Public Involvement Techniques
4.B.c - Site Visits
What are site visits?
Site visits are trips taken by community residents, officials,
agencies, and consultants to proposed or actual project areas,
corridors, impacted areas, or affected properties. They are also
known as field visits or site tours.
Site visits are made in a variety of ways—by bus, train,
taxi, private car, or on foot. Some involve long-distance trips
Why are they useful?
Site visits show the physical environment of a proposal.
They are used by local people to show engineers, agency personnel,
and planners details and conditions they might have missed. Frequently,
site visits are the best way to demonstrate a physical fact to either
the community or agency personnel.
Site visits give participants a common frame of reference.
They see conditions at the same time and under the same circumstances.
The Connecticut Department of Transportation (DOT) organized a bus
tour of New Havens Q Bridge area so the Community Advisory
Committee (CAC) could see the existing bridge, potential new rights-of-way,
and sensitive neighboring areas. The tour included agency staff,
community people, and consultants.
Site visits help people understand each others point-of-view.
Residents, officials, and agency staff stand on the street, observe
where a proposed project would be, and locate it on a plan. This
helps people understand how agency plans translate into reality.
Site visits are valuable as a basis for repeated discussions and
as details are developed.
Site visits help get people to participate who normally would
not be involved or may be uncomfortable working with agencies.
The field office personnel for Denvers light rail transit
project conducted walking tours of the corridor for neighborhood
residents, many of whom had never been involved in a planning or
A site visit is a chance for agency staff to better understand
a proposal and hear the perspective of others. Engineers and
other staff find an informal, risk-free opportunity for communication
with the community.
Site visits improve media coverage and accuracy of reporting,
on occasions when the media are involved. A reporter who devotes
several hours to a site visit is more likely to understand and write
clearly about complex, subtle issues and planning details. (See
Site visits help gain credibility for the agency by going into
the community. They help dispel the notion that agencies do
not understand the area or people they will affect. They show that
an agency is willing to listen to community concerns.
Do they have special uses?
Site visits help people understand a particular technology.
Visits are made on buses, transit lines, roads, or other forms of
transportation to illustrate the operations, problems, and advantages
of a specific mode. In Denver, the transit agency put a light rail
transit vehicle on display to let people see what it was like and
walk through it.
Trips to the site are useful to address new questions as they
arise. Participants helping to develop the Central Artery North
Area project in Bostons Charlestown neighborhood had difficulty
understanding the dimensions of a park proposed for the top of the
depressed highway. Going to the site on a low-traffic morning, agency
staff outlined the proposed new parcel on the ground with lime.
With a rooftop view of the outlined space, participants were able
to appreciate the new parks size. The community newspaper
carried a feature on the visit to help local people grasp the enormity
of the parcel.
Site visits are sometimes tours to locations similar to the
proposed site. Cities contemplating new rail systems have sent
delegations to cities where such systems already exist. During these
visits, meetings were arranged between the delegation and agency
officials, community people, and the business community. For Denvers
light rail transit project, community groups visited light rail
transit systems in Portland and Vancouver.
Who participates? And how?
Anyone can participate (as long as the site is accessible).
Site visits are sometimes targeted to advisory committee representatives,
elected officials, neighborhood activists and local residents, environmentalists,
or the business community. People from the disability community
may have difficulty visiting a site with rough topography. (See
People with Disabilities.)
Site visits help local people make a particular point about
a proposal, especially if they feel the agency does not understand
the point. In Sioux City, Iowa, planning for Vision 2020 planning
started with a citywide bus tour for its Task Force to provide an
overview of the physical attributes of the city. Task Force members
were able as a group to view issues in all parts of the city. Agency
staff thought the trip was invaluable as an overview of local concerns.
Information about the site visit is distributed widely to potentially
participants. Information is sent out in meeting notices or
as fliers. Notices are mailed to active participants in the process
and placed in local newspapers or on signs in local stores or activity
centers. (See Public
A special invitation helps draw specific participants. An
agency may target certain people because of their concerns or issues.
In these instances, a special written invitation or phone call helps.
A follow-up letter or notice also helps draw special participants.
Tours can be organized. For Bostons Central Artery/Tunnel,
the project offered a series of walking tours. Notices were sent
to a variety of organizations, and the public was invited. Bus or
train tours may be an appropriate way to include a large group.
In special instances, air tours are useful. For people unable to
attend, a video tour is a good alternative. Videos are also used
in meetings to help participants remember site details. (See Video
Community residents request a site visit so they can point
out specific issues and make sure the agency understands their concerns.
A community coalition asked the Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation,
the transit authoritys General Manager, and project planners
to tour a corridor being studied for transit improvements.
How do agencies use site visits?
Site visits are useful to show how a facility or plan would
operate or fit into its surroundings. In preparation for a major
investment study, the Maryland Transit Authority used tours to show
how its existing light rail line operates. Dallas Area Rapid Transit
(DART) took neighborhood associations on site visits to show that
proposed technologies and operations were being used elsewhere.
Inviting media representatives on site visits results in better-informed
reporting and editorializing. (See Media
Agencies use site visits to better understand the physical environment,
make better-informed decisions, and clarify conflicting positions
on particular physical points, such as sources of background noise
levels or distances between buildings and proposed tracks.
Who leads site visits?
A site visit must be led by experienced, knowledgeable staff
who know the area and the issues. The staff must communicate the
issues in a non-judgmental and open-minded way, so that participants
feel the trip is a worthwhile learning experience.
A community representative can lead a site visit. The leader
should not be biased or present only one side of the story. Since
other community groups have different perspectives, such bias could
A high agency official or an elected official may lead a site
visit, particularly for high-profile, controversial projects.
Community members may feel that top officials are the most appropriate
leaders for such projects.
What are the costs?
Costs vary. Transportation costs are high for long-distance
visits requiring extensive arrangements. Costs were a significant
factor when community representatives from Burlington, Vermont,
along with agency staff, considered traveling by air to see the
Portland, Oregon, light rail installation.
The costs of staff time vary. Staff time costs relatively
little for local site visits but could involve several days for
more distant trips.
Agencies can provide food, especially if the visit is lengthy
or if extended discussion is planned. Light snacks and beverages
convey an informal message and encourage people to stay and ask
questions. In Dallas, DART always feeds participants during site
Site visits can be photographed or taped. A camera records
information such as how close a building is to the street. Photos
or videos of the gathering are informative for other people, the
staff, or the media. A video camera helps record the details raised
by local people, as well as interchanges between community members
and agency personnel.
How are site visits organized?
Agency staff contacts community group leaders to see if
there is interest in a site visit. If there is, staff should ask
for names of potential invitees and compile an invitation list.
If the list is short, the agency can ask invitees if they feel comfortable
opening the visit to a wider audience by listing it in local newspapers,
posting notices in public places, or sending a notice to an entire
Community people can ask an agency to conduct a site visit.
Agency staff inquires about the goals of the visit, the agency personnel
who should be present, and others who should attend. It is important
to work together in setting an appropriate date, time, and other
logistics to demonstrate cooperation and assure participation.
Site visits are held at convenient times, such as evenings
or weekends. These times should be selected in conjunction with
the community. They should also be selected so that site conditions
are not obscured by equipment or bad lighting. It is preferable
to hold a site visit during the time the site is most active or
when the site represents a condition that people are concerned about.
A meeting can be added to a site visit if the logistics are
feasible. It is helpful to discuss what people saw while impressions
are fresh. A formal meeting on-site requires distinctive planning.
Details such as chairs, lights, and weather must be considered.
If an agency wants an on-site meeting, it should get agreement from
The agency supplies transportation, if required. It is important
that the vehicle be comfortable. People should be able to hear the
leader or any discussions clearly.
Descriptive materials are provided before the visit, including
a summary of the proposal, the purpose of the visit, specific characteristics
to look for, etc. Maps and materials may be needed to explain major
elements of the proposal. In Dallas, DART shows a site video beforehand
and provides written materials in advance.
Generally, participants gather in one location and leave together
for the site. Occasionally, participants gather at the site
itself. A definite arrival time is set, since an opening explanation
is crucial and helps the group work together; the informality of
learning together helps break down factions within the group.
The organizer of the visit may lead it. It can be conducted
as a walk or drive around the site. The visit should be narrated,
so that participants are aware of where the proposal affects the
land. Time should be allowed for discussion of each area and for
a question-and-answer period as the group goes along and at the
end of the site visit.
Viewpoints from all participants are heard during the visit.
The agency makes sure each participant can view and react to the
site and the proposal. Direct input is solicited.
Summing-up should be done promptly. Participants may gather
and discuss what they experienced. A written record should be prepared,
including a list of participants, items to investigate further,
and areas in which there was agreement and disagreement.
How are they used with other techniques?
CACs are good candidates for site visits. CAC members can
be selected from visit participants. (See Civic
Advisory Committees.) The San Francisco Citizens Planning
Committee took site visits to joint developments in other communities.
During the Hudson waterfront transit alternatives analysis in New
Jersey, CAC members toured potential air quality monitoring sites.
A site visit can be a first step in another technique such
as a charrette. (See Charrettes.)
Computer simulations are more accurate and credible if site visits
are incorporated. (See Computer
Presentations and Simulations.)
Site visits with media involved are important parts of media
strategies. Newsletter articles highlighting site visits and
incorporating photos and diagrams demonstrate agency efforts in
public involvement by reporting the trip to many people. (See Media
What are the drawbacks?
Organizing a visit and getting appropriate people there is a
challenge. Coordinating schedules, weather, and transportation
requires considerable effort and staff time.
Site visits may need to be repeated several times for a
large project. Despite careful planning, they may fall flat due
to weather or other conditions over which the staff has no control.
A trip to a proposed site may cause later problems in recollection
if viewed on a day when weather is an aberration or if part of the
site is inaccessible.
A site visit fails if staff cannot answer questions or are
poorly prepared. The community may feel its time is wasted if it
seems the agency is not listening or is defensive.
The costs of a visit to a distant location are often prohibitive.
Airplane, train, or bus group travel to other cities may be beyond
an agencys budget.
For further information:
|Bay Area Rapid Transit District, San Francisco, California
|Central Artery North Area Project, Massachusetts Highway Department
|Connecticut DOT, Newington, Connecticut
|Dallas Area Regional Transit, Dallas, Texas
|Denver Regional Transit District, Denver, Colorado
|Siouxland Interstate Metropolitan Planning Committee, Sioux
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For more information about the TPCB program, contact Michelle
at FHWA (202-366-9206) or John Sprowls
at FTA (202-366-5362).