Too often our public input process does not represent the full breadth of our communities. If you attend an average City Council meeting, participants are older, whiter, and wealthier than the population as a whole. To have a project that reflects the desires of the community as a whole we need the input from the entire community. – Grant Henninger Public Engagement is Broken
For the last eight years, Living Streets Alliance staff have attended their share of City Council meetings, public open houses for transportation projects, and lately, community benefits agreement meetings and can safely say that too frequently, too few people from the community are represented in these incredibly important spaces where big decisions get made.
People are busy. They’re raising children, working multiple jobs, and may lack access to reliable, safe transportation that allows them to attend these meetings. More likely, they never know about them in the first place. All of these factors are multiplied for marginalized people who might not speak English, are fearful of attending public meetings run by institutions, or are simply intimidated by big crowds. Many people feel they might not have anything to contribute, or worse, won’t be listened to. All of this leads to a vicious cycle of distrust and skepticism, which makes it even more difficult for public officials to talk to the public about how investments can be made in their communities.
So, how can we break this cycle and meet people on their own terms, in their own communities, and communicate with them respectfully? How we can change the dynamic from “this is what we are going to do” to “what do you envision for your community and quality of life and how can we leverage available resources to get there”? We don’t have the answers for all of these difficult and multi-layered challenges, but we have a few ideas we’ve been piloting this summer to start to change the status quo.
In late June, 2019 LSA partnered with the Tucson Department of Transportation Bicycle and Pedestrian Program to try out a different format for the traditional transportation project open house. In 2017, Tucson Mayor and Council unanimously adopted the City of Tucson Bicycle Boulevard Master Plan, and funding has been made available for the Timrod and Arcadia Bicycle Boulevard projects which span from Grant Rd. to 22nd St. and from Alvernon Way to Craycroft Rd. Funding sources only require the Department of Transportation to hold an open house to notify the public of the changes to the two residential streets, but LSA was curious to see what would happen – specifically, would more people attend and would the conversations be different – if we changed up the traditional open house format to something fun, easy to get to, and more inclusive.
We hosted an Ice Cream Social and Bike-In movie at Pinecrest Park, just one of the 3 parks touched by the Arcadia Bicycle Boulevard project. We offered free bike repair, free ice cream from Isabella’s Ice Cream, and the City of Tucson brought out their roll plot maps and information boards from the previous open houses they hosted twice earlier in the week. Once the sun went down, we watched E.T. The Extraterrestrial on LSA’s outdoor movie screen.
Officials from TDOT said attendance was 5 times what they saw at the previous open houses. They ran out out of survey forms at the park.
Conversations were… interesting, and constructive. Officials from TDOT said they recognized a handful of residents at the event at the park from the previous open houses and, notably, they were not happy with the proposed changes to the residential streets. They cited a number of reasons for opposing the projects: nobody bikes on the streets, the speed tables will slow down cars and ruin the car undercarriage, people walk in the street, at night, and are hard to see, so sidewalks should go in instead, and streetlights (neither of which are included in the scope of the two bicycle boulevard projects, unfortunately, but good information to have for future investments). It was a sign of their commitment to opposing the projects to go out of their way to attend not one, not two, but all three open house events to express their opinions. And these over-represented voices are, as the quote above notes, typically older, whiter and more well-off and have time to attend these meetings.
That warm, muggy evening some 60+ other neighbors, many with kids, many arriving by bicycle, many walking, showed up to share ice cream, learn about the project, ask questions, and even engage in constructive conversations with the neighbors who oppose the project to talk more about why. Some people showed up ready to voice their opposition, but left actually supporting the projects after learning and listening to a variety of viewpoints and seeing the sheer number of people who showed up on bicycles.
Is this Ice Cream Social format the best we can do or hope for in improving community engagement around transportation projects? Absolutely not, but it’s a start and it certainly demonstrated that having an open forum, in a park, under different circumstances and stakes, can make a big difference in who is willing to show up and speak up for safer streets in their community. It’s a work in a progress.
There will be another Ice Cream Social and Bike-In Movie on Saturday, July 13th at Hoffman Park starting at 6pm. More details are here.