I’ve often found “public consultation” to be somewhat of a dirty phrase in the development industry.

Planners, engineers and urban designers alike have been known to shake in their boots at the thought of involving the community in decisions about new development, infrastructure and renewal projects. Of course, the whole aim of these industries is to create better places for people to live and work, so those people need to be at the heart of the solution. But the problem is often in the process – how do we engage with such a large and diverse group of stakeholders and have we in fact created a monster by assuming the voice of the community is always right?

The great consultation masquerade

Having attended community consultation events across many different cities, I can see why the process is so feared. It’s absolutely disheartening to spend years and years studying and honing your skills as a city-maker or specialist, then putting together a masterful and detailed plan for neighbourhood change based on months of work, to then have only a handful of people turn up to your consultation event to share their opinions. What’s more, nine out of 10 of those opinions happen to be on the shortcomings of the local council’s rubbish collection and nothing to do with your painstakingly perfected plans for a new and improved commercial centre.

Attendance is one thing, but perhaps the worst fear for city-makers is that the community will actually take a keen interest and be resistant to the proposals – or worse still, that community members will suggest fanciful changes to the proposals that will never fly in the real world, but which the team is now obligated to consider, resulting in unanticipated delays and distractions.

Recently, we witnessed how the power of the community voice can be misguided in the ‘Boaty McBoatface’ saga, where this witty little nickname became the overwhelming winner of an online poll for the name of the UK’s new polar research ship. Good sense prevailed over democracy in that case, and the ship was wilfully named RRS David Attenborough. In a community consultation sense, you could say we fear the creation of ‘Placey McPlaceface’ – an amusing alternative with no long-term value that undermines the credibility of our industry.

This fear of community opinion and of exploring more left-field options too often has the effect of ‘dumbing down’ the consultation process, making it more for show than for real engagement.

Who is the community anyway?

An unfortunate side-effect of poor engagement strategies is that the few people who do make their voices heard end up with a lot of clout, as they become the sole voices of ‘the community.’ Speaking about the challenges of fostering a more productive relationship between councils, city-makers and local communities at last month’s Melbourne Knowledge Week, Jessica Christiansen-Franks of CoDesign Studio pointed out that when councils are asked about what community projects they have recently delivered, they tend to point to a public toilet installation or new CCTV surveillance. These are projects that respond to the “whinge list” of a few people who shout loudly at council meetings, not the priorities of the community as a whole. Christiansen-Franks believes it isn’t the complainers who are changers of place, it’s the people that just get on and do things in their community and build real ground-up buy-in. It’s by clearing the way for ‘doers’ and by working with communities in a nimble and dynamic way that councils can make the best progress in shaping places for the better.

Fostering real engagement

There are well-developed methods of truly involving the community in the design and decision process, but they do require real investment and time, not a token drop-in event. A good process will be transparent, it will showcase expertise to the community, and encourage collaboration while being clear about the ‘rules of engagement’ (bin collection bugbears, apply elsewhere).

The City of Melbourne recently took a layered approach, which encouraged free-thinking from the community but put stages in place for experienced practitioners to make checks and balances. Firstly, a well advertised open call for ideas (online and few a series of creative events) encouraged anyone to contribute an idea or a proposal for the future of the city. Secondly, a group of randomly selected community members were then invited to join a citizen’s jury to work together to refresh the ‘Future Melbourne’ document using the ideas shared. And finally, a group of experienced ambassadors worked with the jury to do a final cut of the document and present it to council as an advising context for future decisions – experts working with the community to bring the best thoughts to fruition.

Breaking down the fear of the unknown

Often the greatest of community intentions that also tick many boxes for the planners are sidelined by outdated rules or over-egged concerns from within the council itself. A classic example is the growing popularity verge gardens – a great way to beautify a street, reduce mowing burden and enhance urban biodiversity right? Not from everyone’s perspective. Concerns ranging from road safety to the dangers of prickly bushes have held back projects and induced a mixed reaction from councils. In many cases the wishes of the many can be stymied by the reservations of the few. Councils can err on the side of caution fearing complaints, where a better approach here is to proactively support community champions while provide some design guidance for best results – then letting home-grown ideas take hold and bringing community buy in with them.

Councils in metropolitan Melbourne have a chance to explore how community-led placemaking can be easier and more successful by joining The Neighbourhood Project by visiting http://theneighbourhoodproject.org/