If you are responsible for managing a special district in California, chances are that you have, or at some point will need to go to the public to get input for a project. There is great variety in the kinds of work special districts do, but one thing they all have in common is the utilization of public funds for community projects. This creates an expectation for public trust that comes with the utilization of taxpayer funds to develop public lands, not to mention a legal requirement to do business in full view by your constituents.
Southgate Recreation and Park District is currently developing two community park sites that were designed utilizing consensus-building workshop techniques. Similarly, the Jurupa Community Services District utilized a three-part public workshop series to gather community input to develop their districtwide Parks and Recreation Master Plan. A few years ago, a similar process was used by El Dorado Hills Community Services District for both their skate park and a rehabilitation of a community pool site.These techniques can be applied to almost any type of project or planning effort where input from user groups is needed.
Effective community-based input uses the power of group learning (education), small group discussions (dialogue), synthesis (consensus-formation), and focused feedback (needs prioritization). If a workshop process is well organized, all four of these objectives are accomplished, and the final recommendations that get presented to the Board of Directors will be the consensus of the community. This is true for any scale of a project; from a districtwide master plan all the way down to a community building or a site development plan.
Strategic Thinking for Success
Developing a public outreach plan is the first step in the formation of a strategy to include meaningful and productive community input. Have you ever been to a workshop where less than five people showed up? Depending on the nature of the project, sometimes it can be difficult to get participation. And then there are the potentially contentious workshops where hundreds of people could show up. There are free or low cost internet tools such as Eventbrite that can help gather RSVP’s for community meetings, but a multi-media marketing campaign might be needed to reach out to your constituents. Utilize web-based and traditional tools to get the word out about the workshops, and to funnel the community to the digital sign-up applications so you can track how many people to anticipate for the meetings.
Establish a firm schedule for the entire input and design process (and stick to it) before you start advertising. If you let the community know how many and when the community meetings will be at the beginning, you establish expectations, trust, willingness to participate, a community that will want to track the progress of the project, and then support the funding effort later on.
Group Learning (Education)
Almost every project has existing conditions, opportunities, constraints, and adjacency issues. Communicating these conditions to the public at the beginning of a workshop in a concise and understandable way will help the participants give more meaningful input. For example, if there are environmental constraints on specific areas or types of development that can happen on a property, it is critical that the public learn this at the very beginning. If there are any Board of Directors’ pre-approved requirements that must be satisfied in the project, the public needs to know at the outset, and this can help participants focus on which parts of the project are fixed and which parts are flexible. The workshop activities can then focus on how to implement the project in the context of the site with all the known constraints communicated.
Participating in the process and contributing meaningful input is usually the goal for individuals that attend workshops. Receiving meaningful input from attendees should be the goal of the workshop organizers. Differing viewpoints are very common, and should be expected. Small group discussions help individuals to speak their minds, hear the opinions of others, and discuss where the common ground might be in response to questions developed by the workshop organizer. Have a volunteer ‘scribe’ from each small group record the common ground items on tablets of paper so the group can see the results and agree that the list represents the group’s collective response.
Small groups need to hear what the other small group’s consensus lists look like, so a series of quick presentations are done to begin building commonality. The workshop organizers will then collect the lists and determine where there is repetition and agreement among all the small group responses for each topic. This is done in real time and presented back to the entire workshop so they can see the resulting consensus being built.
If the project is for a specific site and the goal of the workshop is to get design ideas on the physical site, then the next step is to roll out the base maps for the site. Using graphic design templates that are at the same scale as the base map, each small group develops a conceptual design plan for the site. The common ground established earlier in the discussion topics form the foundation for the conceptual design plan of each group. Presentations of the small group plans provides all attendees the opportunity to see all the solutions, understand the “why”, and observe common ground.
“Community planning meetings for the design of parks are usually exciting and a little stressful. It takes a lot of work and patience to sort through the sometimes-conflicting goals and perspectives of community members. If the outreach is done respectfully and openly, compromises are usually developed at the meeting that most people can support, and a better project is created.”
– Ward Winchell, District Administrator
Southgate Recreation and Park District
Focused Feedback (Needs Prioritization)
The final solutions are a synthesis of the commonality of all the small group plans. Usually a follow-up workshop provides the community the opportunity to see how all the small group inputs and plans are synthesized into a final design or program recommendation. Feedback is gathered to refine and ensure the final concepts represent the community input. If cost is a high concern, prioritization discussions and feedback is gathered so district staff and the Board of Directors can understand where phasing opportunities can be taken into consideration.
The consensus-building that happens for public projects provides a sense of ownership in the planning and design process, and helps demonstrate to your constituents that public funds are allocated toward facilities and programs that will be needed and utilized by current and future users.