Today, I'm recommending considering the advice of Charles Marohn of "Strong Towns" in an article titled "Most Public Engagement is Worthless". I think that's hyperbolic, but Marohn is still on to something.
Marohn highlights the difference between a typical question at one of these public input meetings and a typical question that a widely respected designer like Steve Jobs might ask instead.
In other words, reach out to the public, engage them, seek their inputs, but don't look to them to be professional designers, or financial experts, or educators. Listen to what they say they want, but also observe them closely to learn about the wants they might not be able to express in words. Marohn explains how to do that.I’m a planner and I’m a policy nerd. I had all the training in how to hold a public meeting and solicit feedback through SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) questions. I’ve been taught how to reach out to marginalized groups and make sure they too have a voice in the process. That is, so long as that voice fit into the paradigm of a planner and a policy nerd. Or so long as I could make it fit.
Modern Planner: What percentage of the city budget should we spend on parks?
Steve Jobs: Do you use the park?
Our planning efforts should absolutely be guided by the experiences of real people. But their actions are the data we should be collecting, not their stated preferences. To do the latter is to get comfortable trying to build a better Walkman. We should be designing the city equivalent of the iPod: something that responds to how real people actually live. It's a messier and less affirming undertaking.
Source: Strong Towns.
I think public satisfaction would go up by following Marohn's simple four-step process.I’ve come to the point in my life where I think municipal comprehensive planning is worthless. More often than not, it is a mechanism to wrap a veneer of legitimacy around the large policy objectives of influential people. Most cities would be better off putting together a good vision statement and a set of guiding principles for making decisions, then getting on with it. That is, get on with the hard work of iteratively building a successful city. That work is a simple, four-step process:
- Humbly observe where people in the community struggle.
- Ask the question: What is the next smallest thing we can do right now to address that struggle?
- Do that thing. Do it right now.
- Repeat.Source: Strong Towns.
Observe. Ask. Do. Repeat.
You can do this a hundred times in the time spent planning one big thing like "Strategic Plan 2017" or "Vision 2020". I'm not saying don't ever think about the big picture. Just spend less time planning and more time doing. Or at least doing both in smaller chunks.