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Public Involvement Techniques

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Chapter 1  |   Chapter 2  |   Chapter 3  |   Chapter 4  |   Index of Techniques

4. Using Special Techniques to Enhance Participationskip page navigation

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4.B - Changing a Meeting Approach
4.B.a - Improving Meeting Attendance
4.B.b - Role Playing
4.B.c - Site Visits
4.B.d - Non-Traditional Meeting Places and Events

4. Introduction
4.A
4.B
4.C
4.D

4.B.d - Non-Traditional Meeting Places and Events

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 don’t typically participate, an agency needs to go to where they congregate and feel comfortable—in other words, to their own turf.

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 people’s 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 planning process:

  • 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, children’s 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 Houston–Galveston 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 festivities.
  • 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 agency’s 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 Miami’s East–West 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 mitigation measures.

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.

Who leads?

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 Impact Statement.

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 agency’s work. (See Civic Advisory Committees.)

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 agency’s 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 of advice.

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 sites:

  • 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 project’s goals for the coming years, along with materials or resource people who are available for questions. (See Interactive Video Displays and Kiosks.)
  • 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 agency’s 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. (See Charrettes; Focus Groups; Visioning.) CACs may want to travel to new sites for their meetings. (See Civic Advisory Committees.)

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 trolley.

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 MTA’s 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 conditions.

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 pre-existing events.

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 meetings.

For further information:

Ada Planning Association (APA), Boise, Idaho (208) 345-5274
Dallas Area Rapid Transit, Dallas, Texas (214) 658-6112
Denver Regional Transit District, Denver, Colorado (303) 299-2401
East Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (414) 751-4770
Florida State Department of Transportation, Miami East–West Field Office, Miami, Florida (305) 262-7033
Kentuckiana Regional Planning and Development Agency, Kentucky (502) 266-6084
Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Los Angeles, California (213) 244-6891
Maricopa Association of Governments, Phoenix, Arizona (602) 254-6308
Missouri Highway and Transportation Department, Jefferson City, Missouri (314) 751-1685

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