Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Energizing the Populus about Planning

I have been thinking a lot over the past 6 to 9 months regarding public participation in planning. A lot of it stems from involvement with the recent rezoning efforts. Some stem from other areas, such as Willand Pond, and a final aspect could be linked to the fact I am a social person, by nature.

Over the fall, I attended a workshop on Form Based Code (FBC). This was just before Dover's City Council voted to adopt the proposed zoning, and I was partaking in a conference sponsored by the New England Chapter of the Congress for New Urbanism on Form Based Code. I spoke, with Steve Whitman, our consultant, on Dover's development of the FBC. During the discussion, I spoke to working with the public and redrafting the code to reflect community concerns. One architect, who was also presenting his draft of a code for a community in Connecticut, who I admire, commented that public participation is one thing, but he felt I went too far and had let the public control the document.

I disagreed with him. I understand his concern, those of us with a technical knowledge should work with the public to educate and motivate for new trends etc, and should be proud of the education. That said, we can not be snobs about it. We can not be the educated elite. What we did with the FBC, and other amendments, was work with the end user - the public - to craft the regulations so that they fit the community of Dover (the City of Dover is the municipal infrastructure). The changes we developed are part of our role as facilitators of public discourse regarding community vision.

I think we need to remember that at the end of the day the public has to be ready for new regulations, and has to support them. Somethings take time to develop and need to be reviewed and formulated more than once, and that is OK. In the end I think that my architect friend is not wrong, just has a different set of glasses on than I do. He is looking at planning as a private consultant, and not as a public official. There is a lot of difference.

Getting the public involved in planning is not the easiest thing in the world. Planning is an intangible, and not as easily to relate to as public works, fire or police operations. You can't see a plan as easily as you can see the pothole in the street, or the fire being put out, or the suspect apprehended. Planning is integral to all aspects of the community, and is important, but until a project is in someone's backyard they don't realize they need our profession.

I am hoping over the next year to work on that. Participation and understanding of Planning and its role in the community is important. Whether it is drafting, with public involvement, the Master Plan, reviewing the Capital Improvements Program, or reviewing a plan for conformity with the above, planning is around the public.

I have been lucky to work for the past 12 years for an organization that encourages the public to be involved. I think it is vital that my department is not called the Planning Department, but is called the Department of Planning and Community Development. The Community moniker refers to the fact that Dover is an entitlement community and receives federal dollars to assist with urban vitality. I see it as being beyond that. My staff are active in the community, whether as a basketball coach, a non-profit board member, a participant in community activities (Apple Harvest Day, Cochecho Arts Festival etc) and when recognized myself and those that work for me are happy to discuss issues and goings on. We are proud to be part of the community.

To that end we can do more. I have hoped to really get this blog going more actively. It hasn't happened yet, but will. I have a FaceBook page to come online soon, and have an idea for other interactive functions. Over the past year, we have amended our web site to include a Google Map of projects before the Planning Board. There is more we can and will do with this technology.

A final piece I see is direct one on one discussions. I had the pleasure of meeting with residents in November regarding the zoning code amendments. I held two (2) information sessions that were attended by the public. There was no agenda, and no program. I showed up and was there to answer questions. I would like to continue this process. In that vein, beginning in February I will start what I see as a "Brown Bag Planning Breakfast" I will find a location and invite people to meet with me to discuss whatever planning topics they find important. This will be a simple back and forth discussion, no notes, no recording, no pressure.

My hope is that this forum will be similar to Coffee With the Mayor and allow residents, business owners and development agents to come forward and be part of the process. Watch for the update, and thanks for being part of the community.


  1. Thought-provoking discussion. As one of the organizers and participants at the FBC Council in November, I clearly remember the discussion you refer to about community involvement vs. consultant wisdom. It's something that's always present in dicussions about planning. Certainly "more things got done" when decisions about physical infrastructure and land development were made by the powerful few. It's also certainly true that "a lot of good things were destroyed" in that era as well. Wherever you fall on that spectrum, the fact remains that public participation is not going to go away and trying to avoid it is futile. We live in an age of intense distrust of government and the motives of public officials. Even when the public IS actually involved, there can still be accusations of disregard for the citizenry's true concerns. I commend you and your team and the citizens of Dover generally. Getting from A to B on a topic as potentially divisive as new development regulations and keeping everyone (or at least, a healthy majority of everyone) with you is no mean feat. Hope you have a chance to try out your new downtown FBC soon.

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  4. Thanks for this post. I was at the FBC workshop too and really appreciated your presentation and thoughtful comments. I've been sharing Dover's work on FBC with other communities in which the Orton Family Foundation works.