Sunday, March 25, 2007

Public Participation: Making it Work

When I first moved to Brookline (1988), long time Boston area residents kept telling me things like "people in Brookline are so active in their local politics", or "they are so involved". I found this both encouraging and a bit intimidating. On the plus side, it meant that people cared about the place that they lived, enough to speak out and work at protecting or improving it. What intimidated me was the thought of long held political alliances and networks, power structures that were deep and too secretive to penetrate, leaving little room for the new comer to get involved.

Before coming to Brookline, I had worked as a land use planner in Vermont, where the Town Meeting truly is a small group of citizens debating issues grand and petty. While we strive for this level of intimate democracy, we have our unique substitute form of it, which I for one support. For the most part, I have found that there is a very high level of local involvement and concern in Brookline and yet, as the process of planning for the future of Coolidge Corner has revealed, it could be a whole lot better.

A great deal of the problem is the process itself. We have laws and institutions set up that dictate how and when notifications get posted and meetings get held, all to ensure that the public knows that in this case, decisions are being made about the future of development in Coolidge Corner. In an attempt to capture a diversity of viewpoints while developing policies, a committee was formed with representatives of various constituent groups, such as business owners, the GreenSpace Alliance and neighborhood representatives. Working with town planning staff, the group studied existing conditions and attempted to forecast future scenarios. Consultants were hired for special technical analyses, where needed. Meetings were held, some of them public. All of this is as it should be I suppose, but what seems to have happened is you end up with a few strong voices leading the discussion in a certain direction, with the conclusions already formulated. Input, from the public and the consultants both, is accepted and listened to, but may or may not be acted upon.

A draft plan is written. It is long. It is filled with technical jargon. Citizens are told about the plan and asked to submit comments. I am a professional urban planner, and it was an effort for me to read this plan and interpolate what the implications of its mandates were for Coolidge Corner in the coming decades. I can't imagine too many busy people, no matter how dedicated, concerned or intelligent, taking the time to do this unless they perceive some threat to their personal situation. Some do, and they write comments or attend the public meeting and have their say, and if their experience was like mine, they may be asking themselves if they were heard at all or if it made any difference that they came. Because the public involvement is in fulfillment of a requirement of the process, it occurs to you that this was its purpose.

I do not mean to criticize the work of either the planning staff of the Town of Brookline or the dedicated citizens who have made the sacrifice to work so diligently to develop the Coolidge Corner District Plan. They have done a remarkable job given the constraints of time and staffing they have to work with, and they did not create the process I am commenting on, so please do not think I don't appreciate your service to our community.

Nonetheless, if you asked people on the street if they were concerned about the future of Coolidge Corner, I am sure a majority of them would say yes. Yet, they may not even know about the process underway or what the possible impacts of a change to form-based zoning (one of the proposals in the draft plan) might mean to their neighborhoods. Perhaps they don't really need to, until these issues come before town meeting, but I can't help but feel we are missing a great opportunity to engage a diversity of talented individuals, whose combined insights might lead us to unexpected and delightful new solutions.

We witnessed another potential pitfall of this lack of engagement last fall, when a last minute scare letter went out to homeowners telling them false hoods about the dire consequences to the town tax base and their property values of a proposed zoning change coming before town meeting. Turns out the group had their own special interests at heart, but their timing made an informed discussion impossible, and their letter achieved its goal of casting doubt on the proposed zoning change.

There are examples from around the country of communities who have overcome apathy and time constraints to successfully harness citizen participation in the planning process. It can require substantial resources and additional staff, such as in the case of holding "design charettes" such as what is being done in New Orleans in Katrina's aftermath. But perhaps in our case it does not need to be such an intensive effort. Technology being what it is these days, I can imagine a website that could display different development scenarios that people could vote their preferences for. What about the youth of our community? How about an essay contest about Brookline in the future, or a video or short story submissions website about characters and activities in the Coolidge Corner of their dreams? Most of those ideas generated will of course be impractical or illogical, etc. etc. but remember that all of the great creations on the planet started out as a dream. We should find ways to engage people's creativity.

On a less ambitious course, a little more effort could be made to simplify and "translate" the draft plan proposals into examples that people could easily relate to, and comments could be solicited via a website, making it easier to participate, rather than requiring citizens to read a 70 page document and then attend an evening meeting or compose a formal letter, in order to have input.

A great deal more dialogue is needed. It is not enough to say "we want to change the parking requirement to this, what do you think". There are always opportunity costs for choosing one course of action over another. Technology could be deployed here as well, with a blog on the town website posting proposals with explanations, pros and cons and asking for thoughts.

Yes, we are lucky to have so many concerned participants in town government, but we have so much talent in this town, wouldn't it be great to find a way to tap just a little bit more of it when it comes to creating the Brookline of tomorrow?

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