Nearly every public project conducted in the United States incorporates some form of public outreach. Today, in an increasingly global and digital era, traditional public meetings often fall short of reaching the increasingly diverse and information-saturated citizens of today’s American cities. Or, the efforts fail to incite the interest required to achieve the long-term buy-in for planning and design strategies that’s needed to see a project through to successful implementation.
Successful projects, on the other hand, leverage the process of outreach into sustained interest in outcomes. Public process participants, in the most ideal scenario, become the champions of the project through the long road of implementation and the ever more daunting challenge of ongoing governance. In this way, engagement becomes a critical path toward both project realization and design excellence.
Inspired by an academic exploration at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln in the spring of 2012 and launched this week by Sasaki’s Urban Studio, the Currents: Engaging volume illustrates five recent innovations in public outreach as it related to the design and construction of public spaces. These are defined as process-as-event, on-the-ground, real time, early wins, and accessible materials. Each concept posits an alternative to the traditional public meeting format and is reinforced by a series of notable case studies in which outreach was a critical component of the design.
Process-As-Event: Orchestrating the public meeting as a community celebration
With the long list of work commitments, social engagements, and family priorities that consume everyone’s schedules, it is increasingly hard to compete for attendance at a traditional public meeting. In addition, multiple planning studies often happen concurrently within a community, competing and compounding the problem of attracting attendees.
These trends mean that, today, to garner attendance and repeat interest, public meetings must be more than information sessions. They must be fun, entertaining community events that create a venue for celebration and reinvigorate the planning process.
On-The-Ground: Using fine, local details to bring meaning and specificity to a process
To increase potential attendance, many public forums are planned in centralized, accessible locations like City Hall. Though convenient and effective for political discourse, these forums are much less suitable to visionary conversations or creative brainstorming sessions. Furthermore, many community members regard these forums with a degree of suspicion—as a place of predetermined decisions and status quo politics.
On-the-ground tactics move the conversation from static conference rooms and city halls to the places of vitality and gathering that already exist within the community. By going to where the people are, the process engages people on their own turf, helping to dispel traditional hierarchies and enabling a more open dialogue.
Real Time: Utilizing online and gaming strategies to reach a broader demographic
Despite valiant efforts to attract community members to public meetings, community leaders and professional staff express frustration over the turn-out, often not nearly a showing of statistical relevance. And what attendance occurs is marred by other challenges. Those that attend often come with the hopes of venting opinions on other unrelated issues or pet causes. Studies show the demographic that attends public meetings—usually older—rarely represents the community cross-section.
To combat these inequities, many communities are turning to online outreach forums that utilize websites, blogs, and social media to broaden the net and engage a wider audience. These forums tap into existing online social networks and operate in real-time—allowing users, including the younger, elusive demographic, to engage on their own terms and in their own timeframe.
Early Wins: Implementing design elements within the outreach process
Another challenge of the planning process is time. Community members, in an age of increasing immediacy of information and news, are impatient for the tangible results of long-term planning. The traditional plan as the outcome of a planning process seems rigid and un-tested in a domestic culture that has witnessed a significant economic recession. Community leaders and constituents are leery of committing significant investment tomorrow in the ideas of today.
Rather than awaiting the completion of a planning or design effort, early wins suggests the immediate implementation of ideas or mid-process prototyping of experiences. By testing ideas during the design process, designers can adjust long-term plans in response to the observations of short-term, low-cost experiments.
Accessible Materials: Using commonly understood visual and cultural language
Public meetings also have the challenge of language. Armed with a specialized language of design and planning terms, the design professional often spends significant time explaining complex technical issues and deciphering planning trade-offs. This specialized language is even more challenging to non-native English speakers who make up a significant portion of the American population.
To address the challenge of language, some public engagement processes are creating what we have defined as accessible materials. Rather than the usual boards or presentations that rely on planning and design jargon, designers are appropriating more commonly understood forms of visual and verbal language—like comic books, guidebooks, and newspapers—to illuminate complicated planning stories.
Though the volume describes each of the five innovations individually, it concludes with a call for more layered outreach processes; or ones that employ multiple techniques to cast the broadest possible net. To illustrate this concept, the volume concludes with an overview of Sasaki’s submittal for the Fort Mason Center Design Competition, called Storming the Fort. That proposed process included multiple forms of technology, creative graphic materials, and synergies with existing community events all within a grounded, real-time design process.