ON THE AGENDA | APRIL 19TH, 2016 | Allison Rizzolo

A Lesson in Community Engagement from Austin, Texas

At Public Agenda, we like to practice what we preach.

In Austin, Texas, residents are grappling with increasing development. Photo: Ed Schipul via Flickr.

At Public Agenda, we like to practice what we preach. So last week, I attended a neighborhood association meeting in Austin, Texas, where I'm visiting.

The community where I'm staying while I'm here is facing the impending development of property that abuts many neighborhood houses. This development has dominated neighborhood association meeting agendas for the past year. At last week's meeting, community residents had the opportunity to engage with local environmental officials on their questions and concerns.

Community members seem to generally support the idea of the development. They welcome new retail, restaurants and housing to the area. At the same time, they are rightfully worried about the impact the development will have on their property and the neighborhood. In particular, the neighborhood, situated along a creek, struggles with flooding and drainage issues. The traffic is also already something of a nightmare around here, and residents are concerned about the volume of cars that will be added to the road once the development is built.

Last week's meeting showcased many effective principles of public engagement. At the same time, there were a few ways in which the local association could improve their engagement processes, especially when it comes to inclusivity.

I'll start with the pros:

Residents emphasized solutions and good communication.

The public at times needs space to vent, and effective public engagement processes will provide that space. At the same time, in order to make progress, leaders and residents need to shift from venting to talking about solutions.

Residents attending the meeting, in particular the leader of the neighborhood association, seemed quite mindful of this. The association president emphasized the importance of solutions-oriented communication and messaging, noting that, if residents were too stubborn in their complaints, they risked being written off as NIMBYs by the city council.

Experts fielded questions in an approachable, transparent way.

Two local environmental officials attended the meeting, and stayed well beyond their allotted time in order to address the concerns of everyone in the room. The officials were friendly and transparent about processes around assessing environmental impacts, permitting and zoning. They were also honest when they didn't have the information residents were seeking. They let residents know about future steps and provided them with their email addresses, inviting residents to contact them personally.

Leadership made efforts to ensure everyone was informed and up-to-date.

Association leaders sent out an agenda for this meeting and notes from the last meeting so participants would be caught up. There was a dedicated note taker for this meeting as well. The association also has a monthly newsletter it provides to all residents, regardless of their attendance at or membership in the neighborhood association.

At the same time, there was some room for improvement at the meeting, particularly when it comes to deepening participation:

The meeting required a substantial time commitment.

The meeting clocked in at two hours total. Of course, there are trade-offs: the meeting length meant residents could ask the local officials as many questions as they wanted. Association leadership also took time to attend to regular business as well, and attendees were free to come and go as they needed. Still, the meeting length may have been a hurdle for some, particularly those with busy work schedule or family to care for.

Attendees seemed mainly to be "repeat customers."

Opportunities for public engagement often draw out "usual suspects" - residents who are typically more vocal and civically engaged already. Meanwhile, large segments of the public are often missing from the decision-making process especially low-income populations, immigrants and young people.

This seemed to be the case at the meeting I attended attendees skewed older and everyone present seemed to be frequent attendees of the association meetings. A few called out this fact, noting that the people who attend these meetings are often the ones who complain most about the development. As a result, the position of the association may not be truly representative of the neighborhood, as it fails to encompass those who are satisfied with the development plans and don't want to, for example, reduce the number of restaurants or office space.

It seems the association could take some steps to improve and expand participation, perhaps by knocking on doors, providing childcare or even just serving a snack during the meeting.

Conversation was perhaps too expert level.

While the officials in attendance were approachable and seemed to be trying to avoid jargon and technical terms, I at times felt lost during the conversation. This may be a result of who was in the room: a number of association members, including the president, seemed to have some expertise in urban planning and engineering. Officials and attendees could have made a more conscious attempt to avoid getting too technical, or to check in periodically with others in attendance, to make sure they were still following.

I'm normally a resident of Queens, New York, where we also have our share of anxiety over impending development and changing neighborhoods. It seemed especially valuable for residents in Austin to have the opportunity to connect face-to-face with local officials, in particular those from a department directly responsible for some of the issues causing residents the most angst drainage and the threat of flooding. As Public Agenda embarks on its own project to help better engage New York area residents on questions around housing and development, I look forward to bringing the lessons I learn through this process back to our work.


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