One of the most challenging questions for urban and transportation planners in 21st century America is this: What is the right amount of public input and involvement when planning and implementing project?

The planning professions have a history of swinging back and forth between extremes: In the immediate post-war decades of the '50s and '60s, "urban renewal" was implemented with little to no involvement of the individuals, businesses, and community groups directly affected by the changes. In the later '60s and '70s, planning professions, identifying flaws in top-down approaches, prioritized public engagement. The pendulum of planning philosophy swung fully from "technocratic" planning to the other extreme of "citizen participation."

In the intervening decades, things got complicated — with many public urban initiatives across US de-funded or defeated; many public programs turned into public-private partnerships, vouchers, or tax credits; many city-centric metro regions turned into patchworks of contract cities, counties, and special districts — and yet the need for urban and transportation planning remains.

No single planning philosophy holds sway these days other than pragmatism. So for every subfield of planning, for every planning agency, and for almost every single project the question has to be asked and answered anew (almost like Goldilocks tasting three bowls of porridge): What is the right amount of public input and involvement?

Too long public engagement: Tilden and Blanding

Earlier in March, I wrote about how Alameda City Council's "field trip" to Tilden Way and Blanding Ave was nice but not necessary in terms of public engagement. While the project eventually moved ahead with full Council approve, this additional Brown Act-noticed meeting and the required preparation by staff took time, attention, and energy away from other more pressing transportation safety topics in the city.

Too long public engagement: Park and Webster re-striping

Take this more recent example of erring toward excessive engagement by the city Transportation Commission (TC): While the commission members voted to send plans for the next phase of the Commercial Streets program on Park and Webster to City Council, they also did so with direction to staff to perform even more public outreach. Why? The sentiment is well summarized by this public comment:

"I think it's premature to take this action at this time," says an Alameda resident with a tone of calm reasonableness during her public comment. "Where is the data and outreach that shows what the public actually wants? This has not been presented."

A handful of other public comments at the May 24 TC meeting echoed the same point — these changes are too quick, the community hasn't been consulted, slow down!

Enough TC members agreed. This is reasonable after all, to want to move at a deliberate pace and consult the public right?

And yet all one has to do is skim through minutes of past public meetings to put this request for outreach into perspective. Three of the public comments opposing the Park and Webster "road diets" on May 24, 2023 spoke against the same "road diets" on November 2, 2021:

Minutes of the Alameda City Council meeting on November 2, 2021.

These past comments don't undercut the right of these residents to make the same comments in opposition every time this program comes up for consideration. As I wrote in my first post on this blog, a small subset of residents in Alameda do seem to frame their local political goals as opposing any and all change. That is their right. (Yes, that is also the City Clerk's summary of my own public comment sandwiched in between; I'm also probably repeating some of the same comments I've made before :)

However, it's disingenous to argue that there hasn't been enough public outreach on the "road diets" of Park and Webster — that everything must be paused to collect more input! — when you yourself are already participating in multiple rounds of outreach.

The first public speaker at that TC meeting represented the Downtown Alameda Business Association and voiced support of the staff proposal to re-stripe Park Street. While listening to the meeting I didn't hear any TC members note that this single positive public comment actually represented input aggregated from over 470 different businesses and venues in downtown Alameda. (That's the number of paying members that DABA represents.)

Why should staff perform more outreach, engagement, and input gathering when this program has already been heard by the TC, heard by the City Council, and been discussed and commented on by the relevant business associations? (The Park and Webster corridors have also been considered as part of the multi-year outreach to create the Alameda Active Transportation Plan.)

To be blunt, it's always safe for leaders to call for more public input. It's a CYA manuever. Especially given the legacy of "technocratic" planning, taking time to consult with as many stakeholders as possible sounds like a good thing.

This is why opponents so often co-opt the language of "citizen participation" — because it can be an effective means to slow down or kill projects.

While the TC did have a substantive discussion of the Park and Webster re-striping, did provide useful suggestions for design improvements, and did send the proposal to City Council with their positive endorsement, the TC was also naive. Despite asking for more public engagement, they didn't (at least in what I recall from listening to a recording of the meeting) articulate the value of more public engagement.

Too long engagement: Grand Street

"Many people I know are not happy with the design. It's not attractive and it is actually... well, from people that I know and my neighbors... they're not happy with it..."

That's the same public commenter that I clipped earlier. This was in reference to Park Street. But I'll bet you a super burrito that the same public commenter is saying the exact same comments in reference to safe cycling facilities on Grand Street at the public engagement events to rethink the rethink of that corridor.

Too little public engagement

While most transportation project managed by the city's Planning, Building, and Transportation department err toward overly long public-engagement processes, transportation projects happen under the management of other city departments with minimal input.

Mariner Square Drive, which loops around the entrance to the Webster Tube, was recently rebuild under (I believe) the direction of the city's Public Works department. What was previously a pockmarked roadway is now smooth. Where there were drainage issues, there are now a series of storm drains. And yet this project retained the exact same curb lines, the same paint striping for auto lanes, did not repair the trail that parallels the roadway, and did not add any marked crosswalks:

The intersection of Mariner Square Drive and Tynan Ave before and after the rebuild of Mariner Square Drive. ©️ Nearmap

Perhaps some outreach to the users of the nearby office buildings, office park, preschools, and urban farm would have ellicited some useful input and questions for this roadway. Mariner Square Drive may not have the prominence of Grand, Park, or Webster — it's just a frontage road. But it's rare that the city spends enough money to rebuild an entire street from the roadbed up. This project could have been an opportunity to realize some more improvements to make it slightly easier for a handful of cyclists on the adjoining trail, office workers who walk to lunch near Target, and motorists who are confronted by speeding traffic at the same time as they are confused about which direction takes them to Oakland and which keeps them in Alameda. The street rebuild may not have been able to meet all of those needs, but it probably could have met some of them if the public input had been solicited at the right time in the overall process of the project.

Just the right amount of public engagement

What is just the right amount of public engagement for a transportation project in Alameda? It's probably:

  • Enough engagement through enough different means to surface a representative sampling of concerns, ideas, and desires (not only from people who can make it to synchronous meetings on weekday evening at Alameda City Hall)
  • Enough engagement to specifically reach important stakeholders who have a unique stake in the project (for example, the business owners in the business districts who have a unique stake in the re-striping of Park and Webster)
  • Enough engagement to specifically reach stakeholders who were previously unwelcome to participate or who have unique barriers making it harder for them to participate
  • Enough engagement so that staff, consultants, appointed officials, and elected officials can articulate what was learned, how a particular project is being improved based on feedback, and how future or related projects can be better informed by public involvement
  • Not so much engagement on one project that the city's staff are overwhelmed and must delay or cancel other projects
  • Not so much engagement that external deadlines pass (for example, funding from grants often expires if a project isn't commenced or completed by a certain date)
  • Not so much engagement that the process of public engagement becomes, in effect, a fillibuster on the project itself

It's probably easier to write about where this sweet spot should be in theory than it is to find it in practice. It's a risky move for a staffer, an appointed official, or an elected official to say they believe that enough public input has been collected on a high-profile project and that it is time to move on to the next phase of implementation. Similarly, it is risky for a staffer to suggest that a more mundane infrastructure project be subjected to public input, when policy doesn't require it. There is no longer an overarching approach to city planning to fall back on as an absolute guide. Opponents who oppose change of any kind will often sieze any and all opportunities to further object. Nevertheless, to produce results — improvements to Alameda's transportation network and its safety — it is necessary to make these judgement calls of what is the appropriate window of time and level of effort to dedicate to public engagement for each and every project.

Alameda's leaders, from staff to appointeds to electeds, would all do well to practice making more of these judgement calls. It may stir up a debate. Still, we'll all benefit from clearly articulated reasons for when more public engagement is useful — and clearly articulated summaries of what has been learned when public engagement is sufficient and complete.

Alameda and the three bears... of public engagement