Reaching Out to the Public

Because planning is a collective activity and because no agency will be very successful without a broad political base, planning agencies generally have a number of links to the community through various advisory or lay groups. These links may be formal or entirely casual. One approach is the advisory panel: A group of citizens interested in a particular issue, say, environmental quality, maintain a liaison with the planning agency. The agency solicits information and advice from the group on planning decisions that have significant environmental impact. Citizens interested in housing might constitute another group with which the agency has frequent contact. In a college town in which I lived, there are citizens' groups concerned with sidewalks, bicycle paths, and urban design, and the planning agency has frequent contact with all of them. Such groups often furnish support for planning department initiatives, as well as useful data and ideas. But even when the citizens and the planners disagree, it is generally better to communicate on a continuing basis than simply to meet occasionally in an adversarial situation. It seems to be a rule with many politicians and some other people as well never to apologize and never to admit a mistake. Differences that can often be negotiated through informal contacts may solidify beyond compromise if they first surface in a public environment and people take stands from which it is later awkward or embarrassing to retreat. As discussed in Chapter 8, planning agencies also make extensive use of public meetings and presentations when developing plans. Meetings are useful in building support, in helping the agency understand and be responsive to citizens' preferences and concerns, and in meeting legal requirements for citizens' participation.

Beyond all these approaches, most planning agencies reach out to the community through a variety of informal means. The planning director or staff member speaks before the Rotary Club, the League of Women Voters, the Chamber of Commerce, and other groups. Many agencies send out press releases and otherwise seek media coverage so that people know what the agency is doing and why. Modern computer and communications technology is rapidly expanding the range of real-time public participation in the planning process. A few of these new techniques are sketched out in Chapter 8.

But one way or another, outreach is essential. The agency that does not build a base of popular support within the community is not likely to accomplish very much. For reasons noted earlier, this is truer now than it was some decades ago.

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