How Public Engagement Supports Project Success (everywhere except Pawnee)

Fans of the hit NBC sitcom Parks & Recreation know that public forums in the fictitious town of Pawnee, Indiana, are never short on hilarities and horrors. Comedian Amy Poehler plays Leslie Knope, the enthusiastic deputy director of the local Parks Department who's never discouraged when town hall meetings go careening off-track into chants of "ham and mayonnaise!" In reality, though, we can be thankful that most citizens aren't as rambunctious as Pawnee's. They play a vital role in guiding the development of city and community projects.

As an engineer for GS&P, it might strike you as odd that the part I love most about my  profession is public engagement. I appreciate the benefit of getting residents involved in planning early and often; their feedback is essential to ensuring that a project will meet the current and future needs of its actual users. While most transportation and land-use projects require a public engagement component in order to qualify for funding and move a project forward, it's important to not treat these meetings and interactions as a box that simply needs to be ticked. Planners and engineers can come up with some great concepts, but until we seek out a local perspective, there is a "guessing game" element to our work. Public engagement presents a unique opportunity to get solid feedback that steers decision-making in the right direction. Residents and stakeholders who actively participate are a major component of a project's success.

Public engagement can occur in a number of formats: town hall-style meetings, informational sessions, community events, surveys, casual conversations and other methods. Social media is also advancing the ways that planners and engineers can interact with and get feedback from the public. Many organizations create Facebook and Twitter accounts that provide a fun, easy way for residents to stay in the loop on planning and progress. It's a simple way to disseminate information, and since it's not time-consuming, people are often more inclined to "tweet" an opinion or post a Facebook comment about an issue.

But in a world of always-connectedness, I find that going the opposite route – having face-to-face conversations – is still by far the best way to get the most honest feedback and foster grassroots support. It shows you are engaged directly with a person and allows people to be more candid if you are a willing listener. For the last year, GS&P has provided multi-modal planning and transportation engineering services for renovations and improvements to the busy 4th Street University Corridor in Louisville, Ky. It connects the University of Louisville to Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, and spans a densely populated residential and commercial district. Throughout the project, our team has sought out countless conversations with local residents to learn exactly why the improvements were needed and what the best solutions would be. I have walked up and down the corridor on foot and ridden it by bicycle.  This has allowed me to strike up dialogues with drivers, pedestrians, cyclists and people getting on and off buses. Most everyone felt that the corridor was overly congested and unsafe, but each user group offered me a different, valuable perspective on their unique needs and concerns. It's also worth noting that I've recognized many of these people at our public meetings. They remembered my name and I remembered theirs; they knew their feedback had been put to use by our design team and they had a vested interest in the project's success. We listened and now we have people outside of our design team who own this project.

A slide from one of GS&P’s presentations at a 4th Street public meeting encouraged attendees to virtually walk the route of the corridor and identify areas they like and areas that need improvement.

For the three public meetings we've held, we tried to schedule them at a time and place that would be easy for people to attend. As an example: many of the corridor's pedestrian users don't own cars, so it seemed obvious they wouldn't be able to travel very far for a meeting. Thus, we made the decision to hold one of the meetings in a neighborhood where many of the pedestrian users live, and we scheduled it immediately following another community event so they were already gathered together and in a social mood. For this meeting and our other meetings, turnout and participation has been excellent because the setting and timing was strategic.

Plenty of organizations are daunted by the idea of coordinating a full-fledged public involvement campaign; there are countless instructional manuals and step-by-step guides floating around in the planning universe. But I personally believe success isn't so complex. Following these five simple dos and don'ts will at the very least get you off on the right foot:

Though successful public engagement isn't quite as entertaining as the antics seen on Parks & Recreation, it's still worthwhile.  Done correctly, it's the only surefire way to plan and design a project that will meet the community's needs now and for years to come.

Have you led or actively participated in a public engagement campaign for a project? What do you believe are some best practices?


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DISCLAIMER: We encourage comments and welcome your thoughts; however, GS&P reserves the right to edit or remove any comments which are off-topic, blatant spam, abusive or slanderous, or violate copyright. Comments posted are not necessarily the viewpoints of GS&P. As each project is unique, the information contained in this article only represents general design related concepts and issues based on the author’s knowledge and experience, not specific design guidance or legal advice.

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