Thursday, November 19, 2009

Get On Board: Bus Tour Meetings

I am often asked about how to engage community members and stakeholders in planning or municipal projects. In fact, this is pretty much the most common question asked of Planners, by other Planners.

WE all seem to see the need as a profession to improve on our various levels of success with bringing together the stakeholders necessary to move projects forward. WE all have great stories of the times techniques have worked to draw people into a discussion; processes that have surprised us in their ability to mobilize citizens and facilitate communication; and most of all, the far too many times WE have sat alone during public meetings at City Hall waiting for ‘the people’ to show up. Unfortunately, the last of this list is the typical state of affairs.

I don’t have THE definitive answer to the community participation question but with this post I would like to highlight one way of successfully getting people interested and participating in your Planning work that I have had the pleasure of seeing first hand - the bus tour.

It may sound simple, but this approach is a great way of getting stakeholders together in an environment more conducive to communication and away from the unfriendly boardroom tables, lousy coffee, poor lighting, and formalities that usually kill creativity and are the hallmarks of typical meetings.

Today I had the opportunity to be part of one such tour facilitated by the Environment Network, and a number of their partners here in Collingwood, Ontario. All the participants were asked to hop onto a municipal transit bus and hit the road for a series of site visits focused on stormwater management techniques and strategies. There was enough time allowed for us to get off the bus and use our feet at the various sites as well. At the end of the tour we convened for a time at a meeting room to allow for some additional discussion and brainstorming.

I also participated in a similar event while I was working in Washington State in 2008. That event, dubbed the Transportation Tour by the event facilitators/sponsors the Island County Health Department, was designed to explore active transportation initiatives and projects throughout the County. I presented the successes WE had with our projects at the City of Oak Harbor. The discussions that resulted from our time together on this magical mystery tour of sorts were far more engaging than your typical meeting.

If you are a Planner wondering if this really works, I point to one aspect of this approach that exhibits its potential, the ability to draw participants (walking tours can also be designed to see similar successes). Just ask yourself when you were last able to bring together the mayors of three communities; councilors and planning commission members from neighbouring towns; County representatives; State representatives; health department staff; and community interest group members, for the better part of a day to focus on one issue as WE did with the Transportation Tour.

The next time you are looking to stakeholders for their participation in a project that deals with development, urban design issues, or any other project that has implications on our built environments, I suggest you pack a lunch and invite some friends to hop on the bus for a road trip.  At the very least, there is no way this approach could be as mind numbing as a multi-hour meeting in a boardroom, or as lonely as a public meeting at City Hall.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This event was organized as part of a province-wide collaboration between RiverSides, Green Communities Canada and its members to reduce run-off pollution. The project is supported by the Ontario Trillium Foundation.For more information visit: