A Tuesday evening meeting with parents at a local middle school is not usually the stuff of viral videos and tweets. But that’s exactly what happened in April 2018, as a proposal to integrate middle schools in Manhattan’s Upper West Side was presented to a crowd of parents, most of them white. The proposal received a less-than-civil reception—a reception that local outlet NY1 captured, and which quickly spread across the internet, aided in part by a tweet from New York City Chancellor of Education Richard Carranza, at that point less than two months into his tenure. The white parents’ “angr[y] rant against [a] plan to bring more black kids to their schools,” as news site RawStory described it, drew attention, particularly as an example of otherwise-progressive people shouting down diversity in their own backyard.

A month later, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Mayor Jacob Frey publicly backed part of the Minneapolis 2040 comprehensive plan in his first “State of the City” address as mayor. The endorsement, which came after years of planning by city staff, was followed six months later by the City Council’s adoption of the plan, which drew widespread acclaim for ending single-family zoning. The Minneapolis 2040 planning and outreach process was not without disagreement, but thanks to an extensive public engagement plan, the city was able to avoid being sidetracked by the kind of vitriol expressed at the New York City meeting.

These two projects both ultimately ended in victories for equity and diversity, thanks to strong leadership by city officials and effective advocacy by concerned citizens. But the public’s experience of each was very different, as is the continuing popular memory of each. Sadly, the kind of vitriol that defined the New York City school integration meeting is much more common at public meetings across the country, for projects as diverse as apartments, homeless shelters, parks, bike lanes, bus lanes, and school enrollment (catchment) zones. As Huffington Post reporter Michael Hobbes documented recently, public meetings across the country have become ugly spectacles, events where neighbors yell insults (and worse) at local elected and unelected officials, homebuilders, principals, teachers, and their own neighbors for the temerity to advocate for healthier, more sustainable, and more inclusive cities. As Hobbes writes, “just as previous generations of anti-change activists used procedural arguments (“states’ rights,” “local control”) to oppose progressive policies, today’s anti-growth advocates employ similar arguments about community participation and government processes.”

A man makes a comment at a community engagement event in New York City. Source: New York City Department of Transportation/Flickr

Neighbors have always had disagreements. But too often, the louder and more reactive factions—factions that are usually not representative of broader public opinion, according to a growing body of recent social science—are able to derail not just public meetings, but entire projects.

The harm goes beyond the outcome of each process, too. Public input processes are a part of our democracy, so when in-person meetings are the primary method of gathering input, and those meetings are inaccessible or traumatizing, people who are kept out are excluded from the public square. We do not require people to sit through hours of other people’s opinions, or transport themselves to City Hall, in order to vote or to donate to a political campaign. (When such barriers are put in place to voting, especially when those barriers disproportionately affect poor and minority communities, progressives are rightfully outraged.) Though we do not traditionally think of community engagement as a policy outcome, the status quo is both inequitable in and of itself and can exacerbate inequities in the policy outcomes of local government.

Public input processes are a part of our democracy, so when in-person meetings are the primary method of gathering input, and those meetings are inaccessible or traumatizing, people who are kept out are excluded from the public square.

Cities may never be able to make public input a painless process, but there a number of things that could be improved in the course of gathering public comment to create a more seamless and equitable community engagement process.

Time, Place, and Structure

The easiest way to change who offers their opinion at public meetings is, quite simply, to make it easier to attend those meetings. Many meetings, on issues ranging from housing to transportation, are held at City Hall or other government administration buildings in a city’s central business district—regardless of where the project being discussed is located. This inherently excludes people who do not have transportation access to the meeting, a particularly painful irony when the project in question is a transportation project like a bus system redesign or a new bike lane. And while most public event venues are required by law to be wheelchair accessible, city agencies and community groups should actively work to ensure that meetings are accessible to people with all kinds of disabilities, not just mobility restrictions.

Education-related meetings would seem to have an easy solution to this problem in using the school itself as a meeting venue. But because school integration is often achieved by changing school catchment areas or student transportation, using the school as a meeting venue can actually serve to entrench the voices of parents privileged enough to live near the school itself. These parents may also have weaponized, or incidentally benefitted from, many of these same issues to keep more diverse families out of their neighborhoods as well as their local school, creating the need for different catchment zones or transportation in the first place.

Like location, the time of a meeting can serve to exclude. Meetings that are during the day necessarily exclude those who are unable to take time off of work to attend. And evening meetings can pose obstacles to participation unless the department seeking public input takes proactive steps, like providing child care or food, to replace the services that people would be forgoing to attend the meeting. Still, evenings are not perfect even when such provisions are made, as people work at all times, and younger and poorer workers are more likely to work night shifts.

The structure of meetings can compound the time obligation as well. Meetings with many people offering their input, one by one, can run to over five hours long, an obligation that is inconvenient even for people without children or family needs to attend to. Additionally, this format is easily disrupted by harassment, heckling, or interruptions by attendees. Meetings where citizens gather at tables or stations to express their opinion to designated planning staff members, or write on shared posters, can shorten meeting times as every attendee is not forced to listen to every preceding speaker. This more naturally collaborative structure also encourages attendees to find common goals, rather than individually naming complaints about a proposal. However, while this alternate meeting format can be better for meeting length and civility, it is by no means a cure-all, both because of the aforementioned concerns about time and place, and because each individual is exposed to a smaller sample of opinions, which risks creating a false sense of consensus.

Citizens work together to plan an updated bike lane network in Atlanta at a “charette,” a more collaborative public meeting format. Source: Atlanta Bicycle Coalition/Flickr

Taken together, factors like the time, place, and structure of a meeting can lead to a public input process that systematically excludes all but the most committed citizens, or those with the most time or money, from offering their views on a particular project. Indeed, the citizens who make it through this winnowing are more likely to be richer and older, as they can afford child care, have more stable jobs from which they can take time off, or are retired. Furthermore, the effort required of advocacy groups to mobilize attendance at community meetings can often take up valuable time and effort that might otherwise be spent on more significant long-term projects. It is no wonder that public input meetings overrepresent views that favor homeowners’ property values or car owners’ parking spots.

Proactive Outreach

Even if it is at a convenient time and place, you can’t attend a meeting that you don’t know is happening. Though many cities have taken steps to advertise public meetings and actively solicit feedback, too many cities and agencies still revert to the default preparation of only posting a digital notice on a little-used corner of a city-run website—which can be the only kind of public notice they’re legally required to implement. This may be adequate notice for those who already know the ins and outs of a community engagement and city planning process, but it serves to exclude newer neighbors, like renters who move more often, first-time parents, those less savvy in finding information on the internet, and others besides.

Most cities recognize this, and some projects receive proactive promotional efforts, employing methods like bus stop ads, online promotion, and posted flyers. Guidelines outlining best practices for “community engagement” are common at the city or state level, but those are not always put into practice. These efforts must become the norm, not the exception, if cities are to build more inclusive public input processes.

Elected public officials should know better—after all, they were not elected merely by posting public notices and maintaining online calendars. Inclusive, proactive outreach bears a striking resemblance to campaign tactics.

Elected public officials should know better—after all, they were not elected merely by posting public notices and maintaining online calendars. Inclusive, proactive outreach bears a striking resemblance to campaign tactics: canvassing, public events in relevant neighborhoods, appropriately translated materials, and outreach to existing community institutions, like schools and religious institutions. Politicians who were elected using this type of outreach should implement the same measures in the course of doing their jobs, not just to get (or keep) them.

Minneapolis Public Works staff solicit public input at the city’s Open Streets Minneapolis street festival. Source: City of Minneapolis/Facebook.

The Minneapolis 2040 public engagement process offers a helpful example, in particular because the city’s own planning process description’s first sentence is an apt summary of the equity challenges described above: “Historically, people of color and indigenous communities (POCI), renters, and people from low-income backgrounds have been underrepresented in civic processes.” Long Range Planning staff at the city’s Department of Community Planning and Economic Development held meetings over three years in neighborhoods across the city; did proactive outreach at community institutions and street festivals to reach different audiences; and solicited feedback online in addition to each in-person engagement opportunity. A particularly innovative approach is the “Meeting in a Box,” in which citizens were encouraged to host their own engagement meetings and given the materials necessary to submit the feedback they gathered back to the city.

Widen the Scope of Planning

Even individual meetings organized with the best designs, plans, and intentions can be unrepresentative, depending on the circumstances. Holding multiple meetings over multiple dates and times and in multiple locations widens the opportunity to contribute to a broader portion of the public. But holding a large number of well-advertised meetings is both expensive and slow—so much so, in fact, that demands for more meetings are a common tactic of advocates opposing municipal improvements in housing, transportation, or education. But there is one mechanism in cities for which a long process and investment in a full-fledged outreach campaign is clearly justified: the comprehensive plan.

Most cities engage in a long-term planning process, known alternately as comprehensive plans, “master plans,” neighborhood plans, or another, similarly wide-reaching term. While timelines and contents may vary between cities, such plans are the best opportunities for cities to envision, and proactively put guidelines in place to create, change they’d like to see.

These plans necessarily take the wide view, both in time horizon and in geographic area. Because of the wide scope and time between plans, cities devote significant resources to them, more frequently engaging in inclusive, city-wide community engagement processes than in narrower project-, neighborhood-, or district-specific processes. Thanks to the time it takes to draft such a plan, cities’ planning departments (or other public actors who are responsible for this process) are able to host meetings to gather input at a variety of times and locations, mitigating the exclusionary effects of hosting only a few meetings in a limited number of locations.

Neighbors offer input on the city of St. Charles, Illinois’s design and planning at a “Comprehensive Plan Open House.” Source: City of St Charles, IL/Flickr.

The wider scope of these plans, and the affirmative “visioning” process involved in such long-term planning, can also more equitably represent diverse voices simply due to structural factors as opposed to specific tools of a well-designed engagement plan. City- or region-wide planning activates different interest groups than do single-lot or more local projects, most notably labor and business groups for whom a single local project is too narrow for them to justify investing time and/or resources. Additionally, the affirmative “visioning” involved in this kind of planning ahead requires people to think about how they are going to achieve goals for the future and the kind of neighborhood or city they want, rather than devolving into nitpicking or status quo bias when presented with a single project to support or oppose.

It is no coincidence that the Minneapolis 2040 plan, which has been widely hailed as the leading example of how a city can dismantle exclusionary zoning, was a comprehensive, affirmatively visioned initiative—the latest in a process that happens every ten years in Minneapolis. The result, combined with strong leadership from elected officials, was the legalization of the construction of multiple homes on every residential lot in the city, alongside attendant changes to the city’s zoning code and a host of other transportation and equity improvements.

Beyond the Community Meeting

Even comprehensive plans can fall victim to the same faults as a single meeting, though, and in many places are not binding without other statutory changes. Though many cities can’t just move away from a meeting-based system due to legal requirements, ultimately, the best way to create an equitable, inclusive community engagement process is to think beyond the scope of the traditional in-person community meeting. In most cases, the resources spent on such meetings would be more productively used on proactive, comprehensive outreach in the form of survey data, polling, or input solicited by canvassers. A consistent process of gathering neighbors’ preferences, to be weighed by planners alongside sustainability and inclusion concerns, then incorporated into zoning, transportation, or school enrollment policies, would be more expensive and would require planning staff conversant with survey data. But that process would vastly improve the input that cities and agencies receive—and, hopefully, make the policy outcomes more equitable as well.

Though many cities can’t just move away from a meeting-based system due to legal requirements, ultimately, the best way to create an equitable, inclusive community engagement process is to think beyond the scope of the traditional in-person community meeting.

Strong leadership from elected officials at each step of the process is also required if cities are going to turn more representative public input into more equitable policy. First, an improved, more equitable community engagement process needs investment in, and defense against, those who benefit from the status quo. This means funding and public promotion, and protection against bad-faith critics who see any change in community engagement as a slight against their own position. Elected officials, for example, can exercise political capital to stand up to an angry homeowners association or PTA that sees itself losing favored status, something that isn’t as feasible for professional planners or school district administrators.

Then, further upstream in the decision-making process, elected officials must value a broader array of voices than the incumbent, often revanchist, population that has traditionally been overrepresented at community meetings, while balancing all public input with the expertise of professional planners. Neighbors should not be expected to know which streets are most at risk of flooding or which street designs encourage speeding. But elected officials should listen to the professionals who do, even if the public’s expressed desires run contrary to that expertise.

Above all, elected officials must make the final policy decisions to enact more equitable, progressive policy outcomes in addition to investing in more equitable engagement processes. In some cases, when projects have been rejected, advocates have complained that elected officials did not change the status quo bias of the current community input process, giving themselves political cover for rejecting changes that they would be opposed to anyway. If a politician is opposed to a bus lane or housing development, for example, they can maintain a community engagement process that privileges wealthier, older residents of their district. They can then point to the flawed process’s results, even if they know that that the process misrepresents the public’s preferences, as a justification for opposing the project, rather than saying outright that they are opposed to it personally.

Conversely, New York City school officials went forward with the middle school integration plan, despite the opinions expressed at the contentious meeting in April 2018, because they knew it was a better, more equitable policy and that the voices at that meeting were not representative of the broader public.

Progressives have long known that expanding the franchise, and ensuring that everyone with the right to vote is able to do so in practice, is good for society and good for democracy. It’s time we apply the same principles to how we collect more substantive public input on what we want our cities and towns to look like, ensuring that, along with every vote, every voice is heard.

cover photo: An attendee yells a question at Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT) at a town hall meeting at West High School in Salt Lake City, Utah. Source: George Frey/Getty Images