A Reflection: The Shortcomings of City Government Community Engagement

When a city conducts a regional or neighborhood-specific community outreach project, visibility and accessibility must be top priorities. In order to maximize reach and response, a city government must allocate all available resources to this purpose, or else run the risk of an initiative conducted in vain should it fail to reach a significant portion of the population. Such projects are either discarded as an expensive

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A mostly empty auditorium for a Hayward, California design charrette

waste of time, or worse yet published as if reflecting a comprehensive view of citizens opinions. Currently, initiatives in the City of Boston and around the nation (see right) are reaching only a tiny percentage of the population affected by a planning process. This may be considered passable in today’s City Halls, yet it is a fundamental failure. Design charrettes and “brown-bag sessions” that are part of these planning processes are often attended only by two or three groups- the suit-clad government officials and their friends, the public meeting regulars whose opinion is heard loud in clear in every meeting and survey, and perhaps a handful of college students of urban planning or architecture. Strikingly missing from engagement events, and likely from surveys and comment periods, are the actual citizens of the area involved.

This is especially true regarding young people and immigrant communities (whose members do not speak English confidently or at all). These groups are most in need of new affordable housing options and most vulnerable to rises in rent. Reaching these groups should be the top priority of community engagement. And in some processes like Go Boston 2030, an effort was made to break the language barrier and to engage with citizens on the street who may not have the established contacts needed to relay input through traditional channels or hear about public meetings. However, whether by lack of knowledge, timidness, or scheduling constraints, the vast majority of young people and recent immigrants do not have their voices heard in even the more accessible initiatives.

Therefore, all resources and funding must directed to designing processes that, above all, prioritize visibility. Posters or billboards on busy pedestrian thoroughfares, ads on the subway, postcards on tables at coffee shops- these types of info sources, visible at all times and seven days a week, must be where a large portion of available funds for design and implementation is spent. Hiring a world-class firm to design a plan compiled from public input is a waste of money if the words of the plan do not reflect the the public’s opinion and if no members of the public are actually reading the plan! Additionally, engagement processes which remain tedious and unclear (in Boston, most notably the hidden and confusing comment system for proposed development projects) must be easily accessible by text, Twitter, Facebook, and other forms of communication that may be unique to certain communities (like WeChat and Facebook Messenger for Chinese-Americans).

For governments to truly be transparent and cognizant of their citizens questions, comments, and concerns, community outreach programs must permeate the daily routine of those they are meant to reach. Th

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“Ideas on the Street” pop-ups, a part of Go Boston 2030’s on-street outreach

is requires in-depth knowledge of local communities, and long-term (not one-time) outreach and advertising efforts. It is much more than a hard to find link on a city website, more than a 6 p.m. public meeting at City Hall, and even more than working with local community institutions. In order to reach the disenfranchised and most vulnerable whose voice must be heard, engagement must be conducted as people are walking down the street to work or to school, while shopping, while eating, at all times. Residents whose voices must be heard above all others (such as young people and recent immigrants) do not have the luxury to attend public meetings or the clout to access traditional feedback channels. Creative engagement systems like those of Go Boston 2030 (see right) are a start. However, for the City to reach its most vulnerable and most often silent, it must be ready to work towards (and be ready to accept) a small-scale yet permanent process as simple as reading a question on the street, scanning a QR code and sending off a quick reply- all without being late to work.

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