When we think of "public participation" in the planning process, what comes to mind? It probably looks something like this: A weekday evening, a half-full school auditorium, where the same handful of advocates and concerned citizens voice their opinions, as they have many times before. The bicycle enthusiasts want a buffered cycle track, while clean energy advocates insist that the project be LEED Platinum-certified.
While it's certainly crucial that these meetings have the input of advocates and experts, what's often missing is the voice of the average citizen. Planners no doubt have the best intentions and want to include as many voices in the discussion as possible, but there can only be so many public meetings, and there are always some who are unable to attend.
That's something pedestrian advocacy organization WalkBoston is hoping to change. We have 20-plus years pushing for more pedestrian-friendly policies and plans, and our members and staff have often noted that traditional public participation processes tend to attract the participants with the most zeal for community activism. These activists tend to have a nuanced understanding of transportation and development issues, and they’re able to aid public planning in a great variety of ways. What we wondered, though, was how people who aren't experts or activists might have their voices heard. All too often these underrepresented parties are members of minority groups, people with limited English proficiency, or just unfamiliar with or unable to participate in public input processes.
With a grant from the Federal Transit Administration, we developed and tested new techniques to engage a broader, more diverse audience in the planning process. The research focused on a study being conducted by the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) in Boston's Jamaica Plain neighborhood intended to reduce the number of bus stops and add rider amenities along its number 39 bus route. The 39 bus has the third-highest ridership of all the MBTA's bus routes.
In order to find and engage that audience, we took the traditional public participation model – the public meeting – and turned it on its head. Instead of inviting residents to meetings, we went to the residents – to bus stops, local meetings, community events and even door-to-door to the shops and restaurants along the Route 39 corridor. From this experience, WalkBoston developed a new public participation tool for engaging underrepresented participants in the planning process. We call it Walk-By Visioning.
The technique is remarkably simple, and surprisingly low-tech (and low-cost, to boot). The idea is to elicit views and opinions from pedestrians and transit riders by going to areas with high foot traffic, setting up easels with images of potential bus stop improvements, and inviting passers-by to put different colored stickers on the changes they find most (or least) desirable.
WalkBoston found that most people, regardless of their experience in the public participation process, are not only willing, but excited to participate in Walk-By Visioning exercises. While Walk-By Visioning is a novelty for most people, it holds tremendous potential for eliciting often-unheard input to the participation process. And thanks to the simplicity and low barrier to entry, Walk-By Visioning is easily replicable and could be undertaken by not only professional planners, but also by advocates and community groups.