Reducing Opposition by Eliminating Surprises

By Karen Hong, Associate Planner at M-Group

I read with interest an article titled “Getting Ahead of the Opposition” in this month’s issue of the Planning magazine. The article sketched scenarios on how even thoughtful planning processes could be defeated by opposition, and provided insights on how to navigate the public process towards a positive outcome.

The authors stated that “doing things by the playbook will no longer work.” “For most people, their home is their largest asset and anything that threatens to change their property values or way of life produces a knee-jerk negative response.”

I was interested in exploring a smaller subset of this topic – could eliminating surprise help reduce the amount of opposition?

I was reminded of public hearings where residents state that they did not know about the proposed project or plan until very recently, even if the process had been going on for a while. Such unintended surprises seem to fuel hostility and heighten the suspicion lurking at the back of people’s minds that the City may be hiding something from its own residents. The proposed heights, potential traffic impacts, and increased impact on schools quickly become focal points for residents and community stakeholders who do not want to see drastic changes to their community, way of life, and property values, just like the article stated.

For municipal planners, I’m wondering if viral notification would help. Notification to neighbors within the 300 foot radius around the property line may be the regulated minimum, but it seems to have lost its effectiveness. I’d like to suggest that people want planning processes to come to them, just like services such as banking, insurance, and grocery shopping today. We might like a planning app on our smartphones that logs our location, and alerts us to new projects going for public hearing in the neighborhoods of our interest, so that we don’t have to navigate the agenda document or wait for the news to arrive by word of mouth. At the public hearing itself, we would just need to tap a button that says “Speaker Card,” type in our name and address, and it’ll go into the record.

How might planners and developers create better outreach events that would help the community feel that they are an integral part of the team in creating the plan, therefore getting more buy-in from the start? How do we avoid having only 8 people show up to a community meeting for a General Plan update in a city of 30,000, and the rest come charging in months later saying they didn’t know, and they don’t agree? I don’t think the article is necessarily saying that involving everybody is a good idea, but there are ways to get valuable opinions from those who need to hear about the plan or project.

Possibly, we will need a new job position called “Public Relations Planner,” where people are dedicated to work with existing and new forms of media, getting the word out to where it matters. A big part of the job would be about working on the messaging, eliciting thoughtful and helpful debate over key issues that would help shape the plan or project into one that truly benefits the community.