Increasing public participation in the planning process

Public participation is critical to an effective planning process and is a key ingredient in successful communities.

Historically, city planning went through a phase of evolution where “experts” were hired to develop plans that basically sat on shelves and became wonderful bookends for other local documents. There are a variety of reasons that explain why some master plans were not effectively implemented. One reason is that such plans lacked an implementation component and failed to capture the desires of those most affected by such documents.

As plan development evolved, effective planners got better at developing plans that reflect the goals and objectives of citizens and have created strategic implementation strategies that allow for periodic review and modification of such plans to aid in the implementation process. However, one essential ingredient in good plan development is the incorporation of citizens’ input through a well thought out, well-planned public participation process.

The process of capturing public participation is challenging and can be even more challenging when professional staff attempts to develop a community vision based on such input. However, experience has proven that addressing community concerns early in the planning process will provide a greater opportunity for overall success than not having that input and dealing with angry, frustrated, disenfranchised citizens in the end of the process. Professional experience has reinforced this reality in the communities where I worked as a professional planner.

Good public participation means involving the public at the beginning of the process, before actual plans are drafted. This effort may involve a process of multiple community meetings in multiple locations over a period of several months. The planning scale of the activity will drive just how extensive the public engagement portion of the effort should be. City-wide plans usually involve more opportunities for public engagement than subarea plans that may cover a selected neighborhood or business corridor. Site plans, rezonings and other local approvals should seek to reach those most affected by the planning action. This activity should be more than a public hearing required by stature. It should be a genuine effort to involve and engage the public.

The positive result of greater community input is a discussion of those issues that are most important to those most affected by the planning process. Also, involving the public creates a greater opportunity for consensus building and cooperation. And finally, it can establish strong community support and ongoing involvement from residents. Community involvement can aid in the implementation process and give well-conceived plans their best opportunity for implementation.

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