Hey urban planners and city officials!
Are you working with a local community on a planning process? Hosting a public meeting to gather input or feedback on a plan is a familiar part of the task. But if you’ve been doing this kind of work for a while, you’ve probably attended (or even, yikes, led) a community meeting that’s gone horribly wrong. There’s no worse feeling than being in front of a room full of angry people when you’re trying to build trust and work together to improve the community for everyone.
Here at ioby, we’ve worked with a lot of local residents and community groups over the years, and we’ve heard many tales of good and not-so-good community meetings. Below are some of the top things they’ve taught us not to do. If you can avoid these mistakes, you’ll be one meeting closer to building the trust you need to help improve your community.
5 mistakes planners & local government agencies make when hosting public meetings
1. Picking a location or time that doesn’t meet people’s needs
Ever notice how most public meetings tend to draw the same ten people—and they’re usually not there to offer praise? You need to make sure that the time and place of your meeting are not barriers to attendance. You don’t want to plan for your community, you want to plan with them—and you can only do that if they’re “in the room” with you (literally). That room is not always an elementary school auditorium at 7:00 pm on a Tuesday.
To work toward drawing a representative mix, notice who’s not showing up to meetings. Working parents of young children? Residents of low-income public housing? Day laborers? Each of these communities faces its own set of barriers to participation, and if they need to travel far, skip meals, or take time away from their work or families, your meeting will always lose out.
The best advice we’ve heard? Meet people where the are. Get creative and offer a range of smaller, more intimate meetings in different locations and at different times. Could you meet community members on a Sunday afternoon near their church, for example? Can you offer childcare and a meal rather than just pretzels and soda? Can you travel to where a bunch of local laborers have their lunch break and talk to them on familiar ground? Put some thought into your audience and their daily routines, and go out of your way to meet them where they are. You’ll find yourself running around a little more, but your planning process will be much better!
2. Telling your community what will happen instead of asking for their input
Sure, you’re the one with the project to propose—that’s why you called this public meeting! But don’t lose track of the root reason you’re doing what you’re doing, which is helping to make your community better.
To this end, make sure your meeting keeps a “community conversation” vibe and doesn’t veer into lecture-land. Keep it top of mind that a big part of any idea to better a block, district, or city is bringing neighbors together. Without their backing, no project will flourish. Similarly, if you find any of your attendees getting strident, steering them back to the project’s larger goals can help them get the most out of the meeting and offer the most value to it.
To say it another way: you’re planning a project that will have a public impact—you’re working in our backyard, not your own. This simple fact means that the more you can involve your community, the more receptive they’ll be to your idea, the more smoothly and easily your project will materialize, and the better it will turn out.Also realize that the stakeholders in any urban project are bound to be diverse. For starters, there are probably people who live, work, go to school, and own businesses near your project site, as well as those who use proximate amenities, like parks and public transit. Making their understanding and support your priority will bring you beneficial buy-in, positive publicity—and in some cases, necessary permissions.
Finally, remember that it’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it. Don’t interrupt people when they’re speaking, ask them questions when you’re not sure of something instead of assuming you know the answer, and “share the air”—be aware of how much you’re speaking versus others.
3. Going “permanent” too soon
Make it your community meeting mantra: “This is only a test.” No matter the nature of your project, it will probably work best to plan it as a pilot. Experiment to see what works and what doesn’t before even attempting to make anything permanent.
Remind yourself (and relate to your group) that a “test, then invest” innovation model has become a best practice of urban planning today. Starting small and building on lessons learned is beneficial on many fronts: it reduces the need for huge investments of time or money right away; it lets people live with new ideas and see if they like them before they’re fully implemented; and it works wonders to expose a plan’s flaws early enough that they can be easily addressed.
Starting small is no comment on the potential long-term power of your plan, your faith in the idea, or your commitment to your community. It’s just wise city planning.
4. Ignoring your skeptics and critics
If your community meeting is diverse enough, one of your rewards will inevitably be skepticism and criticism. Congratulations!
Contrary to what your pride might tell you in the moment, these voices don’t have to rain on your project’s parade. When you hear a critique, walk through it step by step:
- Make sure you listen to the concern and ask the commenter to clarify if you don’t understand exactly what they’re worried about.
- Address fears as fully as you can. For example, if someone is nervous about large crowds at your event, let them know you’ll adhere to strict start and end times, hire security, provide trash cans, etc (and then, of course, do those things!).
- Refer back to Number 3 and remind everyone that your project is only temporary. Even if it’s a total flop, it’ll only be a flop for one afternoon, one season, etc.
- In all cases, be considerate and sincere and show compassion for others’ views. Even if you don’t feel the same way or think the concern is unfounded, let your critics know they’ve been heard. Much of the time, people are seeking acknowledgement as much as anything else.
Lastly, don’t get discouraged. While you want to consider all the feedback you get, don’t abandon your project just because some Negative Nelly is throwing unnecessary shade. Just reiterate that you appreciate their thoughts and want to be a good neighbor, then continue on with your team.
5. Promising your community too much
Be honest: you can’t promise that this idea will work! Until it’s been tried and tested, no one knows if it will actually calm traffic, attract pollinators, get kids into healthy food, or anything else.
What you can promise is that you’re doing this because you want your community to be a better place to live, work, and play. You can promise that you all have a lot to gain and little to lose by trying this idea on for size, that you’ll stay open to new ways of accomplishing your common goals, and that you’ll report the project’s outcomes to stakeholders honestly.
Acknowledge that you don’t have all the answers—and that’s exactly why you need everyone in this community meeting! You know how you think about this project, but conversations with others will help you shape it and ultimately improve it. You need community members’ ideas and buy-in to see the thing through and make it the best it can be.
If you can avoid these top five mistakes when hosting public meetings, you’ll be setting your project up for a great start.
For more on how communities and city decision-makers can play well together, check out our Recipes for Change series: it stars eight leaders in community organizing, advocacy, urban planning, and more who share their wisdom about getting local projects off the ground in the spirit of collaboration.