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Lessons Learned: Involving the Public in a Planning Process


There is a growing trend in cities and counties across California to design deliberative and inclusive public engagement processes that allow a broad cross section of residents to weigh in on specific and general plans for development or redevelopment.

Local officials are learning that well designed public dialogues that educate and connect residents have multiple benefits. By getting educated, thoughtful input from more than the usual advocates who show up at required public hearings, decision-makers are able to craft plans that enjoy broad community support. This can avoid costly and drawn-out controversies, protests, and citizen ballot initiatives opposing well intentioned development efforts. Co-benefits include increased sense of community, opportunities for cross-cultural and cross-sector relationship building and networking, and measurable increases in future civic activity among participants, such as volunteerism and contacting their elected officials (One recent poll found that 41percent of the participants in a 2007 statewide dialogue on Health Care Reform in California contacted their state representative after taking part in a day long dialogue).

The Institute asked ten people implementing successful participatory planning processes in California municipalities to share some key lessons they have learned. Here is what they had to say:

Lori Reese-Brown, Principal Planner, City of Richmond
It really does take a great deal of public engagement to have a successful and viable general plan. You see a lot of change in the community even since our general plan update process started in 2005. A way to embrace this inevitable change is to get people involved. Make sure that you know all of the key players in the community- even people who will be affected by your decisions in surrounding cities. We try to be receptive to what people in these other communities have to say, especially relating to things like traffic or noise or pollution that can affect people outside Richmond. The earlier you involve the public the better. This creates more trust and reduces arguing, havoc and long council meetings.

Matt Taecker, Principal Planner, City of Berkeley
One lesson that was confirmed by our downtown plan update process for me was that it takes a long time for people to get oriented to the issues and to get beyond what they expect the other people to be saying so that they actually hear what the other people are saying. People have preconceptions and high emotion around issues and it takes some time to work through that. The initial two phases of brainstorming and talking to experts were important to overcome this challenge and this took about a year- half of the overall process.

Bev Perry, former Mayor, City of Brea
You have to invite everyone to come and participate whether you like what they are saying or not- you have to be inclusive if you want the best chance for coming up with a plan that will be supported. If people are disruptive in this kind of setting the rest of the group doesn’t let them dominate the process.

It is best to use city staff for information but not as facilitators, because lots of people will perceive them as trying to sell something. You need a third party that people see as being neutral.

At the end of a planning process you need to celebrate what you have done. People need to take some time to recognize the good they have done, people don’t do that enough.

Claire Bowin, Los Angeles Department of City Planning
From the outset of the development of the Cornfields/Arroyo Seco Specific Plan, it was important to the Los Angeles Department of City Planning to ensure a truly collaborative process with the community. To support this effort we were very fortunate to have assistance from a local nonprofit that had experience designing and holding public engagement forums. Because of its experiences in community engagement work, the Western Justice Community Foundation (WJCF) was able to point out some “best practices” to help us avoid common public engagement pitfalls and help us focus our workshop objectives and organization.

In each of our three workshops to date, we have broken up workshop participants into small facilitated group discussions about various aspects of the plan. These small group discussions are key in allowing each person a chance to truly participate and be heard, and this would not be possible without the trained facilitators provided by WJCF.

Rod Gould, City Manager, City of Santa Monica
Involve the public early in the front end of designing a public engagement process and be open to what the public wants to do. If you go in with a clear vision of what you want out of it people will sense that and get angry. Involving the public in a planning process builds credibility and support for changes that are implemented. It also builds connections between people who might not otherwise have reasons to talk.

If the local government follows through on implementing the vision developed by residents, people will learn that they can have an influence and instead of fighting city hall it is more beneficial to collaborate. It’s the Japanese management style of getting a lot of informed consent. Once you get the community behind a project the implementation goes much faster, there is less opposition, and you win champions if you do this right.

Sarah Johnson, former Redevelopment and Housing Project Coordinator, City of Chula Vista
Cities really need to be more proactive about going out to the community to involve residents if you really want significant resident involvement. Have meetings in their neighborhoods, in their languages, and provide food and childcare. You really need to create a fun positive environment for participants in order for them to want to stay involved. Often when people think about city meetings they think of conflict. If we try to maintain an asset based partnership approach we can create a positive environment than makes people want to get involved. Each neighborhood has different priorities, needs, and concerns so it’s important to do local outreach.

Cherise Brandel, (former) Civic Engagement Manager, City of Menlo Park
We have learned that two important things need to happen in order to effectively involve the public in a planning process. Firstly, we need to clarify expectations at the beginning of the process, so that we can understand what we are asking people to make a decision about and how their input will be used to make the final decision. In the past, people often felt that they were listened to but they didn’t know if or how their input had been used. Secondly, we have learned that if the city staff already had a buy-in about the technically correct solution before involving residents, it could send the message that we don’t really care what the public has to say. It is important for professional staff to not have the answer, and that is hard for them, because they are trained to be problem solvers and have the solution. In Menlo Park, our city engineers are having “A-Ha! moments” and they are learning to not present solutions until it is time to consider the possible options.

Dave Knapp, City Manager, City of Cupertino
If you are going to prevent being captured by special interests, you have to have a way to get the middle involved, the ordinary people. The average person won’t come to a council meeting on a Tuesday night and the people who do come out tend to be a special interest group with more extreme views. . If you generate enough interest and get enough people, you get closer to the average take, the unrepresented majority who don’t typically come down then have a voice. You have to encourage people to come and kind of “work it”.

The normal American local government strategy is you roll out the program and then deal with the problems that arise. In the final analysis, it is easier and more efficient to work out the details and make sure everyone is involved and gives you input, and that all possible options are considered before approval. It seems time consuming and painful to go through a deliberation process, but it is actually more efficient.

Jim Keene, City Manager, City of Palo Alto
How we invite participation is important- this includes how and where we convene and how we design the process. Framing the issue in a way that resonates with the public is where we really have to pay attention. You also have to listen well and have skilled facilitators or people who can connect different perspectives.

I think that there is a leadership responsibility to communicate to all stakeholders, including staff who may see this as a distraction form getting work done, and to the public who may feel democracy is frustrating, that this effort is worth it. The results prove it—the process may have taken time but it was worth it. Also, try to nurture and support the relationships that were built in that process so that people feel they got something positive out of it in terms of being a more connected community.

Mary McMillan, Deputy County Manager, San Mateo County
One important thing is to spend enough time planning and preparing for a public engagement process so that you have the correct materials and information when you pull people together. Also, when you ask people to come provide input, they need to be truly heard and there needs to be communication and action from the local government that demonstrates that this has occurred. I have seen a lot of passive public engagement processes where people are asked to work in small groups and set goals, and then they never hear what comes of it. We work hard to communicate to the public what we are doing and how well we are meeting our goals.

Do you have a lesson or story about involving residents in public planning or decision making that you would like to share with the Institute for Local Government and your peers around the state? If so, please contact the public engagement program at

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