From Australia: Community Consultation – A failed experiment

A consistent central theme of World Streets is that without the full-throated participation of an active citizenry, sustainable transport and sustainable cities will remain a distant and unattainable dream. In this article David Engwicht gives us his view on why the usual bottled consultation techniques that often do little to achieve better and safer streets do not make the grade. Then he goes on to share his thoughts as to how we can do better.

Community Consultation – A failed experiment

- David Engwicht

Let’s face it. Community consultation is a failed experiment. All it has done is train-up professional axe grinders, then given them a forum in which to grind their axe. In spite of the best intentions of dedicated, hard-working public servants, the community consultation experiment has resulted in disengaged residents (apart from the professional axe grinders), lowest-common-denominator solutions, and decision-making mired in endless debate.

I believe it is time for cities to adopt a ‘No More Community Consultation’ policy.

‘But,’ I hear you ask, ‘What am I supposed to do if I don’t do community consultation?’

Good question. Here are ten suggestions:

1. Abandon customer model. Implement citizen model instead.

Over the past thirty years, cities have dramatically changed the way they relate to inhabitants.

For centuries, the concept of the city was built on a notion of ‘citizenship’. For the Greeks, citizenship in the polis was not so much a rank or reward as it was like being in a school, a kind of discipleship that would cultivate a new kind of being: a cultured citizen. As a citizen of the polis, you were part of a cooperative enterprise in building a nurturing environment in which others (including yourself) could reach their highest potential. For the Greeks, the streets and squares were the democratic heart of the city – the place of genuine citizen engagement.

But all this has changed. Instead of relating to inhabitants as ‘citizens’, cities now relate to them as ‘customers’. For example, when traffic colonises a residential street, residents demand that the city calm the traffic. As customers, they have paid (through rates and taxes) for a product – slower traffic in their street.

Under the citizen model, people take personal responsibility for fixing their own problems. If young people burn rubber in the street, they ring the door bell of the young people and work it out. Cost to the city, zero. Under the customer model, these same people ring the council and demand that the city traffic calm their street. Cost to the city, $400,000.

Note that the customer model is only viable under conditions of affluence. Outsourcing your civic responsibility is not cheap. Outsourcing civic responsibility also demands ‘community consultation’. Instead of an informal meeting on the doorstep of the offending youth, residents now attend a formal meeting with city authorities to debate where the speed bumps should go. The tragedy is that the real issues, the residents’ psychological retreat from their street and abandoning of their civic duty, is not addressed. The consultation is a smokescreen for avoiding personal responsibility.

Note that this move from the citizen model to the customer model has been a two way street: cities have taken a paternalistic role and residents have abandoned their civic responsibilities. However, the role that cities have adopted is an impossible role. A vibrant civic life is not a ‘product’ that can be delivered by a city bureaucracy. It can only be created by civic-minded citizens working cooperatively.

2. Create authentic place, not more plans

Most community consultation is a substitute for a genuine, authentic experience of place – that is a real experience of community and civic life. The Greek concept of the polis was that each time a person went into the public realm, they would come home a little more civilised and a little more cultured. In a forthcoming book on place, I discuss the power of place-ness to transform us.

I once erected a throne that folds out of a suitcase in a deserted Los Angeles parking lot, home to homeless people. A homeless lady sat regally on the throne, and in that moment was transformed from a homeless lady into Queen of Los Angeles. Every time this homeless lady comes back to her home in the parking lot and remembers the night she sat on the throne, she is transformed once again.

This is the essence of place making: creating memorable experiences that are transformative. Place-ness snaps us out of our preoccupation with set plans for the future, and opens up cracks in the wall of our ‘reality’. Through the cracks in the wall, we glimpse possibilities we never knew existed. Who knows, but on that warm, muggy evening in the parking lot, a future mayor of Los Angeles may have been conceived.

Community consultation talks about creating these transformative place experiences. Place making creates the experiences. As Place Maker for the city of Wodonga, charged with turning the main street into the civic heart of the city, the ‘community consultation’ did not involve endless meetings. Instead we organised a street party every Friday night for 12 weeks. People were invited to bring their lounge chairs and reclaim the street as civic space. We watched how people used the street, and as ‘home-maker hosts’ we found ways to enhance that experience – including permanent changes to the streetscape.

Place making is like home making. Part of feeling at home in a space is that you stop being an observer and you become a participant in the experience offered by that space. So, for example, when someone puts their feet up on the coffee table we say they are ‘making themselves at home’. They are making themselves comfortable in the space by taking psychological ownership of it. It is a genuine experience of an authentic place. It is not a hypothetical conversation about what they think would need to change for them to have an authentic experience. The host works with them in helping them construct this authentic experience – organically.

3. Return to incremental planning

By very definition, if you involve the community in the authentic making of place (rather than hypothetical discussions about creating place) then the process will be incremental. In Wodonga we started with a ‘low-hanging fruit plan’, things that we could do instantly that we thought would get the reclaiming of the street moving in the right direction. We also constantly experimented with our Friday night events, watching what worked and what didn’t work, then instigating changes based on these observations.

Sure there is a place for some master-planning in a city for things like future rail lines. But this must be balanced with an incremental, organic approach to the way places evolve.

For example, in Beach Haven, New Zealand, the city had $50,000 to spend on the revitalisation of a shopping street. Normally this money would have been eaten up in creating a master plan. I convinced the city to put this money in the middle of a table. I then educated a group of 40 residents on what created great public space and then broke them into teams. They competed to find the most creative way to spend the $50,000.

By the end of one-and-a-half days they had reached consensus, and formed a group to oversee the spending of the $50,000. Instead of a consultant’s report, the residents got $50,000 worth of improvements, plus significant altruistic contributions from various sectors of the community. The project is incremental in nature and the residents are involved in the actual creation of their civic space.

4. Stop fixing problems and create DIY Kits

Cities should develop a range of self-help kits that show residents how to address a range of issues, such as traffic and anti-social behaviour. Whenever residents complain about these issues they should be given the DIY kit and told to come back if the kit does not help them resolve the issue.

Residents should not get physical design interventions in their street until they have demonstrated that they are taking civic responsibility. This probably means abandoning the Traffic Calming Department and calling it the Department of Civic Responsibility.

5. Establish a Red Tape Reduction Party

The customer model requires increasing levels of regulations. Moving back to a citizen model requires handing back responsibility, which requires a serious commitment to reducing red tape. The Red Tape Reduction Party would be charged with reducing red tape by a set percentage each year along with being a ‘can-do’ trouble-shooting group that helps citizens overcome red tape when it stops them from taking civic responsibility. This would seriously change the culture in the organisation.

The first port of call for addressing any issue should be to build citizen capacity, not to introduce new regulations.

6. Take out the traffic signs

The late Hans Monderman was a Dutch engineer who pioneered the removal of traffic control devices from villages. His grand vision was the ‘re-democratization of public space.’ He said, ‘As an engineer, it is not my job to try and forecast every potential problem the village may have in the future and resolve that potential conflict, in advance, through design. Every time I resolve a potential conflict through a new regulation or white line, I de-skill the community in resolving its own conflicts. And resolving conflict is at the heart of building robust, resilient communities.”

7. Change your relationship with developers

There was a time when the creator of a building was allowed to place their building wherever they liked. But they had a civic duty to place the building in a way that contributed to the magic of the public realm. The result was the organic streets and public squares of Europe, full of surprise and inherent genius.

Today developers no longer have a civic duty to ensure their building adds to the magic of the public realm. Instead the city tries to create this ‘civic benefit’ through regulations and master plans. The result is a sterile public realm because the developer, like a naughty child, sees how far they can push the boundaries.

Change your relationship. State exactly what you believe a developer’s civic duties are and what your city’s expectations are. Set the bar high. Then give developers a choice. They can go the regulatory route or the expectations route. The rewards for going the expectation route will be greater flexibility, faster turnaround, and the warm inner glow that comes from altruistic actions.

8. Ban red dots. Real action plans only.

A lot of community consultation has become farcical. Residents (usually the professional axe-grinders) are asked to generate wish-lists on butcher’s paper. They are then given ten red dots to spend on their favourite items on the wish-list. The result is a community vision, with priorities indicated by the clusters of red dots. The butcher’s paper is rolled up, taken back to the office and stuck under a desk. That night, the community consultation fairies come out and sprinkle magic dust on the items with most red dots, and hey presto, they magically spring into being.

I refuse to run community conversations that are bitch-and-moan sessions or simply result in wish-lists. I have created processes, like ‘Speed Dating Action Plans’, that force every individual to think about what they are prepared to do, and make a commitment to that action. (Detailed instructions are available at http://www.creative-communities.com/?page_id=69.) People are not allowed to discuss what other people should do. If people are not prepared to take civic responsibility, I give them an opportunity to leave the conversation and go home.

9. Ban public meetings. Parties only.

Meetings provide a venue for professional axe grinders to bitch and moan. Cut them off at the knees. Ban public meetings and have a party instead.

10. Ban stakeholders. ‘Real citizens’ only.

Community consultation, as currently practiced, encourages people to wear a ‘single-identity-stakeholder hat’. Every issue a city is asked to deal with is the result of the clash between inherently contradictory human needs. We all have a need to move, and we all have a need to ‘reside’.

A sense of place requires us to become rooted to a locality. The conflict between ‘motorists’ and ‘residents’ is not therefore a conflict between two groups of people in the city, but a conflict between different ‘modes of being’ that are deeply ingrained in our psyche. When people arrive at a community consultation meeting, almost everyone will be wearing a single hat: resident, motorist, parent, business owner, environmentalist, cyclist, pedestrian, lover-of-order, lover-of-spontaneity, etc. If we allow people to stay in this single-identity (or worse still actively encourage it by making them a representative of a stakeholder group), we aid and abet citizens in abandoning responsibility for their internal contradictions, and allow them to externalise the tension between their internal contradictions.

So, for example, the tension between the motorist and resident in their head is externalised into tension between one group of people wearing their resident hat and another group of people wearing their motorist hat. The result is that each group grinds the other down towards grey neutrality – lowest common-denominator solutions. The only way for people to reach highly creative and sustainable solutions is to own their internal contradictions.

If I am asked to run an already established community consultation process, the first thing I do is find a way to get people out of their single-identity mentality. For example, I may get everyone in the room to exchange identities with ‘their enemy’ and for the rest of the process they must role-play that person (after all, ‘their enemy’ is the part of their psyche currently locked out of the discussion about whatever the issue is that they are struggling with).

Imagine a world of authentic community engagement

Imagine a world where there are no more community consultation meetings.

Imagine a world where children, those with a disability, the elderly, the disenfranchised are once again part of authentic community, authentic civic life, all happening in authentic places. I think that would be the best gift we, as public servants, could ever give those we are called to serve.

# # #

About the author:

“David Engwicht is a place doctor, artist, street philosopher, and author. He first became interested in cities, streets and public places in 1987 when he headed up a community fight against a road widening. David is best known as the inventor of the Walking School Bus. Today he runs place making workshops worldwide and helps cities create innovative strategies to revitalize streets and public places. In 2011 he will be touring a new training event worldwide in which he promises to help people ‘tame their place-making tigers’. David is cofounder of Creative Communities International, an incubator for social innovations.

“If you would like to be on the cutting edge of what is happening in our cities, David Engwicht is running a series of two-day workshops in 24 cities worldwide in 2011. Visit www.creative-communities.com for more information.”

# # #

And oh yes, that picture in the opening section above? The event took place in Seattle Washington last year on the occasion of a public meeting of the Seattle School Board members called to approve a slate of proposed school closures. It shows James Bible, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, questioning why he is being removed by police from the Board meeting deciding the fate of several public schools in different parts of the city. (Reminds us that democarcy is not a destination, it is a voyage.)

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2 responses to “From Australia: Community Consultation – A failed experiment

  1. Hi David, thanks for your work, in general, and for this opinion peice. I like your ideas around building participation in communities and building the capacity of people and communities to take responsibility and their own action to create their own suburbs and cities It’s surprising see many of these ideas, which we would probably now call ‘progessive’, which would have been seen as part of a ‘deregulation’ and ‘neo-liberal’ agenda not that long ago.
    Like the idea of ‘responsibility’. It’s obviously good, as long as everyone has the ability and the opportunity to take it on – that’s you’re job, I guess, building capacity, creating the opportunities while also keeping people safe.
    I think, however, you’re giving community consultation and stakeholders a bad rap. Your descriptions of community consultation and stakeholder consultation sound more like excersizes in box-ticking rather than people working with the interests and the skills needed to build sustainable, happy, responsible, co-operating communities and liveable cities. It was great to read about your work in Beach Haven in NZ and you’re ideas about “authentic community engagement”. I’d like to hear how that kind of activity might work in cities with diverse populations and wide distributions in power and resources.
    It’s a great discussion and I totally support your ideas and your work. Many thanks, Hugh Worrall

  2. Thanks David for such a forceful, empowering set of recommendations for giving back to citizens both responsibility and power in their communities. Reminded me immediately of the work of City Repair in Portland, Oregon (which has spread to many other U.S. cities), a grass-roots, volunteer effort to create and restore places for neighbors to interact throughout the city, at extremely low cost, with neighbor-designed and neighbor-accomplished projects.
    Best wishes for your workshops on Creative Communities in 2011.

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