Getting Beyond the Dots

Posted on August 31, 2016 by 

Last week almost 400 people came to a Renew Atlanta meeting about Complete Streets on Monroe/Boulevard. The crowded cafeteria of Grady High School was filled on a Wednesday night with residents eager to participate in the conversation around what would help create a better street for all users – pedestrians, cyclists, transit users, and drivers. Unfortunately, that large group discussion didn’t happen.

Instead, officials from Renew Atlanta made a presentation that provided an overview of why the project was needed, recent improvements on the heavily traveled corridor, and how the process would work moving forward. Then participants were given the requisite colored dots.

A full house for Complete Streets.

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Yes, there were City of Atlanta employees there to answer questions at specific posts, so there was certainly some opportunity for individual conversations. And yes, this kind of large public meeting is necessary for citywide projects that impact 9 or 10 neighborhoods. But having 400 people in a room and giving them only colored dots as a key way to use their voice is a bit disheartening.

What this meeting lacked is what many of our City of Atlanta meetings lack – an engaging way to discuss the challenges of being a growing city. This was an opportunity for residents to raise concerns or provide support, and for the city to provide real data, meaningful examples, and strong leadership on why Complete Streets are not only smart planning, but a necessary and critical way for Atlanta to move forward as we continue to add population.

When asked what he thought about the meeting, one participant said, “this isn’t a charrette, it’s a charade.” And when speaking with another community leader, she expressed concern that these public engagement meetings are more for the city to check a box saying they did outreach and less about having the difficult conversations we need to have as a city to address change.

To give Renew Atlanta credit, they have been clear that they want to encourage community outreach in all of the city’s Complete Streets projects, and that this first meeting was only meant to provide an initial overview. General manager Faye DiMassimo did follow-up with an email to all attendees reminding them that this was an input only meeting and that there would be further opportunity for conversation as concepts are introduced.

“Confirming that your input is valuable and there are not predetermined outcomes, the format of last night’s meeting with limited welcome remarks and overview presentation was intended to focus our time on meeting with you around the displays, data and maps, to answer your questions one on one and to receive your “dot” votes on where solutions are most needed at the table mapping stations. The nearly evenly divided “dot” votes on the mode pie chart, divided between cars, peds, cyclists and transit, reflected that a Complete Streets approach is supported.”

Good news – the dots below show a real push for modes of moving around the city other than solely the car.

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But it was clear that there was some fear behind opening the floor up to discussion to such a large crowd. And now we risk having potentially wasted an opportunity to engage hundreds of people together who may not come back next time because they didn’t get a chance to speak.

Yes, there can be a handful of loud voices who dominate conversations in these situations, but sometimes those loud and uncomfortable conversations are necessary, and they can’t be hidden behind colored dot stickers. We need to learn how to create the space for those tough conversations, and city leadership needs to know how to look residents in the eye and say, “I know this may be a hard change for you, but this is what we need to do as a city.”

How would you change the way we do charrettes and community meetings? Any great examples we can follow?

Learn more about Renew Atlanta here:
http://renewatlantabond.com/

Learn more about Complete Streets here:
http://www.smartgrowthamerica.org/complete-streets/complete-streets-fundamentals/complete-streets-faq

Learn more about why colored dot stickers are loathed here:
http://48hills.org/2016/03/29/city-planners-treat-us-like-infants/

Full disclosure: Lauren Welsh is a member of the Renew Atlanta Technical Advisory Committee.