‘A lot of heat but no light’ is an apt description of the majority of public meetings. In the 1990s an open meeting at a local village hall or school was regarded a necessary element of most consultations. The development team would prepare substantial amount of information and aim to talk about the proposed scheme long enough to minimise comment, mindful that a malcontent was invariably present, ready to jump up, oppose the scheme at the first opportunity and rally neighbours into an angry frenzy. Local residents, having received a letter or newsletter inviting them to attend would do so only if they had a strong point to make: what was the point in venturing out on a wet December evening to sit in a draughty village hall otherwise? The opposition invariably got their point across, often amplified, whereas the views of the ‘silent majority’ (those who chose to stay at home because they were happy for the proposals to go ahead) would not feature in the consultation responses. The local media in search of a good story and the local councillors in search an issue to boost their local support would attend in anticipation of a dramatic evening.
Not all public meetings took this form of course: many were very constructive and continue today in some circumstances. But generally, development teams have sought more engaging and constructive means of consultation.
Participatory planning – also referred to as community planning, community visioning or collaborative planning – is gaining increasing prominence and its variety of different forms is providing a welcome alternative to the beleaguered public meeting. Enquiry by Design, Planning for Real®, JTP’s Community Planning Weekends and Woolley’s Concerto model are just a few examples of this growing phenomenon.
The process of participatory planning can vary hugely but a typical approach is as follows:
- Pre-engagement research and dialogue
- Training for community groups / stakeholders in planning and facilitation as required
- Public exhibition or meeting
- Community planning day or weekend of ‘hands-on’ planning at which groups of residents, assisted but not directed by professionals, create visions and solutions, which they then feed back to the larger group
- Meetings between the development team and various local groups, or a dedicated stakeholder group, to prioritise ideas and confirm vision
- Masterplan developed by professionals following local insight
- Further consultation using exhibitions, meetings or perhaps further workshops
- Final masterplan / report produced
The benefits of this approach are substantial. Early engagement engenders community spirit, builds trust between the development team and local community and generally results in positive sentiment towards change. The process creates a sense of ownership among the community which has been seen to bring about very positive community relations over the long term. The resulting masterplan benefits from local insight and, when the process is well coordinated, can combine local passion with professional expertise to produce innovative ideas. Participatory planning, because of the variety of tactics and the emphasis on facilitation, can involve a wide range of local voices including those who may not choose to comment on a more formal consultation. And the process has been shown to accelerate masterplanning because of the positive and constructive way in which it involves not only local residents, but also politicians and planners.