Week 8 (October 21) -- Responding to Diversity

Both Robert Putnam and the Task Force on Inequality argue that people in lower socio-economic brackets are less likely to participate in civic society, and, some populations are hard to reach because of age, literacy and trust issues. Since our cities are becoming more and more diverse, how can we engage a diverse population in planning processes? And, should a diverse public be engaged in all planning processes? If so, what types of diversity should we account for in designing and implementing participation processes?


I've been working on a public planning process to develop a comprehensive interpretive plan with members of the Dakota Indian community for over a year and a half. Our goal is to have as many Dakota viewpoints as possible present during the planning process. To this extent, I've designed a process that is as expansive and flexible as possible. We meet where and when members of the community determine. In order to accommodate those outside of the urban area, we've traveled throughout the Midwest and have underwritten expenses for individuals to come from Canada. We operate with an agenda-less meetings and let those attending talk about what they feel is important. Since much of the tradition is oral, we rely less upon written materials. Food, offering of tobacco, and prayers are critical elements, too.

These meetings in some ways require more preparation and attention to facilitation than others, but my experience is that they have made the planning process infinitely richer. I would argue that including diverse populations should always be a goal of planning processes and resources need to be allocated to reach a groups that are not often asked to participate. It is surprising the insight that can come from it.

When people live as a part of a democratic society it is important that they be involved in all processes that may have an impact on them in the future. As has been discussed on the blog over the last few weeks, circumstances do limit participation at times. However, whenever an attempt is made to create an extensive participatory process people from all walks of life (a diverse population) should be included.

I feel that the main tool for engaging a diverse population is education. By education I mean educating the planners, organizers or facilitators (who formulate participation process) to be more effective in diverse communities. This requires helping them develop a high level of understanding, patience, respect for differences and communication skills to interact with diverse communities. These planners, organizers or facilitators should be taught how to bridge the gaps that deter people from higher levels of civic engagement.

The article on Community Impact Assessment and Public Involvement by the South Carolina Department of Transportation points out some ways of accommodating diversity in the participation process. The article encourages organizers to walk around, learn the history of the area in question, tailor public involvement to the residents needs and listen to everyone’s stories in order to get educated about how to create an equal and fair participation process. This points to the fact that while dealing with such a diverse population there is never a given formula that gives the best results but instead the process has to be changed each time depending on the characteristics of the community involved. Also, it shows that the job of a planner or organizer in a diverse society doesn’t begin at his desk but it begins in the streets (or the community). The PBS&J report also talks about methods such as hiring locals as staff, using people who understand the culture of the community in question, using religious services, identifying elders etc. which could help the participatory process accommodate diversity.

A participation process should aim at accommodation of all forms of diversity while designing and implementing the process. Some forms of diversities I feel must not be overlooked are those based on race and ethnicity, culture, language, income and disabilities.

One of the most important ways we as planners can engage diverse populations is to play by the rules of the respective group we wish to engage. This can include meeting at different times of day, providing information in languages other than English, or respecting certain cultural norms. The most successful planning processes will address these different "rules" by incorporating a member of the diverse group into either a planning staff or a stakeholder group, so that they may communicate the rules of their group to the wider planning body. The Metropolitan Council has done an excellent job of this in its Central Corridor outreach efforts.
On another note, I also think that because so much of the planning we do deals directly with the built environment and related physical aspects, planning processes should seek to include persons with a diverse range of physical ability levels. My recent attendance at an open house for the Minneapolis Pedestrian Master Plan really opened my eyes to the ways in which differently able individuals can be marginalized in the planning process.

It seemed that the articles and case studies asked us to focus on populations with well-documented barriers to participation and how better to engage them. This is by itself valuable; honing nuance and sensitivity toward others (especially those normally marginalized) is the proper means to address our human tendency toward blind spots and (still worse) solipsism. I would just add to this that proportional representation should also be in the mix.

In this spirit, I place a vote for enhanced representation to foster tangible influence, as suggested by Katie. The imbalances of power created by various forms of capital (education, access to information, influence, monetary wealth) are ultimately enemies to equitable public participation. Some folks' vote still matters than others, and this should discomfort even those in power. I'm inclined to believe that efforts to cede influence by those who hold power has a net benefit to the community.

Not only does expanding the stakeholder circle enhance the legitimacy of the decision-making process, it creates social capital in new and exciting ways. In the same way that planting the same crop ceaselessly leads to the destruction of soil quality, employing opinion rotation (if you will indulge the concept) can stimulate a more fertile civic arena. As Professor Bryson has admonished from the very start, in order to have a good idea, it helps to have a lot of them.

It depends on what the planning participation topic is, and who the real stakeholders are in this planning process. The response may be quite different even in a homogenous group of people if: 1. Planners and officials want public participation to build a new school in wealthy neighborhood or, 2. Planners and officials decide they want public participation in protecting and restoring the shoreline on a city lake mainly used by a small faction of a poor city neighborhood residents. The fact here may be that the public is diverse but the stakeholders may be relatively small in regards to a major planning project that certain factions of the public have no interest or need for participation. It would not likely be in the interests of the state or planners to obtain the public participation of say married couples that have no children that live in a separate school district, participate in planning for a new school that is planned for a district they do not live in. To obtain maximum public participation that spans across a diverse population we will require some information about who the actual stakeholders are, and how to give them an opportunity to participate. If the community has a significant number of persons from different nationalities, race, religion and ethnicity and there is a planning issue that will affect a significant number of this public then obtaining their participation will require some creativity. The people first need to know that a planning initiative exists and those citizens are made fully aware that their input into this planning initiative is in their best interests through their trusted elected officials. Participants could be reached by pamphlet in the languages that mainly represent the area (pamphlets can provide email connections, phone numbers to participate), informing participants through announcements at their church and neighborhood community centers about what when and where to participate.

The participants should be engaged in the planning processes that they have a stake in and can make a reasonable decision about a planning activity. It would not be wise to let the diverse general public to make decisions about all levels of planning where the public’s lack of knowledge about the technical aspects of a planning project could put them and the public at risk; e.g. the public participating in the technical aspects of building the foundation for a school or a bridge. This part of the planning process for obvious reasons need specialists that are trained to safely engineer these projects for the greater public safety. The public should however have input as to the functionality and aesthetics of a building project etc. Placing specialists that are qualified to carryout the diverse publics’ desire to participate in a building project, would be one example of a limitation to the type of diversity placed on a planning participation project.

I agree with Bob that not all planning processes require a diverse public, and this point returns to proficient stakeholder analysis. By involving key stakeholders, a diverse public may not be warranted. However, if a diverse public is a key stakeholder, an extensive attempt to involve the public should be made by not marginalizing certain constituents as documented by Jeremy and Kirti.

Due to time constraints of the planning process, planners are required to be efficient and diligent when reaching out to a diverse public. In the SCDOT case study, planners learned to use methods of communication that would reach the most people, such as pulpit announcements on Easter Sunday and door to door deliveries of fliers. They left out methods that would not be effective, such as emails. As Greenberg and Lewis point out, it is beneficial to develop a community outreach approach for two reasons: to create better participation through trust and supportive ideas and to avoid a community backlash as a “community against is a force not to be ignored? (2513).

I agree with Kirti that the best way to involve a diverse population is through education. Education of the planning organization, the elected officials, and the diverse groups themselves.

Planners benefit from education by learning the different customs or norms of diverse groups. I think this involves learning the "rules" that Katie discussed. If planners are educated in the "rules" that different groups use, the planning process will be much more streamlined, and diverse populations will be more likely to participate.
Educating diverse groups is also very important. I believe that education is the best possible way to empower a group that has historically been left out of the planning process. I believe that if people are educated, they are much more likely to voice their opinions and concerns, and take part in the planning process.

Finally I think elected officials must be educated as well. Planners and citizens may create the best plans imaginable, but a few uneducated elected officials may destroy all of the efforts. If elected officials are educated, they may feel more comfortable making difficult decisions, knowing they have the knowledge and information to support decisions.

In an ideal democracy I would say that everyone has the CHANCE to participate equally in civic society. I found Putnam’s article to be interesting because he is trying to understand why people are not taking advantage of the civic engagement opportunities open to them. I found some of his potential reasons thought provoking (women in the workforce, mobility, technology transforming leisure time, etc.). Yet what I felt was absent from his article was a more basic discussion that accounted for Maslow’s Pyramid of human needs. What if the opportunity for engagement or participation in the planning process exists, but there are hurdles in the way outside of the planner’s control? Language and literacy were mentioned in the readings, but beyond that there are other common obstacles one has to think about. An example would be missing input from single-parent households where the sole provider has to work two jobs or stay home with children. In which case, should free childcare be provided at planning meetings? Is the issue a planner is working, such as transportation, on equal footing with the needs of a new immigrant (or illegal immigrant) who also may be wary of any government entity? How does participating in the planning process benefit people who are struggling to get by? I think that question must be part of a stakeholder analysis. To understand how to engage citizens in lower socio-economic brackets, I would imagine that the first step is to try and understand EXACTLY what is keeping them away. Tearing a page out of the market research handbook, if you need people to show up to a focus group, offer incentives that relate back to the obstacles that are keeping them from showing up in the first place.
I think having diversity in the planning process for the sake of diversity alone is a mistake. There has to be a reason - a true need. I say this because in my experience people are unlikely to participate when they feel they are poorly informed or not knowledgeable on an issue. Yet if it is clearly stated why their demographic is a valuable source of information, and subsequently a tangible role is handed to them, they become far more outspoken and likely to contribute. Instead of saying, “we want you because we need diversity,? which rings of symbolic participation or tokenism, you are explicitly stating what it is about them that makes them special and invaluable to the project.

I live in a 19-unit housing cooperative and every year I hear the same laments from the association board that people in the building don’t get involved. And every year I ask the same question, why? We are a diverse group with Black, Hispanic, White, gay, straight, male and female perspectives. I would think that with all these vantage points we could bring a lot to the management of the building. From my experience, it’s not that easy. I’ve experienced that there is no silver bullet that will convince people to give up their time and engage in planning processes, let alone any process for that matter.

In the previous posts, people have touched on many of the elements that capture interest concerning issues in my building. Kirti brings up education. Katie talks about being mindful of diversity issues within a population(s), whereas Jeremy discusses the importance of getting enough people in the room. In my experience, these elements alone, though very important, don’t push people into participation. However, what resonates with me most is Putnam’s notion of social capital, which every post so far seems to touch on.

Putnam brings up the notion of “…social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit?, which I might add, leaving everyone feeling that they gained something and not lost something. From experiences with my building, this approach seems to work best. I’ve seen the most involvement when everyone has something to gain.

So what types of diversity should we account for in designing our processes? I would agree with many of the previous posts in saying that it depends. It depends on the circumstances, the topic and the targeted population. However, such processes need to be rooted to ensure that everyone has something to gain.

While it is true that people in lower socioeconomic brackets are less likely to participate, I would also add that participation from these groups depend upon the process, access (physical, social, and mental), and those implementing the process. Also, are these diverse populations’ shareholders or stakeholders?

Diverse groups often make up a large portion of the group affected by policies and plans, but are less likely considered stakeholders. As Planners, it is our job to advocate for these diverse groups and also to seek methods that encourage a diverse body/group of stakeholders when engaged in all planning processes.

I currently work with a nonprofit that serves a diverse group of people in lower socioeconomic brackets. The nonprofit uses nontraditional ways to engage its diverse community. Also, its members are implanted within community organizations that are lead by the community. When the nonprofit asks for input or participation from the community, they are not seen as aliens nor met with distrust, apprehension and skeptics. The community trusts the nonprofit because its members and workers are also part of the community. Other methods that are used include having interpreters on hand for all public meetings, sending out flyers in advance and door-knocking to encourage participation. When working with diverse populations, planners cannot assume that such groups will come to them. Planners must go to the diverse groups or meant them where they are.

I also tend to agree with the sentiment that planners ought to become more educated about and accustomed to the norms of the population they are seeking to benefit. Indeed, many groups have distinct outlets for involving the general public in decision-making processes. Such outlets allow terrific opportunities to perfect planning agendas.

Putnam likes to talk about dramatic declines in levels of social capital in the US with anecdotal examples (“bowling alone?). To me, it seems fairly implausible that people are interacting less than ever before, more so that these interactions are not confined to traditional activities. People may not be bowling as much, but diversely rich central city communities certainly have a great deal of social exchange. It is the job of the planner to be more creative and open in tapping these connections. Some planners may be very technically qualified to make judgments, but unable to validate and refine them with community process.
Identifying and utilizing stakeholders as proxies for neighborhood representation is a terrific means to accomplishing broad representation in limited time frames. The stakeholders must, however, be capable of representing the diverse needs of the community. Too often stakeholders are inappropriately identified, tilting the discussion away from issues that are relevant to the community as whole to those which personally benefit those involved.

I worked with the Northeast Community Development Corporation that created a community visioning and planning project called Northeast Futures. The Northeast neighborhood has a diverse population and consists of lifelong residents and a strong artist community. The first step in engaging the community was embarking on a Northeast-wide door to door canvass with a goal of interviewing a resident on every block. The residents were asked questions such as “What were your first impressions?? and “What was your best experience in Northeast, when you felt the best about the community?? Instead of having the residents come to us, we reached out first and came to them while informing them about our visioning project.

I agree with Kath Roth that engaging diverse population is to play by the rules of the respective groups. Northeast is mostly a working class community. We knew that the residents are busy and it would be difficult for them to attend visioning meetings. It is easier to take a couple minutes out of their day to answer a few questions that are relevant to them. Most residents had something to say and it is more personal when you listen to them one-on-one.

I think that it is important for planners to get the stakeholders who have the highest interest or will be most impacted by a certain decision (whether they know it or not) to the table. I too, think that Katie gets it right that it is necessary to recognize and respect other languages and cultural norms that come with different groups; people respond to respect. When 'educating' these groups, words are important. Using technical terms, or big words can often result in the alienation of people who think things are over their heads. Conversely, if the presentation is watered down and people feel like they are being talked down to, they may also feel jaded.

In the end, I think the best rules to follow, are to take the extra steps to get the right people involved, know the best ways to communicate, and show respect. The earlier this happens, and the trust that will be built will only result in better public relations down the road.

A thought on why substantive participation in the shaping of one's community is important:

“Of the man-made things,the works of engineering and architecture and town plan are the heaviest and biggest part of what we experience. They lie underneath, they loom around, as the prepared place of our activity. Economically, they have the greatest amount of past human labor frozen into them, as streets and highways, houses and bridges, and physical plant.

Against this background we do our work and strive towards our ideals, or just live out our habits; yet because it is background, it tends to become taken for granted and to be unnoticed.

A child accepts the man-made background itself as the inevitable nature of things; he does not realize that somebody once drew some lines on a piece of paper who might have drawn otherwise. But now, as engineer and architect once drew,people have to walk and live.?

- Paul and Percival Goodman, Communitas, 1960

See you in class later today.

I am going to actually respond based off a project that I am working on with my architecture studio. We are working with a small planning group in the Lower Ninth Ward called “Get it Done? to discuss possible options for the rebuilding of a once important economic thoroughfare through the neighborhood. This group is facing the difficulty of wanting to involve more of the land/property owners in the area but due to location, age, income, and trust-issues property owners have not been part of the conversation and decision making process. I believe that this group does need the input and participation from a larger portion of those who once lived in the neighborhood. Without the numbers, this group appears to be in a holding pattern – overwhelmed by the decisions and work that sits before them. As Greenberg and Lewis stated that “Blight… leads to a feeling of loss of control? couple the blight with an absence of their neighbors and I question how those that remain, making decisions, are able to fight the desire to flee. Because the population that is truly affected by the decisions made are not present, those that remain have fortified their planning group with a more diverse group of New Orleans residents – which places those participants in difficult position as they are expected to make decisions on behalf of a population and culture that they are not part of. So, in summery, the diversity of the population that participates should reflect the population that is affected. I am an optimist and believe that if people believe that they are wanted, maybe even recruited, to be part of the planning process they will engage in more proportionate numbers to the population.

Planner should work with the entire community and come up with ideas that would serve everyone’s interest. As cities are becoming more and more diverse, it becomes very important to involve people from all walks of life into the planning process. Planners should take an active role in incorporating ethnic differences with a more rational and supportive manner. They should have an understanding of the demography of community and should also be aware of the varying income levels and household arrangements.

The chances of minority groups being invested in wrong direction is higher with the populations having little or no opportunity to voice their thoughts. It is planner’s job to educate the mass and advocate their thoughts. Mediation can serve as an important tool to involve the minority populations and also to resolve conflicts. I do believe that diverse public should be engaged in planning processes but it is hard to determine the best possible approach because of the cultural, ethnical and economical differences which vary in every community. And not all planning processes require public participation depending upon the kind, scope and scale of the project. The participation processes should be designed and implemented in such a way that it does not under represent the minority population and input from all factions of the community should be incorporated effectively into the planning process. The participation of minority population can be enhanced by inviting them on meetings, allowing space for interaction and even including them on city boards. This will allow much more tolerance when potential conflict arises.

I am glad that others have considered economic diversity and its impact on participation. I have noticed that in several community planning processes I have observed, participants are not paid for their time, so committees have become dominated by participants whose livelihoods are strongly affected by the decisions being made or by those who have resources that allow them to participate regularly. This can lead to the impression that participation by those with fewer resources, who may not be able to participate as regularly, is not important or that these citizens are less committed to the effort. It can also lead to the impression by lower income residents that their participation does not matter, since those of the higher socio-economic group are able to be more involved and have more influence.

This is not to say that I advocate for stipends for participation, but rather that this is an issue that planners should consider. How do you successfully include varying socio-economic groups while at the same time being cognizant that some groups will have a greater ability to participate? I think that the answer is in the deisgn on the process, so that the benefits of participation are clear and that no one is allowed to dominate the group purely by showing up the most or having the loaudest voice. I think proportional represntation makes the most sense in community planning processes in which there is a great deal of diversity.

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs