Techniques for citizen participation in the comprehensive planning process

University of Wisconsin Extension guide provides helpful research-based information.

According to research cited by the University of Wisconsin Extension in their 2006 guide “Comprehensive Planning and Citizen Participation,” citizen participation in the comprehensive land use planning process produces better decisions. Citizen input provides more complete knowledge. In addition, the plan is more likely to be successful if citizens are satisfied with the process and the end product.

The University of Wisconsin guide lists five levels of involving citizens in the comprehensive planning process:

  1. Public Partnership – formal involvement in meaningful decision-making processes
  2. Public Interaction – enabling effective dialogue between citizens and government
  3. Public Input – communication to local governments from citizens
  4. Public Education – provide information and education to the public
  5. Public Awareness – communication to citizens from local government

The guide also lists specific tools for citizen input, such as: open houses, public hearings, visual preference surveys, visioning, focus groups, direct mail and several others. One tool that Tim Johnson, community planner and Janis Johnson, AICP, co-owners of Main Street Planning Company based in Grand Rapids, Mich., found effective in engaging citizens in the comprehensive planning process was reaching out to focus groups in the form of civic and social clubs in a municipality.

According to the UW Extension guide, focus groups are a form of qualitative data collection in which a moderator facilitates a group discussion based on a set of predetermined questions. Main Street Planning used this technique recently to understand the values and beliefs held by different sectors of the Lowell, Mich. community for their community visioning process.

Meetings were held with the Alto Lions Club, Lowell Rotary Club and a group of Lowell High School students that volunteer in the community. This method of citizen engagement was selected for the comprehensive planning process as attendance at large community planning meetings had been declining in recent years.

The organizations selected to host a focus group had regular monthly meetings with stable attendance and often had outside speakers as part of their agenda. Main Street facilitated a 30 minute session with each group and asked participants to provide input on three or four predetermined questions on flip charts. The group then ranked their top issues using sticky-dot-voting. The input from these well attended focus groups was used in conjunction with an online community survey to develop a vision for the City of Lowell, Lowell Charter Township and Vergennes Township.

This example is just one of the many ways to involve citizens in land use issues. Kendra Wills, Michigan State University Extension educator and a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners says, “The UW Extension guide does an excellent job of providing specific examples and a broad menu of ideas. Local government officials and staff, planning consultants, and citizens interested in land use planning would benefit from reviewing this research-based resource.”

MSU Extension can provide support to communities working to engage citizens around land use and economic development initiatives meeting certain criteria. For more information, please contact Julie Pioch or Ann Chastain.

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