Public Engagement: The Key to Building Inclusive Communities

APA's Women and Planning Division is conducting a series of interviews that recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of women in planning. These interviews will also explore the issues facing the planning and development of communities, cities, regions, states, and nations related to the changing roles of women and men as a means of promoting social equity.

Interview with Jessica Garrow, Community Development Director

Describe your planning background, particularly as it relates to civic engagement.

GARROW: Engagement is an important value that has been part of my focus since my first years in planning. While in graduate school at the Ohio State University, I had an internship with the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission and provided support for public engagement on a seven-county regional growth strategy that involved working with the region's diverse groups through diverse ways of communicating. The project focused on engaging as many as possible to ensure the final plan addressed the varying needs of the large region.

As part of the work, we targeted particularly hard-to-engage populations like immigrants and students. Public engagement became what I focused on in grad school and what I've come to enjoy most about planning.

Shortly after my move to Aspen, I led a team of planners updating the Aspen Area Community Plan (AACP). Our goal was to involve residents in the update of our city's long-term vision. Instead of having a Steering Committee guide the update, we brought the plan to the public in stages, using clicker meetings and surveys to get feedback throughout the process. We knew that our update should not reflect just the thoughts of the last person standing, it should have the involvement of as many people as possible.

It was great to be able to use what I learned in Columbus and school. Our commitment to making residents a part of the process paid off and the public engagement piece of the plan update won four awards, including from APA's Small Town and Rural Planning (STaR) Division.

Describe a plan or project in which you have been involved and public engagement changed the course, leading to a better outcome.

GARROW: For the update to the AACP we thought it was important to engage the community in understanding the existing conditions. We had a Jeopardy-style quiz show on the local access channel, with civic leaders answering questions like "How many affordable housing units are in Aspen?" and "How many building permits are processed annually?" We also had a speaker series and gave presentations on existing conditions, meeting with nonprofits and community groups, the Chamber of Commerce, and major employers including the Aspen Skiing Company.

We also had an online survey, a statistically valid survey, over 30 small focus groups, and four large community meetings, among other activities. Our outreach did not stop there. We conducted an additional survey after developing the plan. It took four years to complete the process, but in the end, we were able to say it was an update the community bought into, and that the community had provided the input. We are now implementing the update into our land use code and we are confident that it reflects what the community thinks and wants as we develop the forward-looking code.

What key piece of advice would you offer to planners to achieve productive civic engagement?

GARROW: Planners can undervalue the importance of listening and can jump right to solutions. I know I can do this sometimes! It is important to have a broad public engagement effort to have successful policy outcomes.

We did have a misstep two years ago while working on our lodging bed base ordinance. We engaged with hotels and other lodging businesses, the Aspen Skiing Company, and the Aspen Chamber, but we did not engage regular community members. The ordinance was approved, but several community members began a referendum petition drive to get rid of it, so the council decided to rescind the ordinance. We went back to basics and focused on gaining feedback from the community as a whole, resulting in a smaller, more targeted program that has been successful in assisting our small lodges.

I think it's important to remember that you are never done engaging the community. It was an important lesson and as a result, we are concentrating on securing broad public outreach in code rewrites currently underway. People love participating in planning in Aspen and there always needs to be broad outreach to include the community and to explain what is happening and why.

In this age of busy schedules and social media, are planners right to continue to rely on face-to-face evening meetings?

GARROW: All communities are a little bit different. I would like to do more online engagement, but some in the Aspen community push for face-to-face meetings. We also do not have as many millennials as other communities, so public hearings, focus groups, and open houses continue to be key means of engagement here.

Our new engagement website provides an option for people with difficult schedules an alternative to the public meeting or open house. It is interactive and fun, and they can go online and provide quick feedback. We also do pop-up workshops downtown to get feedback. We find catching people where they are can be even better than an open house because people still have to make an effort to go to an open house.

Do planners need to consider gender when facilitating public engagement?

GARROW: Gender has been less of a focus for us, as our engagement strategies seem to work for both men and women. However, we are working to better engage families: two-parent households, single-parent households, grandparents raising grandchildren, etc. We will do a pop-up workshop at Yellow Brick, which is where most Aspen kids are in preschool, or at a grocery store, so we can catch a different demographic and make sure that perspective is reflected in our work.

Has being a woman played any role in your success in facilitating public involvement?

GARROW: Yes, it has. While I think both men and women planners seek out robust community engagement, my experience is that women can bring a sensibility that seeks out the views of community members whose voices may be less prominent. This desire to focus on all voices leads to women often caring about different issues than men.

When I moved to Aspen and began work on the update to the city's comprehensive plan, it talked about transportation, buildings, and housing but it didn't talk about people. I advocated adding a chapter called The Lifelong Aspenite and it was a success to get it into the comprehensive plan. This was not a perspective included in Aspen's planning previously, and I think I may have brought this perspective in because I am a woman.

The chapter has received criticism; for example, it identifies that residents need better access to health and dental care, and critics argue that the city can't provide that care. While I agree, I also think the city can support the private sector, nonprofits, and the county in addressing this type of issue. I liken it to other infrastructure like affordable housing: the city is not providing all of the housing, but we partner and work with the private sector and others to ensure there is housing available for the community.

It is so easy for cities to focus on hard infrastructure, but they also need to focus on people.

What are some of the tricks or tools you have recently experimented with that you've found most useful for engaging with the public?

GARROW: If we had more time and more money, I think we would do more programming for TV and radio, particularly on our local access channel, which is a great community resource and in general is under-utilized. In small towns like Aspen, people watch those stations and learn about what is going on.

Living lab experiments are also great options because they can provide quick feedback on policy/infrastructure changes. In a recent example, Aspen's Engineering and Parks Departments worked with the Colorado Department of Transportation to test out a widened bike path and sidewalk along a state highway, using a temporary barrier. The test demonstrated that there was no impact on traffic, and there weren't complaints about the test, so the city will move forward with a permanent solution in the next year.

With experiments like this, you can get direct, clearer community feedback than a survey or work session that discusses a project or improvement in the abstract. And if people dislike the "living lab" experiment, they will let you know in real-time before major investments in infrastructure have occurred.

What are the best ways to engage meaningfully with young people on a project?

GARROW: It is still hard for us to engage with young people. We use a Planners Day in School approach by speaking with civics classes as a way of reaching young people. Social media is a key way of engaging younger folks, but we try to employ lots of different types of opportunities that will appeal to a variety of folks; we try to appeal to people at all phases of life.

Aspen also has a new citizen commission, Aspen NextGen, which was created to ensure our younger demographic of 25-40-year-olds is an integrated part of the city's work. They are an important part of the community and are often working two to three jobs, so we don't often hear from them. We are trying to figure out a way to engage them, and through the commission's work are learning that childcare and affordable housing are really important to that group.

Is there anything you would like to add?

GARROW: It is so good that women planners are helping each other. The more that women planners/women in government can support each other, the more successful we can be in moving up. When I was considering applying for Aspen's Community Development Director position, I kept thinking I was too young or didn't have enough experience managing people. Sometimes as women, we think we need to check all the boxes. Fortunately, in conversations with women in my network, I realized I don't have to check boxes, I can do this work! It is so important to seek out that support at all levels and develop your network.

Top image: Downtown Aspen, Colorado. Wikimedia photo (CC BY-SA 3.0).

About the Interviewee
Jessica Garrow, community development director for the City of Aspen, Colorado, specializes in policy planning, public participation, and land use development. Before becoming the director, she served as the Aspen long-range planner for eight years.

October 12, 2016

By Jessica Garrow, FAICP