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Reimagining Civic Engagement

Boston is experiencing a period of growth unprecedented in the city’s modern history. But underneath the triumph of the economic prosperity driving the boom, the city still carries a burden of public skepticism and distrust. Stemming from the days of urban renewal, recent public project cost overruns, and the perpetual displacement of populations through forces of gentrification, this distrust—while understandable—serves as a constant frustration to those who champion new public and private projects throughout the city and region. The vital balance between governmental, community, and private interests that can shepherd ambitious improvements to a growing city is off-kilter, making it increasingly difficult to reach common ground and bring about change.

Recently, Sasaki, in partnership with the Interaction Institute for Social Change (IISC), MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP), the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), and the Boston Society of Architects (BSA), convened some of the region’s most serious and passionate thinkers on issues of development and the public process. Together, with members of the broader community, we began a conversation about how to stabilize this disrupted balance. The occasion, determinedly named Design, Development, & Democracy: Reimagining Civic Engagement & Urban Design, aimed to spark open dialogue and deliberation on the future of democracy and its role in guiding authentic and universally beneficial development in our cities.

Over the course of the day, panelists from the public, private, nonprofit, and community sectors spoke to the issues surrounding the present state of our combative public engagement processes and the frustration often felt by stakeholders on all sides and at all stages of a development project. Participants convened under a precept that encouraged an authentic conversation and one that would ultimately bring them closer to defining a vision for moving forward:

Democratic public engagement in projects—public or private—is vital to the health and prosperity of a city.

For many who share our circles of thought and practice, this idea is fundamental, but this notion is progressive when considered in the context of America’s historic urban development cycles. We intended this gathering in Boston to serve as a prototype for a wider array of conversations to be held in other cities struggling with a similar misalignment of interests.

As a first step in a long process of regeneration, the discussions proved thought-provoking, to say the least. After spending the day meeting other participants, listening to their goals, fears and stories, and questioning our own experiences with public engagement efforts in communities of all kinds, many of us left inspired to address some of these issues head-on. Here, Sasaki planners Chris Freda and Theresa O’Neil discuss some of their thoughts on the future of design, development, and democracy.

Demistify the Planning Process

Public engagement serves as a tool for citizens to communicate with their leaders and express community needs and preferences that may not be revealed by data analysis alone. At the same time, public engagement should be understood as an important opportunity for government to educate and inform citizens about development and planning efforts happening in their region and communities.

The nuance of governance and systems-thinking necessary in resource allocation and development is often obscure to the average citizen and should be made clearer. Much of the hostility toward new projects we see is rooted in either a lack of information about the need and benefits of a given project or a suspicion of intentions. When the value of public projects is not adequately conveyed, rumors or fears can quickly ignite. With more robust and focused efforts to educate the public at the same time that governments and developers are eliciting their opinions, we may find that more balanced and informed voices emerge.

Establish Trust Through Neutral Facilitation

One of the biggest hurdles to achieving a successful and effective public engagement process is establishing a sense of trust between participants and facilitators. Often these dialogues begin on hostile ground, as community participants are not quick to forget the harsh tactics and deaf ears of previous ages and entities. Additionally, community participants are often wary of the motives of those operating public workshops and engagement efforts, as they are frequently either partisan government officials, or have a stake in the development under consideration.

By creating a more neutral facilitator for engagement efforts—either an independent operator or a designated government office—and a more transparent process, the public can have faith that all interests will be considered. Over time, a sense of trust can be established, earned by this neutral entity’s track-record and reputation for being balanced and inclusive.

Invest in Engagement Infrastructure

To be both comprehensive and efficient with our public engagement campaigns, we must reconsider the current model of project-by-project engagement. In its place an infrastructure could be built that creates an ongoing two-way relationship between the governing and the governed; the placemakers and the occupants of places. With a standing structure, a single entity within a community can maintain the contact platform, run events, and, operationalize resources for each public or private development project. The cost savings associated with transitioning away from a model that assembles and disassembles the infrastructure of engagement for each new project in favor of a more sustainable and renewable model will allow project teams to reach deeper into communities, develop long-term community relationships, educate stakeholders more holistically, and experiment with new tactics for identifying needs and opinions. This efficiency will help remove the resource barrier to public involvement and unlock richer exchange for better development outcomes across the board.

One such independent body already operating within its community is Colorado State University’s Center for Public Deliberation (CSU CPD). In existence for nearly a decade, the CSU CPD is “dedicated to enhancing local democracy through improved public communication and community problem solving,” serving as an “impartial resource for the northern Colorado community to assist in community problem-solving.” The affiliation of the CPD with a local university leverages the good reputation of the institution within the community and provides both reliable information to structure conversations and a consistent source of skilled facilitators.

Target Outreach for Representative Participation

One of the most significant challenges for community engagement—and with democracy more generally—is ensuring diverse participation that represents that community at large. Using the current models of engagement, too often the loudest and most ardent voices are the only ones heard. As we move forward with more open and inclusive community engagement efforts, maintaining an extensive and updated contact database for the organizations, businesses, residents, and stakeholders of a community will be vital to achieving the kind of broad participation we seek.

Another benefit of constructing an independent entity to manage community participation, like CSU’s CPD, is that it can maintain a robust database of contacts and better assemble the right mix of people and groups for any given outreach effort. Targeted efforts are the surest way of engaging those most impacted by new projects and getting those parties involved. Targeting and enlisting the participation of those who will benefit from contentious projects like affordable housing, infrastructure enhancements, and public utilities will help to balance out powerful voices inclined to opposition so that a more representative mix of opinions is documented. Centralizing and maintaining the mechanisms for outreach within a single place will better capture an overall community’s perspective, instead of just the extremes.

Use Technology for Broader Engagement

As technology edges its way into more sectors of our lives, it offers a unique opportunity for communities and governments to engage with the public in ways that are accessible, convenient, and familiar, helping to cultivate more balanced and diverse participation. Part of the success of services like mySidewalk and Agora is the ease of distribution and the ease of use for participants. While traditional public meetings suffer from the challenges of geographical accessibility, availability and scheduling, and maintaining the attention of participants over the course of several hours, online platforms are readily accessible through computers and smartphones at a participant’s convenience and in a participant’s language of choice. Online platforms also allow for those who would not feel comfortable speaking out in a public forum to contribute on an equal setting with more extroverted community members who sometimes dominate public meetings.

Another beneficial aspect of these online platforms is their ability to capture users once (based on location) and then connect them to other projects and outreach efforts that are relevant to them in the future. Taking this to the next level, one could imagine the technology evolving from a model of simple information distribution and feedback to one where a network of stakeholders can organize themselves, learn from each other, and initiate projects amongst themselves for their communities. As we move forward, technology can serve as a vital tool for democratic engagement if it is properly oriented to empower, educate and connect users for the full universe of current and future planning and development projects, rather than only the one before them at that very moment.

Continue the Conversation

The health and prosperity of our cities depends on robust, diverse, and imaginative public engagement. To improve the outcome of these efforts, all invested parties—from developers, to public officials, to consultancies like ours—must be equipped to simultaneously address the concerns of community stakeholders while pushing forward the bold projects that will shape the next era of our cities. While the prospects for establishing a balance of interests are good in today’s hyper-connected world, we must also recognize that we’re unlikely to see substantive progress renewing trust in leadership and a strong balance of voices unless we’re willing to rethink the processes of public engagement from the ground up. After observing the passion and strength of community members at this past December’s event, we’re optimistic about the future of democracy and development.

Chris Freda is a Sasaki planner and designer in Sasaki’s Urban Studio working on revitalization efforts within existing urban contexts and helping to envision new places throughout the country. Chris is inspired by people and places that are confronting challenges and experimenting with new ideas to improve the health and stability of communities.

Theresa O’Neil is a planner and economic analyst in Sasaki’s Urban Studio where she defines the economic parameters for planning and urban design efforts to ensure both financial and social returns on investment. She is passionate about planning for climate resilience and is currently studying and prioritizing resiliency strategies for the City of Boston as part of the Climate Ready Boston initiative.

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