While the practice of public involvement has been studied and honed for decades, new questions are being asked about whether we are really doing it right. And, a recently completed city planning effort might point the way toward how how we can do it differently.
In September, Governing.com published an article that questioned whether public involvement as it is currently constructed favors people who have time and resources to participate in planning processes. Those people with means, the article claims, have an outsized ability to delay and thwart projects they don’t like – adding costs and, in some cases, sidetracking projects that might benefit lower socioeconomic communities or minority communities.
It certainly is worth considering whether and how the public meeting “regulars” – and most cities, counties and states have them – end up with an outsized level of influence on the outcome of various engagement efforts. In an “equal” process, everyone has access and influence.
However, some governments are asking whether equal is good enough. Perhaps it’s time to re-think when and how we conduct public involvement. In at least one city – and there are probably others – the new goal is equity through a process of continuous engagement that de-links the engagement process from individual projects.
Salt Lake City this year completed its Westside Transportation Equity Study, which was developed to address a lack of transportation equity in the city’s Westside neighborhoods. The 68-page study report delivered several key conclusions – some focused around the engagement process. It found that that the traditional way of reaching people in underserved communities doesn’t necessarily result in the right projects being identified, funded and built.
The study – conducted in partnership with the Utah Department of Transportation, the Utah Transit Authority, and the Wasatch Front Regional Council – found that because marginalized communities lack trust in transportation agencies, those community members participate in the public process at a lower rate. And that lack of success in engagement leads to lower success for investments in the area.
Instead, the report suggests, the process of engaging communities could focus on transparency, inclusion and seeking to understand community context. Ultimately, equity goals, the report concludes, are achieved by building partnerships with grassroots community organizations – not short-term relationships of expediency. The report suggests the process of community engagement must be ongoing and continuous.
The suggestion of the Salt Lake City Westside Transportation Equity Study is that if we reimagined how we engage with communities, we might come to different conclusions about what communities want and need.
This view of public engagement is probably best considered separate from environmental justice, which the U.S. Department of Transportation defines as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, income, national origin, or educational level with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.”
There very much is a place for EJ goals and policies. Those of us in the business of public engagement care passionately about ensuring all voices are included in an equal and fair transportation decision-making process. But in in this context, the Salt Lake City report highlights the difference when the goal is “equity.”
We are professionals who work hard to go beyond the “usual” meeting attendees. Now, perhaps it’s time to ask whether the Salt Lake City study and those like it are offering a different way of viewing the entire process?