Most Public Engagement is Worthless

Charles Marohn at Strong Towns: “…Our thinking is a byproduct of the questions we ask. …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.

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:

  1. Humbly observe where people in the community struggle.
  2. Ask the question: What is the next smallest thing we can do right now to address that struggle?
  3. Do that thing. Do it right now.
  4. Repeat.

It’s challenging to be humble, especially when you are in a position, or are part of a profession, whose internal narrative tells you that you already knowwhat to do. It’s painful to observe, especially when that means confronting messy realities that do not fit with your view of the world. It’s unsatisfying, at times, to try many small things when the “obvious” fix is right there. If only those around you just shared your “courage” to undertake it (of course, with no downside to you if you’re wrong). If only people had the patience to see it through (while they, not you, continue to struggle in the interim).

Yet what if we humbly observe where people in our community struggle—if we use the experiences of others as our data—and we continually take the actions we are capable of taking, right now, to alleviate those struggles? And what if we do this in neighborhood after neighborhood across the entire city, month after month and year after year? If we do that, not only will we make the lowest risk, highest returning public investments it is possible to make, we won’t help but improve people’s lives in the process….(More)”.