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Public consultation is broken

Public consultation is broken. And by that, I mean that the way in which municipalities, developers, and other city builders solicit feedback from communities is fundamentally flawed.

For new developments, the process works more or less like this: The developer makes an application to the city. The city reviews it and then agrees to move towards a public/community meeting (the goal of which is to solicit feedback on the proposal). Once a date is set, notices go out, and the developer secretly hopes that no one will show up. 

Because what often ends up happening is that it’s only the people with the time or a bone to pick who actually go to these things. Rarely do people go simply to voice their support for a project. That’s why the benchmark for success is usually no community opposition – it’s rarely about support.

But from writing Architect This City, I know that many of you care deeply about your community and about cities in general. The problem, is that I don’t think most of you get a chance to voice your opinions. How many of you have actually gone to a community meeting in order to show your support for a development project or city initiative? I’d be curious to know, but I suspect most of you haven’t.

The result is a system whereby the voice of a few (often naysayers) have a disproportionate amount of weight. They set the tone. But that’s not how community input works best. It needs to be representative of a broad and diverse cross section of the population. It needs to be inclusive. Everyone in the community should have a say.

So today I was thinking that there’s an opportunity for somebody out there to create an online platform for community feedback. Developers would post up their project and then everyone in the community, as well as in the larger city, would have an opportunity to vote on it and provide their feedback.

To make it fair, you could assign higher weights to people the closer they live to the project. But the idea would be to make it as easy as possible for everyone to provide feedback – whether they’re on their smartphone or at the regular community meeting. 

Obviously this would require greater openness, but I don’t think that pulling back is the answer to this problem. The solution isn’t to hide from the potential naysayers; it’s to galvanize the supporters. 

If your community already has a platform like this, please share it in the comment section below. I’d love to see it.

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