Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Tales of a City Planner

The Lack of Support

One of the main functions of a city planner is community organizing. This occurs when planning functions such as a new school proposal, new street proposals or a community plan. Most of my community meetings are already set by individual community associations where all I have to do is either present information and or answer questions.

But when organizing a community meeting, I have to organize, arrange, coordinate, present and host the meeting. Which isn’t a problem because after all, I am a planner. When there are active neighborhood associations in the community, getting decent participation for a community plan can be a breeze. These associations help do a lot of the leg work to get a decent turnout to a meeting.

Unfortunately, I have several communities that have either very weak neighborhood associations or none at all. So how do you bring out turnout you may ask? Well, it’s sort of like planning a party that no one wants to go to.

Me: “Excuse me sir, would you come out next Tuesday and participate at a community meeting to make our neighborhood a better place?”

Stranger: “Uh…sure, yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ll…be…there." *nervously looks away and then at the ground *

No one really tells you in college that performing outreach is a major part of community planning. Sure, it’s always easy to put ads in all of the local newspapers but not everyone gets the local paper and then those who do don’t read it. So you do a mass mailing, which should cover everyone…unless they are renters in which the mailing will go to the property owner and not the resident. And contacting apartment complexes for “solicitation”…that’s another post in itself. Only one thing left to do and that is blanket the community with flyers…one house at a time. The general rule of thumb is that for every 40 flyers, one person will come to your meeting.

So after putting ads in newspapers, mass mailings, flyers, word of mouth and calling any major stakeholders you have your first meeting. Success! You have a large turnout and with that turnout you collect everyone’s contact information from e-mail, phone number and mailing address. So now you don’t have to flyer as much and you can cut back on some of the mass mailings because you have a phone and e-mail database, right?


At your next meeting only half the amount of people come out, leaving you scratching your head. The problem, half the people only came to see what the whole community planning process was about. You will most likely never see them again despite copying them to a mass e-mail alerting of them of the next community meeting.

So what did I learn in my experiences in community outreach where there is no community support or neighborhood associations? That e-mail and phone lists can not replace community association support or direct contact with residents and business owners. If you want to build up community support, you have to do it the hard way and actually put your feet in the street and be visible in community.

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