The Importance of Real Community Engagement in Great Development Projects

Barry Lorion, District Highway Director of MassDOT, District 3, Don Cooke, Corporate Service Lead from VHB and Kate Barrett, Vice President for Public Involvement from RVA accept the 2019 Jane Award at a ceremony on May 3, 2019 at the White Room, Crompton Place in Worcester, Massachusetts

Barry Lorion, District Highway Director of MassDOT, District 3, Don Cooke, Corporate Service Lead from VHB and Kate Barrett, Vice President for Public Involvement from RVA accept the 2019 Jane Award at a ceremony on May 3, 2019 at the White Room, Crompton Place in Worcester, Massachusetts

Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.

— Jane Jacobs, Death and Life of Great American Cities

Jane Jacobs in the Woo presented the 2019 Jane Award to the partnership of

MassDOT, District 3, Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Inc (VHB) and Regina Villa Associates (RVA)

For leading a model civic engagement process that has been transparent, inclusive and respectful of all stakeholders in shaping the redesign of Kelley Square in Worcester, Massachusetts

Excerpts from Jane Award Presentation Speech

I want to start off with a little confession:  I really like Kelley Square the way it is now.  I like how crazy it all is.  I like waving to Gary Rosen with his signs during the election season.  I like how the square really slows the traffic down!  I like how proud I feel when I drive through safely and can breathe.  Yes, when you survive Kelley Square, maybe it can somehow qualify you as a real Worcesterite!!  Although many participants in this process have hopes for this new design, we aren’t really going to know what works and what needs to be tweaked with the model until we actually reconstruct the square!  I’m saying all this to make a clear distinction.  This award is not being given for the design itself.  This award is being given for the process of how the design was actually created.

 On October 10, 2018, the public was invited to the first of three workshops.  It was that first meeting that there was a sense that this was going to be a very different process than what we usually see.  Most times, at public meetings for new projects, attendees are greeted with beautiful architectural drawings of a project and asked for feedback.  There is a listening to the feedback but we all know, it’s a futile exercise… a done deal. But October 10th was different.  There was a brief powerpoint.  During most of the meeting, attendees rolled up their sleeves and sat in small groups at tables.  There was no prepared design, just maps of the area.  We were asked, “what works in Kelley Square?  What is problematic?”   We spoke.  A facilitator wrote down our ideas and put them on sticky tabs. 

 The second public workshop on October 24, 2018 built on this progress.  The ideas and feedback generated at the first meeting and at other outreach activities were distilled into four design ideas.  The public was invited back again to evaluate these four designs, scoring them on ten different criteria – safety, pedestrian and bicycle accommodation, access to businesses, traffic congestion, impact on buildings, connectivity, transit options even evaluating the design’s impact on community health… Consensus emerged that the famous peanut-shaped design scored the best.

 At the third public workshop on January 23rd, 2019, attendees got to dig in deeply to the landscape and streetscape design details.  Participants could choose groups to delve into the design elements of the shared bike paths, the look of the crosswalks, the details of the trees and plants, the use of activities and programming in the area around the Square?  We were asked detailed questions: What materials that are historic should be used in the area?  Should we plant trees in the peanut?  Should there be public seating and if so, where?  Should we use materials to define people walking?

 Each of these three workshops built off of each other so that if you chose to participate and attend, you had a way to shape the design from the ground up. I want to highlight the two key elements of how this design process engaging the community was so effective and worthwhile

 #1: Community voices were brought in at the infant stages of the design process significantly prior to the 25% design hearing: It takes a whole lot of humility to be able to say, “Hey, we might have some engineering standards we must adhere to and some technical skills up our sleeves, but we need the other experts in this equation – the people who drive, walk and bike through and around this square”.  At the very first public meeting in October, the project team had no fixed ideas of what the project could be.  They came into the process with a fully open and clean slate. 

 #2:  The project team engaged in extensive proactive (not passive) outreach: The project team went far beyond the standard posting of public meeting in local media venues.  They flied the local farmers market. They made sure information materials were translated in Polish and Spanish. They went door to door talking to businesses on Millbury Street and held two open houses at Lafayette Place to discuss the potential impact of revising the directions on Millbury Street. They solicited and responded to feedback in over 500 comments received from email and other website online forms that they circulated widely.  Most incredibly, they identified all diverse and competing stakeholders that they needed to get to the table: resident and neighborhood groups, business associations (Canal District Alliance), walk-bike advocacy teams, the Worcester Urban Planning Partnership, any and all voices that needed to be at the table..  They didn’t want to leave anyone out. They actively thought, “who else do we have to bring into this process?” Beyond the public workshops, the team then met with these stakeholder groups in separate meetings to get more feedback. More than  three dozen group meetings in addition to the public workshops were held to bring all voices into the loop. The message was clear:  We are actively reaching out to you and your group because your voice is important.  We need to hear your voice.  You matter!

 Here’s the secret:  When you feel as if you matter, as if you are being heard, as if you count, then most of us will support the outcome even if it is not 100% to our liking.  At the 25% hearing this February, a man who has lived in the neighborhood for over 70 years, testified, telling the crowd about his memories of Kelley Square over the years.  He shared the history, his- story of that place- the stores, the stoplights, the traffic, how he used to walk through the square and the surrounding neighborhood.  And we listened.  Here is what good community process does: It creates a shared sense of community, a shared sense of place, and a shared story of what can possibly be. 

 Sherry Arnstein’s famous seven rung ladder of citizenship participation helps us figure out who has the power in making important key decisions.  At the lower levels, we citizens have no participation in the decisions that may impact our lives.  Most of us also are familiar with the middle levels of the ladder of participation where we may be informed or consulted in a project with no real power to direct the final outcome.  The Kelley Square redesign process represents the higher echelons of Arnstein’s ladder, where everyday citizens become partners in directing the development of their space. 

 The Kelley Square redesign process serves as a model that we can successfully emulate in everything we plan here in the city from how we reconfigure our streets to how we shape our expectations for large scale developers whose projects have a major impact on the public realm. Let’s take this as a template for a process that leads to the best outcome and as a demonstration of the importance of true citizen participation in shaping our built environment.