On the agenda for the Metropolitan Council, the uber-government of the seven-county Twin Cities area, is the creation of a plan called “Thrive MSP 2040.” Its purpose is to create a vision — and the how-we’ll-do-that proposals — for the next 30 years.
State law requires the council to prepare such a document every decade.
Why the Council is starting the planning for 2040 in 2012 was a bit of a mystery to me. After all, I doubt that we’ve completed everything in the 2030 plan or even the 2020 one.
But, according to Libby Starling, the council’s manager of research and regional policy, the council has to keep moving the horizon further into the future to be able to plan multi-billion-dollar public investments in sewers, transportation and housing.
In the past, the council proposed, and the people disposed. In other words, the experts worked out the plan and then held gazillions of meetings (my number, not theirs) with community and business groups, local government leaders and residents to get their reactions.
This time, they’re going to the people first.
Only a couple weeks ago, the Council established a website, a kind of Wiki, if you will, where you can answer the question “What does the Twin Cities Region Need to Thrive?”
The purpose of this exercise, says Met Council Chair Susan Haigh, is “to work together as one region to build 21st century regional infrastructure to produce robust local communities, support job growth, and connect people to their workplaces, schools, activities, and the places they call home. To do that, we need participation from as many residents as possible.”
This process is called “visioning,” and according to Eugene McCann, an assistant professor of geography at Ohio State University, it has become one of the prevailing trends in city planning.
Using ordinary people and civic leaders as policy wonks, it aims to develop goals for the future of a city through consensus among all interested parties.
After identifying the objectives — for example, “we want to be the potato-chip capital of the world” or “we need to reduce our dependence on private cars” — the expert planners and engineers get together and figure out what land use planning, engineering and economic development strategies might work to make the vision (or visions) come true.
In developing its 2040 plan, the Met Council will hold its usual round of meetings with the usual suspects. But the website takes the process a giant step beyond that by crowdsourcing ideas and strategies from the public.
“It’s pretty innovative,” says Michael Hooper, assistant professor of urban planning at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. “It’s brilliant that they’re doing this — actually allowing greater input of information” from citizens.
He points out that while most cities say that they are interested in encouraging what he calls “digital participation,” they do very little. Their websites post static information and allow visitors to download minutes of meetings. And perhaps they offer an email address where people can send complaints or observations — which it’s not certain anybody ever reads or acts on.
In a 2005 study of 590 municipal planning department websites, Maria Manta Conroy and Jennifer Evans-Cowley of Ohio State University’s City and Regional Planning department, found that only 3.5 percent offered discussion groups or any other tool that elicited opinions about what was going on. So the Met Council’s website goes a long way toward making planning a two-way street.
Another plus: The website may round up folks who are too busy, shy, lazy or encumbered by children to attend public meetings. At any time of day or night, they can post their ideas. And they can also use the Met Council’s Facebook page or tweet (Hashtag: #thrivemsp).
The Thrive MSP site also allows visitors to post comments on other people’s ideas and vote to endorse them — or not. So for example, you can say, “Becoming the potato chip capital of the world is stupid. Where do you think you’re living — Idaho?” That feature should make contributions more useful than the traditional corporate brainstorming session (I’ve attended many) where participants are forbidden from criticizing each other’s ideas, no matter how ridiculous or impractical.
Thrive provides participants with further feedback. It allows them to check the status of an idea and “watch it change” as staff and council members review it.
Even so, I have some doubts about the wisdom of crowds.
When I was at Consumer Reports, I recall attending a large meeting to brainstorm the headline for the annual Christmas issue. Under the guidance of a colleague, 30 of us tossed out ideas. (My best was: “Holiday Gifts Tthat Won’t Kill or Poison You.”) An hour later the walls of the conference room where we convened were covered with huge pieces of white paper listing every thought. We spent another hour winnowing them down and came up with a snazzy headline. At that point, the woman who always edited the Christmas issue remarked of the results: “That’s what we did last year.”
The big question (beyond originality or lack thereof) is how the material gathered from the website will be embedded in the planning process, says Michael Hooper. That isn’t exactly clear. Libby Starling says she expects that when all the ideas are aggregated, they will generate themes and commonalities.
But will the ideas generated by this democratic forum count as much as those coming from, say, the Chamber of Commerce, politicians or other local heavyweights?
That’s hard to say.
In a 2001 study of a “visioning” process (in meetings, not online) in Lexington, Ky., Eugene McCann found that while the initial collection of ideas was an open process, the winnowing and refining were done in secret. The final recommendations, he wrote, “produced a vision of the future largely paralleled to standard economic development models” already endorsed by “local elites.”
Maybe so. But the Met Council is giving us an opportunity to have a say in what it does. We should reward that effort by joining in.
Besides, Chicago did the same thing, and we can’t let them get ahead of us.