PROCESS | Creative Consultation, Creative Consultants

Posted on 24/08/2009



Community engagement is (or should be) integral to the work of planning and urban design and, when undertaken appropriately, engagement can release and channel creativity and searching. Negotiations with communities/local residents about how places and space change is, in theory, embedded within design and planning practice. I’ve just ordered Wendy Sarkissian’s book, Speakout: The Step-By-Step Guide to Speakouts and Community Workshops, about the Speakout, a model of community engagement she and Andrea Cook developed in the 1990s. In the post about John Mongard’s work, his engagement process of ‘setting up shop’ was highlighted as integral to the design process of public spaces. Plan C’s Jim Gleeson (also profiled in the book) is another planner whose work is based on careful consideration of engagement processes, especially those involving young people.

In an earlier blog post, I noted a brainstorm and poll undertaken by Planetizen about what to do with the sites of empty caryards given the pending closure of dealerships in the USA. In that brainstorm, I anonymously suggested that there was a need to ask local residents about what is needed in the community and this was the suggestion that received the most approval. There’s also a need to engaged place based and site specific responses. In the commentary about the outcome of the poll, Planetizen writes:

It’s probably not too surprising to see which idea came out on top, as it speaks to the essence of planning. Most voters chose the idea of asking the locals what their community needs. One of the basic tenets of planning is to work with community stakeholders to build consensus about what a place needs, not to come in with a prescribed solution (which many of the other ideas are).

While the winning “idea” is really more of a decision to not choose an idea, it is consistent with the ethos of the field today to create consensus over any new development. In a way, the selection of “Ask the local residents what the community needs” as the winning idea speaks volumes about the care and consideration going into planning processes around the country.

Planners do not only create planning practice, they create with planning practice. Consultation can sometimes feel like it is being ‘done to’ people rather than drawing them into dynamic exchange. As Charles Leadbeater explains, “top down planning all too often extinguishes vernacular, everyday innovation or drives it underground … Cities are experiments for how we live together creatively.” As he charts an emerging world of doing with people rather than to them, he observes that participation takes many forms. My partner, John Armstrong (Harbinger Consultants), who works broadly across social innovation, social enterprise and cultural planning, often says the same thing about the need for ‘with’, for openness and for conversation. A further question about practices of ‘with’, however, lies in understanding the flows between participation and collaboration. In noting that, I mean power and authority, accountability and responsibility.

And, as an aside, when I look at the work of these small enterprises – Sarkissian & Associates, John Mongard Landscape Architects, Plan C and Harbinger Consultants – there is an impressive repertoire of locally devised and researched approaches to realising better urban environments and richer community experiences. This is the stuff of changemaking where consultants can guide their clients down the path of social responsibility, social innovation and community benefit. It also highlights the value of a dynamic field of small design and planning consultancies – innovative, engaging and entrepreneurial – in the economies of urban, social and cultural development. A further dynamic in this mix is the manner in which these small consultancies are collaborating with each other and with non-profit organisations. (There’ll be another blog post on these ideas.)

Duelling notions about how planning is done and how planning should be done tends to be evoked in some literatures. The tensions between them may lie in the governmentalism (as a kind of constraint) of how planning is done and an almost utopianism (as a kind of possibility) of how planning should be done. The practitioners I mention here seem to have found an approach that reacquaints practice with possibility. As an innovator in/with/of planning practice, Sarkissian has developed a range of consultation and engagement methods grounded in ideas about sustainability, empowerment, deliberation and conversation. At the Ideas Festival held earlier this year, she referred to how once innovative practices in community visioning had become normative, referring to the Oregon Model. The Speakout approach has been honed and developed over about 20 years of practice and is described by Sarkissian and Cook as:

a lively, innovative, colourful and interactive staffed exhibition — a hybrid event combining some of the characteristics of a meeting and some of an exhibition or ‘open house’. The purpose is to provide an informal and interactive ‘public meeting’ environment where a wide range of people have a chance to participate. It is designed to facilitate structured ‘drop-in’ participation about planning and design issues. Participants come to the venue, find the issues on which they wish to ‘speak out’ and have their say.

For Sarkissian and Cook, the Speakout can be used in any planning process as a means of introducing a planning or design project ranging from urban renewal to development proposals. However, I’d like to think that it could also be adapted for the purposes of a getting to know a community and draw them into conversation and contact with each other. And the authors propose that “the applications of Speakouts are really only limited by one’s imagination, as it can be tailored to a number of issues and to a range of communities.” However, in order to be effective, the Speakout needs to be carefully facilitated and recorded as these processes are also constitutive of qualitative research in planning and impact studies. Interactive data collecting activities that are age and ethnicity appropriate are integral to the process: using dotmocracy exercises, marking maps, developing simple games and the like. Many of us have been involved in so many planning processes that these techniques will be very familiar, so there is a need to keep them dynamic and alive. ‘Having our say’ can sometimes feel like going through the motions with ‘consultation fatigue’ regularly reported. At a recent conference, a colleague described consultation as ‘just ticking boxes’ to comply with planning policy. Perhaps, then, there’s an ongoing need for better integration of interaction design in the development of these activities. This then points to a need for enhanced interdisciplinary capacities in planning and design.

In reflecting on their practice, Sarkissian and Cook note that their approach to Speakout facilitation has changed over many iterations and now reflects a ‘capacity building’ approach to community planning and development. This means developing skills in facilitation and recording among community members so that these skills are embedded in the community as a result of the consultation process. The beauty of this is lies in simple acts of exchange and learning. Similarly there are opportunities for greater engagement with artists and designers in presenting, imagining, collecting and collaborating. For many practitioners, this means planning is done with and by communities (stakeholders if you must) not to and for them and is integral to a more open approach to design and development that harnesses local creativity, passion and knowledge. The message is fairly simple: information isn’t enough, people also have to be inspired.

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