APA’s Women and Planning Division marked National Community Planning Month by 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 the nation related to the changing roles of women and men as a means of promoting social equity.
This is the third part in a monthlong series.
Describe your planning background, particularly as it relates to civic engagement.
I received my Master of Urban Planning from Texas A&M University and worked for several different cities. While I was working in a city to put together design guidelines which were complicated and an eventual project was anticipated to involve eminent domain, it was interesting to see how passionate people were about what would happen in their neighborhood. The experience ignited in me a spark for civic engagement.
Describe a plan or project in which you have been involved and public engagement changed the course, leading to a better outcome?
My favorite story along these lines took place right after Hurricane Katrina in a rural town.
This community would likely see growth as a result of relocation from areas more impacted by storm. I had brought some students with me, and they were working the front door, handing out name tags and greeting attendees. One student came up to me before the meeting started to say she overheard a man on the phone, saying, “[There are] Northerners here and they are nothing but trouble. Come here quick!”
I knew we had the experience to assist the community, but they had the local knowledge. It was time to start the meeting and we began with a question to warm up the group asking, “How do you pronounce the town’s name?” with a list of several options, and people could click in their answer. They didn’t agree on how the town’s name should be pronounced!
It was a perfect ice breaker, indicating that the locals had different perspectives, and it was a welcome way to start an engagement. It set us on a course to help facilitate their vision for their community.
What key piece of advice would you offer to planners to achieve productive civic engagement?
Sometimes you have to have tough skin. Some people aren’t going to welcome the engagement as you intend it. You have to think about what you do and say. A city council might say, “Let’s do some engagement,” but you can’t just do it — you have to plan it. Well-designed engagement is critical, and not taking the time to plan up front can backfire.
In this age of busy schedules and social media, are planners right to continue to rely on face-to-face evening meetings?
Planners cannot rely on one single method. Give thought to the different potential audiences for the process and which method of engagement might work best for each.
A recent activity in my city provides an example of such diverse efforts. There is an upcoming local election, and one of the items on the ballot is a bond for school renovations. It has been all over social media, and I had seen information there and taken an online survey. However, I am a busy parent and I didn’t have time to go to the public meetings on the subject.
What the effort leaders decided to do was have 100 backyard gatherings throughout the community. I was able to walk over to a neighbor’s house, sit the in the garage and hear from the school superintendent about the bond. This approach was time-intensive on the superintendent’s part and required coordination with a variety of hosts, but it was certainly easy for people to walk several doors down to attend such an event.
Do planners need to consider gender when facilitating public engagement?
Planners should think about how we ask questions and how we can encourage people of diverse backgrounds to participate. There is usually one person in every group who will have something to say even if he or she doesn’t know anything about the topic at hand and who can potentially monopolize the meeting. We need to give thought to what we are doing to make all people feel welcome and that their thoughts are valued.
Has being a woman played any role in your success facilitating public involvement?
I think I have had a different set of challenges than my male colleagues. I had not realized gender was so important until I had a certain experience.
I was leading a neighborhood planning process, and there was a member of the community, a know-it-all, who was an informal community leader. He took to threatening me at work and at the planning meetings. One night, he called me at home. I answered his call, and in the background, my toddler hurt his finger and started loudly crying. I tried to end the phone conversation with the man, telling him I’d call him from work the next day. He confronted me in the parking lot at the next public meeting and told me I’m a bad mother!
That was the tipping point in the situation. The supervisor for that neighborhood said that I didn’t have to talk to him anymore. I was grateful and appreciative for being backed up by the project client and, ultimately, the neighborhood planning effort was successful.
What are some of the tricks or tools you have recently experimented with that you’ve found most useful for engaging with the public?
My favorite trick is the “verbal vomit” technique, which can be used when controversial topics are under discussion and people are riled up. I have my staff interact with these folks right away, so we can get them to verbally vomit all over us. The hope is that when they raise the same issues during the meeting, it will be without the same passion.
It can deescalate the situation. I have found that it helps quite a bit, particularly because when someone raises the same issue during the meeting, I can say “When we talked about this before the meeting ...”
What are the best ways to engage meaningfully with young people on a project?
Just before this interview, I was in a meeting with 10 young people who are interested in renewable energy. They are looking for ways to partner with the university and they have great ideas and enthusiasm.
What I have found to be particularly important is thinking about how we create things that are educational and sharable, particularly on social media.
Young people will share what they view with friends, colleagues, and family members. It is important to keep in mind the multiple uses for media products, such as a video that can be shared on social media and can also be used in a public meeting.
People are often more focused on the experience. Thinking about how we can create a memorable experience for people is important.
Top image: Effective public engagment can take place in unconventional settings. Photo in the public domain.
About the Interviewee
Jennifer S. Evans-Cowley, PhD, AICP
Jennifer Evans-Cowley is vice provost for Capital Planning and Regional Campuses in the Office of Academic Affairs at Ohio State University, where she is professor of city and regional planning in the Knowlton School of Architecture and associate dean for academic affairs and administration in the College of Engineering. Evans-Cowley’s research has been supported by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Battelle Endowment for Technology and Human Affairs, and the Center for Urban and Regional Analysis. She served as the chair of APA's Technology Division between 2010 and 2012.