A successful public input process comes from effective communication between project stakeholders, the design team, and meeting facilitators. When done well, the process is invigorating, fun and educational for all! Most of our municipal projects, such as city centers, parks and trails, require public involvement in the planning and preliminary design stages. However, private development projects also benefit from outside input. In all cases, the goal is to create a project that satisfies the needs of as many stakeholders as possible. A project supported by the community will be a smoother and more positive experience. Here are some of my favorite tips for my favorite part of our work:
- Go to the people
In order to get input from the people who will be the end-users, it is important to seek them out in their “natural habitat.” Are you designing a city center? Create a pop-up booth on a busy sidewalk nearby. Is it time to master plan a ballpark renovation? Head out to the site on a tournament day! Too often, it is easy to fall back on an evening meeting tucked away in the side room at a community center or municipal building on a weeknight. While convenient for the project team, many general community members can’t make time in the evenings, and important data will be excluded. Our best input has often come from users that we seek out, instead of those we require to seek us out.
- Use plain English and visual aids
The public input process is a continuous give-and-take of information between the public and the design team. Set your team up for success by breaking down complex design constraints into their basic meanings, supplemented with visual aids. Here at Foresite Group, our planning projects are often constrained by topography and stormwater. We use color coded topographic maps with red, yellow and green to indicate areas of steep, moderate and gentle slopes, respectively. Armed with this map, a few sentences on why a project required stormwater detention, and some project specific shape cut outs, the public can more easily understand the limits and opportunities of project topography. Other visual aids may include the following:
- Field examples: Photos of similar elements, or to-scale examples temporarily placed on the project site
- Vision boards: Providing a blank canvas for the public to write out their likes and dislikes
- Giant Post-It Notes: Creating a list of input so that attendees confirm that their issues were noted
- Create a Record
It is important to summarize key details verbally to attendees at the end of each meeting, and to create a written record of discussions for future reference. As the design and planning process moves forward, stakeholders may change and new people may get involved. In an effort to keep a project moving forward, a complete and detailed record of previous discussions and decisions can be invaluable. Say a new group of stakeholders disagrees with a certain design approach. Frustration can be avoided through reference to past meeting input. The facilitator may say, “That’s interesting. In our minutes from the last input meeting, we heard people say that they wanted X (element), because of Y (reasoning). Is that still valid, or do we need to change directions?” A reminder of the reasoning may head off redesign or clarify an issue. For the design team, these meeting minutes are the basis of design.
- Provide resources for follow up
People want to know that their input is being integrated. To that end, providing dates and times for next meetings, or providing contact information for the project allows the public a choice. They can close their involvement or be a part of the next steps toward completion. Website links or updates on municipal or project-specific homepages provide transparency into project development.
Lastly, the public process should be fun. The project is a tapestry woven from many different points of view, experiences, and skills. While challenging, it is one of my favorite parts of a project, because it’s a time to dream of what could be and develop wishes into plans for success. A team’s energy and enthusiasm is contagious! Bring the right approach to the public input process and watch a project bloom into something wonderful.
About Erica Madsen
Erica Madsen, PE, LEED BD+C, is a mother of two girls and a Senior Project Manager for the Greenspace Division at Foresite Group. She graduated from Georgia Institute of Technology in 2005 with a degree in Civil Engineering. Erica enjoys working with people, specifically coordinating with her colleagues, clients, other design team disciplines, and the public. Erica's passion to serve others inspires her to create amazing spaces for the good of the community.