Public Involvement Techniques
4.B.d - Non-Traditional Meeting Places
What are non-traditional meeting places and events?
These are locations that are not the usual meeting hall or public
building where many participation events are traditionally held.
These non-traditional options include shopping centers, elderly
drop-in centers, county fairs, neighborhood fairs and block parties,
and sporting events. Traditional places such as schools, town halls,
board rooms, and libraries do have benefits. Space in these buildings
is readily available and inexpensive to operate. They are usually
central to the community and the neighborhoods and can be perceived
as neutral in a socially polarized area. However, to reach people
who dont typically participate, an agency needs to go to where
they congregate and feel comfortable—in other words, to their
Many non-traditional meeting places are within the local community
and enable an agency to achieve a wider range of public contact.
When these meeting site options are used, community access is easier
and peoples interest is heightened. By choosing non-traditional
community locations and events, an agency shows its sincere interest
in involving community people and tailoring participation opportunities
to their needs.
Why are they useful?
Unusual locations help agencies increase attendance. Sites
may be physical locations or events open to the public. Transportation
agencies have used the following non-traditional locations and events
to attract new and different participants to the transportation
- Shopping malls attract large numbers of people. The New
Jersey Department of Transportation (DOT) used suburban shopping
malls for events and meetings during development of its statewide
long-range transportation plan. Activities included videos, mini-focus
groups, childrens activities, and staff assistance at presentations.
(See Interactive Video Displays
and Kiosks; Games and Contests.)
- Agricultural fairs are good locations for exhibits. The
Vancouver Intergovernmental Resource Center had a booth for 10
days at the Washington State Fair. Using interactive video games,
the transit authority took an educational approach to issues of
air quality, congestion, and alternative modes. Video games were
a hit with all age groups, especially children. The Los Angeles,
California, Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) staffed
a mock-up transit car at a booth at the county fair for 28 days.
The Idaho DOT staffed a booth at the East Idaho Fair with 2 people
on 2 shifts per day for 9 days.
- Neighborhood fairs and events help in distributing information.
The Sioux City, Iowa, Siouxland Interstate Metropolitan Planning
Committee had an information booth at a local festival. The HoustonGalveston
Area Council staffed several information booths each week to provide
information on-site at community events.
- Local buildings and events are good locations for agency
contact. New Jersey Transit has sponsored meetings at a Portuguese
social club, a State museum oriented to children, a suburban senior
citizen center, and a work site at Port Elizabeth.
- Community sports events are good places to meet and talk
with people. As part of a major investment study, the Missouri
Highway and Transportation Agency set up displays in a tent inside
the gate at a community football game. People were encouraged
to stop by, ask questions, and fill out a survey form.
- Special neighborhood events help agencies reach people.
Displays or mini-meetings may be held in conjunction with career
days, block parties, house meetings, bus trips, or local community
- Centrally-located, convenient places may be used to distribute
agency information. Local libraries are a good place for viewing
community displays and are often used to make project environmental
documents available locally. Public parks have been used for large
meetings and for events where transportation agencies can participate.
Agencies reach individuals who usually do not participate.
At new sites and places commonly visited by the public, an agency
distributes information to a large population it ordinarily would
not reach. People may be directly contacted who do not ordinarily
come to public buildings or participate in agency meetings.
Agencies receive a wider array of comments from more people.
With greater community awareness about a new process, more people
are encouraged to participate in meetings associated with it. Georgia
DOT uses "greeters" to welcome participants at its open
houses and instructs staff to help.
An agencys credibility is enhanced by new approaches.
By bringing a meeting into a community, an agency shows its concern
and desire to obtain local comments. Highway public hearings are
traditionally held near the site proposed for improvement—for
instance, in high school auditoriums. But many planning and project
development meetings can also benefit participants by using local
sites at convenient times, since many members of the public are
not free to attend during business hours. For its statewide plan,
the Massachusetts Highway Department held open houses in numerous
community facilities around the State.
Do they have special uses?
Specific sites in a community can be targeted. Instead of
requiring people to travel to agency offices, sites can be chosen
that are central to neighborhoods. This is particularly important
if neighborhoods are defined by specific ethnic, minority, or other
underrepresented groups. (See Ethnic,
Minority, and Low-income Groups.)
Using project sites for meetings helps the public understand
technical issues. As one non-traditional way to hold meetings,
a visit to a project location or a tour of an alignment provides
first-hand experience to help people envision a plan or project.
(See Site Visits.) To obtain public
input, the Ada Planning Association in Boise, Idaho, set up an outdoor
task force meeting in a public park, where a pedestrian crossing
bridge was proposed. A direct viewing of the physical site, along
with displays and maps, helped people understand the technical design
of the proposed improvement.
Non-traditional sites help an agency reach specific target groups.
The Kansas DOT met at local sites for regional meetings with business
and industry in developing its long-range plan. The Maricopa Association
of Governments in Phoenix, Arizona, developed two types of meetings
at local sites, one for business leaders and key community leaders
and the other for the general public.
Specific modes can be used as a focus for meetings. The
Denver, Colorado, Regional Transit District (RTD) invited people
to one major investment study meeting held on a trolley. During
Miamis EastWest Major Investment Study (MIS), the Florida
DOT invited elementary and middle-school students to tour the existing
system and encourage their parents to participate in the decision-making
by attending meetings. During its rail transit alternatives analysis/draft
environmental impact statement/draft environmental impact report
process, the Los Angeles MTA offered a walking tour or a ride on
a passenger rail car inside the proposed construction area to explain
the operation and construction process and gain input on proposed
Sites or events that attract large numbers of people are especially
useful. There is increasing interest in taking agency work to
"where the people are." By going to where people congregate
in large numbers, an agency takes advantage of a pre-existing audience.
Non-traditional sites draw crowds a public meeting rarely does.
Shopping centers attract people in such numbers that an agency may
not need to publicize its presence.
Who participates? And how?
People are usually invited to participate informally. In
unusual locations, agencies often must get the attention of passers-by
through attractive displays that compete with other activities at
the site. The displays encourage people to visit, get information,
and give an agency their views and comments. However, a meeting
in a special place can also be directed beyond individuals through
notices and invitations to a general audience or a mixture of representatives
from community groups.
Participants usually visit the site for a meeting or for browsing
through an exhibit. At a booth or display, they view exhibits or
talk to a staff person. At a project site, people get information
from the surroundings as well as from agency displays, brochures,
and presentations. Depending on the location and the type of meeting
or display, they give comments on agency work.
How do agencies use the output?
Agencies need to consider how to document comments for use as
input to decisions. Comments recorded in writing by participants
or staff bring new insights or considerations to a plan or project.
But the informality of the situation may make it difficult for passers-by
to write their comments, particularly if they have children with
them or if there is no convenient place to sit and write. In such
cases, recording oral comments on tape for later transcription is
one option. Another is providing comment forms that can be filled
out at home and mailed to the agency.
Agency staff people are most likely to lead non-traditional
events. If informal presentations are required, agency staff
or consultants may handle them. Project management staff led a trolley
tour for the Denver, Colorado, Regional Transportation District
and the Houston, Texas, Transit Alternatives Analysis/ Draft Environmental
Non-traditional meetings are also led by community residents.
The Boise, Idaho, MPO asks members of its civic advisory committee
(CAC) to host and lead non-traditional meetings. CAC members meet
with civic organizations and attend neighborhood events to speak
on the long-range plan and how people can become actively involved
in it. The community perspective helps participants understand an
agencys work. (See Civic
Community residents can assist agency participation in non-traditional
events. Familiar neighborhood faces encourage other neighbors
to ask questions and participate. Community members can work jointly
with agency personnel in staffing exhibits. (See Speakers
Bureaus and Public Involvement Volunteers.)
What do they cost?
Costs vary. If only the place is changed, costs are likely
to be reasonably low. Labor-intensive events are expensive. One-day
events may require two agency representatives to staff a booth and
field questions from community residents.
Staff people are not always required at special exhibits.
Although it is useful for them to be on hand, they are necessary
only if large crowds or many questions are anticipated. If an issue
is especially controversial or complex, it is best to have staff
accompany the exhibit. Otherwise, the display can include telephone
numbers to contact for further information.
Costs climb for lengthy events such as State fairs. The
Los Angeles MTA needed 25 people to staff a county fair booth that
operated from 10:00 A.M. to midnight for 28 days.
Operational costs are incurred. Staff time, space rentals,
equipment, event scheduling, graphics, advertising in newspapers,
videos, and VCRs are possible cost elements. For bus tours, there
may be rental fees. The local transit authority donated the use
of the bus for the Boise, Idaho, MPO bus tour.
How are they organized?
An agency defines the objectives for the event. The agencys
public involvement goals guide in selecting the site and format.
Staff may brainstorm ideas to flesh out the format. Community leaders
and groups with experience at sites such as fairs are good sources
Sites that are open at convenient hours raise attendance.
Non-traditional times for meetings may help people schedule time
to attend. Special evening or weekend hours are frequently used
to appeal to people who are unable to attend meetings or exhibits
during regular working hours or weekdays. The Metropolitan Council
of the Twin Cities area of Minnesota is transforming certain meetings
into open houses where people can come and go according to their
own schedules. (See Open
Forum Hearings/Open Houses.)
Agencies increase participation by informing the local media
of an event and its schedule. For certain events, it is appropriate
to work with others who are in charge of publicity.
Exhibits, format, and coordination of staff are instrumental
in a successful event at an unusual site. Participation in seasonal
events such as State or county fairs sometimes requires reservations
months in advance. Securing the availability of a facility ahead
of schedule ensures better preparation and organization.
Agencies choose the most appropriate method of providing information.
A wide variety of methods are available to use in unconventional
- Booths or tables are used to give and get information.
These booths are staffed, if possible, so people can talk with
agency representatives. These conversations can explain agency
goals and elicit community comments.
- Kiosks also offer a method of both giving and getting information.
Interactive displays can provide information people may find useful.
Displays can also be set up to record comments or survey customer
attitudes. The Colorado DOT has used interactive touch screens
in shopping centers. (See Interactive
Video Displays and Kiosks.)
- Props help stimulate dialogue in non-traditional meeting
places. In preparing its long-range transportation plan, the
East Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission used props
such as renderings, photos, engineering designs, and videos to
help participants visualize scenarios of managed growth, maximized
density, and minimized infrastructure development. Videos and
slides were used at local sites in the process of preparing a
long-range transportation plan for the Little Rock, Arkansas,
Metroplan. For the Eastside Corridor Alternatives Analysis/Draft
Environmental Impact Statement/Draft Environmental Impact Report
process, the Los Angeles MTA placed the alternatives in color
and on small (11"x 17") boards, which were easy to carry
and pass around at meetings. Participants could hold the boards
at close range and discuss them at length.
- Videos may be shown at special sites or lent for wide
distribution. They outline issues, define the need for participation,
and set the stage for a meeting. They can be re-run at meetings
as a basis for discussions. The Wisconsin DOT uses videos at meetings
to explain a projects goals for the coming years, along
with materials or resource people who are available for questions.
(See Interactive Video Displays
- Portable exhibits can take the place of staff and still
enhance the distribution of agency information. An agency prepares
stand-alone visuals for displays to bring information to new groups
of people to broaden participation. These visuals include boards,
photographs, renderings, kiosks, interactive displays, videos,
or maps. Portable exhibits are set up in public buildings, malls,
or other locations where they can be read by passers-by. It is
important to find locations where a display can be monitored by
security officials, so that it will not be defaced or destroyed.
- Mobile exhibits can be mounted inside a vehicle used
to travel around a State or region. With permission, it can be
stationed at nearly any location, including malls, universities,
or local public buildings. The Arizona DOT uses a mobile facility
to inform the public in sparsely-populated areas. The Washington,
D.C., MPO used a "vision van" to publicize its visioning
effort and gather survey information.
Informality aids in attracting people to agency events or displays
in any setting and is particularly important at non-traditional
sites. Displays or events that allow one-on-one interaction are
less intimidating for people who tend to shy away from meetings
in traditional locations. Informality also helps a transportation
agencys message and materials become "part of the landscape"
rather than an intrusion into community territory.
Technical descriptions are not usually required. Unconventional
sites fit with non-technical explanations. Discussing engineering
concepts or environmental impacts in ordinary terms is challenging
to staff but rewarding in terms of improved public understanding
of agency goals.
Evaluation of the success of unusual events aids future outreach
efforts. Agencies need to carefully assess how variable factors
such as time of day, location, access by public transportation,
or nature of the event affected its impact, so that future planning
can capitalize on those that contributed to its success and avoid
those that detracted from it.
How are they used with other techniques?
Non-traditional meetings and exhibits supplement other public
involvement programs. Different locations with special props
spark new interest in active community people or attract new participants
into an outreach meeting. At new sites, charrettes, focus groups,
or visioning may be used as lead-ins to discussing complex issues.
CACs may want to travel to new sites for their meetings. (See Civic
What are the drawbacks?
Staffing can be expensive. Staff and equipment costs climb
for long events, such as State fairs that last 10 days or more.
Props, videos, and interactive computers require on-site technical
assistance to set up equipment.
Unusual meeting sites and approaches may be intimidating to
potential participants, especially groups not traditionally
involved in the decision-making process. An agency needs special
effort to gain their confidence and participation.
Weather conditions are a factor in selecting an unusual meeting
site. A rain date may need to be scheduled for outdoor meetings.
The East Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission avoids outdoor
meetings during the summer when air conditioning is more comfortable.
The number of exhibits to be displayed may be restricted at
a new site because of space limitations. Agencies may not have
all the exhibits necessary to answer a specific question thoroughly.
The Denver, Colorado, RTD experienced exhibit limitations because
it could not bring all the visuals and boards to a meeting on the
People may not be interested in interactive displays. The
Florida DOT turned proposed interactive mall and turnpike plaza
events into "exhibits only" when they realized passengers
were, in general, not interested in getting detailed information
while stopping at commercial centers on the turnpike. Another State
DOT reports that while many people passed by and casually looked
at its displays at a State fair, the staff doubted that many viewers
were really engaged or gleaned much from the experience. An agency
needs to carefully define its objectives in choosing unusual venues
and design its presence to accomplish worthwhile aims that justify
the costs and the effort.
Popular exhibits often require extra preparation. Los Angeles
MTAs Metro Red Line display cars have been an attractive feature
at many community events. Preparations to display the cars required
months of advanced notice to responsible MTA departments.
Varying meeting locations makes it difficult to maintain continuity
and build on previous meetings. Interested stakeholders may lose
interest if special efforts replace a known meeting pattern.
Are non-traditional meetings and events flexible?
Meetings sites vary, and events are tailored to specific sites.
Agencies can determine whether to staff a booth or exhibit throughout
an exhibition period, which varies from one day to more than a week.
Flexibility is required if events are rescheduled due to weather
Traveling workshops offer the flexibility of a "pick up
and go" presentation. Moving from one location to another
on short notice is sometimes an advantage and makes materials more
accessible to the general public.
When are they used most effectively?
Non-traditional meetings are effective when they coincide with
Non-traditional meeting places help remote populations.
People from rural areas are able to attend meetings that are not
otherwise easily accessible. If meeting access for rural people
is difficult or time-consuming, it is preferable to offer a multi-purpose
stop such as an annual State or county fair.
Non-traditional events are important prior to major milestones.
A series of events or exhibits before major decisions on projects
or plans garners input from people who may not attend regular community
For further information:
Association (APA), Boise, Idaho
Rapid Transit, Dallas, Texas
Transit District, Denver, Colorado
Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission
State Department of Transportation, Miami EastWest Field
Office, Miami, Florida
Regional Planning and Development Agency, Kentucky
County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Los Angeles, California
Association of Governments, Phoenix, Arizona
Highway and Transportation Department, Jefferson City, Missouri
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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).