. The continuing conversation has both educated people and shaped the greenway.

The coupling of education and renewal of these projects has strengthened the planning process and ultimately encouraged people to take ownership of the plans themselves. “We do think that opening minds to possibilities and helping people think broadly is critical to the process, and we’re delighted to see the conversations emerging,” Fiona Young explains about the Lindfield School of the Future project.

Through working with the public, Fiona says, her team of planners has learned tactics they can utilize in projects in the years to come. “We’re getting a sense from the community of what we need to make clearer,” she explains.

“This helps us shape our next steps and strategize the process ahead.”




1 Comment

  1. Della, thanks so much for reposting this article. And thanks for reinforcing our view that there are many excellent tools available each with its own strengths and ideal uses. It’s so true that start-ups tend to want to “boil the ocean” and suggest that their applicability is far broader than it is. We’ve really benefited from finding our niche and sticking to it. Our projects are more successful and our clients are thrilled with the results.

    You are quite right – many of the leading offerings have flexibility. Over many years of projects we have developed and refined a library of screen types, each one designed to accomplish specific engagement objectives. Clients pick up to 5 of them to meet the needs of each phase of their outreach for the project. We tailor the selected screens for the project and set them up to be presented to the public in a certain order. We now have what we consider to be a full complement of screens to choose from. Some favorites are here: You’ll see screens designed for budgeting, project selection, map comments and routing, scenario voting, priority ranking, visual preferences, etc.

    You are correct that MetroQuest is a structured engagement process that guides participants through a series of steps. While we don’t force participants to follow the order, we present them as numbered steps and most do follow the path. We find that this structure is useful. For example, it’s really handy to encourage participants to rank their priorities first as it allows us to customize what they see next according to the issues that are most important to them. That really helps keep the engagement meter in the hot zone!

    The primary point I wanted to make with the post is that MetroQuest is not used as an early stage idea generator, but more so, where there are ideas/strategies/alternatives being formulated and the agency wants the public’s opinion, priorities and preferences while allowing for some new ideas to be offered.

    Thanks again and best wishes.

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