Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


While we’re talking parking meters and a stadium, what is ‘public process’ anyway?

“The Process is Broken” scream the bright green fliers, referring to a St. Paul proposal to install parking meters. Meanwhile at a press conference last week, a group of long-time activists released a statement castigating the lack of transparency and accountability in the city. The group, called Saint Paul Strong, released a laundry list of problems that they connect to St. Paul government: for example, plans for bike lanes, a lawsuit over a park café, and most recently, the secretive negotiations around a proposed soccer stadium in the Midway area.

But the idea of public process is not straightforward, and means different things to different people. With everything from elected officials to public bodies to neighborhood groups to public meetings operating simultaneously, it’s difficult to know how to get involved and whether it will make a difference.

A brief history of public engagement

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Not​oriously corrupt S​t. Paul Police Chief John O’Connor, a mayoral appointee responsible for creating the city’s gangster haven​.​

In the early 20th century, most large cities operated as so-called “political machines.” Cities like New York, Chicago or St. Paul operated hierarchically, with each “ward boss” (or council member or alderman) taking responsibility for his neighborhood. Patronage trickled down in the same fashion as votes and money tricked up, and if you wanted to get anything done in your neighborhood, you had to go through the machine’s channels and complex system of favors.

In some ways, the patronage-machine city worked well. If you knew the right people, you might accomplish a great deal in a short amount of time. On the other hand, if you didn’t, you were screwed.

The next big change in how cities work came with the rise of the independent municipal bureaucracy. It is chronicled in Robert Caro’s wonderful biography of Robert Moses, the New York City Port Authority boss who built an unprecedented number of parks and freeways during his 40-year reign, bulldozing vast urban neighborhoods in the process. For Moses, public engagement was irrelevant and unnecessary. If you wanted something done, you bulldozed first and asked questions later.

By the late 1960s and early ’70s, as cities began to deeply struggle with suburbanization and economic decline, things changed fast. Most official “city planning” departments and “planning commissions” date back to this era. Faced with a restive public, city leaders began to take the need for “public process” more seriously.

For example, in a famous 1969 article that has become mandatory planning and policy school reading, a sociologist named Sherry Arnstein began to describe different types of public engagement as a “ladder of participation” that ranged from the lower rungs of “tokenism” (including “placation”) to the more empowering rungs (“delegated power” or “partnership”).

The ​Arnstein ladder of participation is from a 1969 article.

Today, cities like Minneapolis and St. Paul display unique mixes of these different types of urban processes. In Minneapolis, the dispersed City Council committee structure means that most policy changes receive multiple public airings. In St. Paul, the technically part-time City Council often relies on a consent agenda to approve policies, and it can be much more difficult to know what’s going on behind the scenes.

On the other hand, Minneapolis’ rather chaotic system of 70+ neighborhood groups faces challenges around the issues of transparency and inclusion, while St. Paul’s system of 13 district councils is more simplified, with larger constituencies.

(Two more examples. In a pair of Cityscape columns earlier this year, I compared and contrasted the two cities’ “public processes” for capital improvement decisions. And comparing the two cities’ Planning Commissions, St. Paul’s 20-person group and sub-committee structure, where I am a member, offers more chances for engagement compared to Minneapolis’ smaller 10-person body, or so I have been told.)

Nontraditional public outreach

Ideas about outreach and process have been changing recently with criticism about how traditional public processes — think of neighborhood groups, commissions, or town-hall-style public meetings — end up excluding specific types of people.  (As MinnPost pointed out a few years ago, Minneapolis has trouble with representative public commissions. St. Paul has exactly the same problems; I’m the only renter on the Planning Commission, for example.)

In response to these kinds of criticisms, many cities have been trying to figure out new ways of doing public process through specific “trusted advocates” or “design charettes” intended to connect to new audiences in new ways.

“Pop-up meetings came out of me trying to think about if I could even go to a public meeting in my personal life,” Amanda Lovelee told me this week. Lovelee is an official City Artist for St. Paul, part of a program funded by Public Art Saint Paul.

“If there was a meeting, if it was at 6 o’clock, then would I have child care, and would I get home in time to be there?” Lovelee said. “How difficult would that be if English wasn’t your first language? Or if you had two parents working changing shifts, or if you didn’t have a car, or if the meeting wasn’t on a bus route?”

In response, Lovelee has built a model for a mobile “pop-up” public meeting that can travel around the city. For a few hours, depending on the day, people can give planning feedback in exchange for a popsicle.

For Lovelee, these meetings are a way of moving past the traditional “genre” of public participants to reach new groups of people to gather input about projects like redevelopment of the former Ford Site, the downtown riverfront, or how to design bike lanes.

Public Art Saint Paul
Amanda Lovelee has built a model for a mobile “pop-up” public meeting that can travel around the city.

“[For the Ford Site planning,] we went to a low-income housing/senior housing unit and worked with the people there,” Lovelee told me. “It’s important to be really site specific as well. With the bike planning, we went to very specific intersections and got very specific feedback on crossing specific streets. Or, with help from the mayor’s office, went to the Dragon Boat Festival or Rondo Days Parade, where we knew people would be massed there.”

Getting a lot of survey information might seem nice, but the key question is what becomes of the feedback. Does it amount to “tokenism” or what Arnstein calls “citizen power”? Does it make any difference for decisionmakers downtown?

“This wasn’t just me doing this project as an outside consultant,” Lovelee explained. “I’m embedded in the [planning process], and [if I was] working on a specific project, that planner would go with me. [Afterward] we took all the surveys and brought them back. And I know [the Ford site planners] are using some of that feedback. It brings other voices into the planning process, and I hope over this winter to work with specific planners and architects to figure out how helpful that feedback was, and how can we do it even better.”

The challenge of long-term co-creation

Lars Christiansen is sociology professor at Augsburg College who has been trying to rethink how public processes work. His most recent paper is based on his work with the Saint Paul Friendly Streets Initiative, which organized the public process for the Charles Avenue bicycle boulevard in his Hamline-Midway neighborhood, and traces how different models of public engagement can alienate or empower communities.

Charles Avenue Friendly Streets
A block party neighborhood meeting org​anizing ideas for the Charles Avenue​ ​bike boulevard in 2011.

“Much public engagement these days is what I call ‘quick touch,’ ” Christiansen told me. “You’ve usually got a firm that is hired by an engineering or design agency, usually external to the community, and they spend a week here and there, that kind of thing. The community organizing approach to public engagement [that I prefer] takes a lot longer. Like any other community organizing, it involves trust building, relationship building, and lengthy listening. It’s really aiming for co-creation.” 

Courtesy of Lars Christiansen
Particularly important, according to Christiansen, is to make sure that public engagement happens early in the planning process.

Particularly important, according to Christiansen, is to make sure that public engagement happens early in the planning process. As the public process moves forward, from “visioning” to action,” opposition solidifies, while early involvement that doubles as community organizing can help overcome stasis. For example, Christiansen worries that the city’s plans for bike lanes on Hamline Avenue, scheduled for next year, may not leave enough time to reach out to a diverse group of people in the neighborhood.

“All Friendly Streets projects are at least a year long; it can’t be done in a month,” Christiansen explained. “The holy grail is the notion of inclusion. How do you do it for the whole duration of the project? How do you keep folks who might have become excited about the visioning process early on, when things were speculative, how do you sustain that through a formal process? We don’t really have the answer to that quite yet.”

When should leaders make unpopular decisions?

Twice in the last two years, Saint Paul’s Riverfront Corporation has invited famed Colombian planner Gil Peñalosa to speak to civic leaders on the topic of how to build “8-80 Cities,” streets that are safe for people of all ages. The mayor’s office became so enamored of the concept that they earmarked millions of bonding dollars for a wide set of projects that support those walkability principles.

But during his placemaking residency last year, Peñalosa had curious things to say about the need for consensus in creating urban change:

“Change is difficult of course, and it doesn’t happen by consensus. You have to listen to everybody, but at the end of the day what matters is the general interest. Change will never happen by consensus. If you want change, to be unanimous you have to water down change so much that it’s not going to be change any longer. So listen honestly and make a decision,” Peñalosa told the assembled crowd.

Peñalosa’s quote points to the scalar tensions that surround engagement, where big-picture needs are often pitted against the interests of a specific constituency.

It’s a recurring problem. When I asked her about plans for Grand Avenue parking meters in a recent column, Public Works Director (and former council member) Kathy Lantry made similar comments about a previous 2-year study where “no consensus was reached.”

“My job is to make recommendations to the mayor about implementing changes we think will have a positive effect,” Lantry told me three weeks go. “It’s up to policymakers eventually to decide whether or not that makes sense.”

Public engagement processes are inherently divisive. For those who participate, they can sometimes (but certainly not always) seem empowering. For those on the outside, or who hear about projects as they happen, existing public processes can seem laughably irrelevant.

Meanwhile, St. Paul keeps planning changes to parking policy, city streets and public-private partnership developments like the proposed soccer stadium.

Stadium deals are notorious for being places where democracy goes to die. (See also: Minneapolis stadium referendum.) But if you want to get involved with the St. Paul’s public process around the soccer stadium, applications for the “community advisory committee” have just opened. It remains an open question whether the engagement process will actually make any difference.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/16/2015 - 10:11 am.

    What public process?

    The details in this are local to the Twin Cities, but the issues Bill raises strike me as… well… maybe not quite “universal,” but certainly of wider reach and scope than just this area. It certainly applies to both cities where I was a planning commissioner when I was living in Colorado. Most “public involvement” when I lived on the Front Range would likely qualify as “tokenism” on the ladder in the article. Proposals would be made, plans drawn (sometimes well beyond “preliminary”), various infrastructure bits lined up, even if not yet built, zoning changed if necessary, and after all that, virtually all of it taking place in meetings to which the public had no access and typically knew nothing about, only then would there be a public planning commission meeting where folks in the neighborhood could voice approval or (more often) objection.

    By that point, the train had pretty much already departed from the station. It’s not even a bad analogy, since meetings I went to as “west metro” representative that revolved around the West Corridor light rail line from Denver to the Jefferson County Government Center (or whatever it’s now being called) involved showing members of the public plans that had already been made. Realistically, the only input wanted from the public was either an enthusiastic “Yes!!” or a more subdued “Yes, but, change this…” I don’t recall any instances of big development projects that were halted because a dozen citizens at a public meeting said, literally or figuratively, “No, thanks.”

    On the other hand, maybe Moses’ approach is, while totally autocratic, the more efficient way to spend taxpayer dollars. If we totally ignore NIMBYism, the whole process is much more efficient in terms of both time and cost (usually intimately related), and people who’ve invested thousands of dollars and years of their lives to graduate from planning school at least get to use their hard-earned knowledge and skills in the fashion they probably envisioned when they were students. Not at all democratic, but faster and less expensive results.

    The southwest rail line here comes readily to mind. Decisions were made without consulting the well-to-do residents of the areas around the Minneapolis lakes through which the line will run. When they found out – after plans had been made and money spent – things came to a halt (well-to-do residents can afford to hire attorneys that folks in less-affluent areas generally cannot), but only temporarily. The project, minus some amenities lost as a result of the delay, appears to be back on the schedule of things to be done.

    Among the lessons I learned as a planning commissioner was that, even among people who otherwise consider themselves to be tolerant and accepting of change in the abstract, change that affects them individually is often resisted with as much fervor as it is by people who like to call themselves “conservative.” When it’s your neighborhood or your street, many of us don’t want to see anything change – ever – unless it’s by precisely the sort of consensus that’s virtually impossible to achieve. That resistance to change is a primary reason why racial and economic segregation in this area – a factor that affects numerous public projects – is so stubbornly difficult to alter.

  2. Submitted by David Markle on 10/16/2015 - 11:57 am.

    “Public” can be a misleading label

    The city-recognized neighborhood group in my neighborhood (Minneapolis’ Cedar-Riverside) has generally not been composed of a reasonable cross-section of the public, and when its findings if any are cited in the official municipal process, they most often serve as mere cover for the decisions of officials. I view such a process as false Jeffersonianism, a far cry from the traditional New England town meeting.

    And then there are the occasional obvious instances including those mentioned by Lindeke: stadium-making, or parking meters on Grand Avenue where Kathy Lantry and Chris Coleman have stepped in quite a pile of manure..

  3. Submitted by paula pentel on 10/16/2015 - 12:25 pm.

    Required citizen participation came about in reaction to early urban renewal projects (carried out without any public process) and by the 1970’s cities were required to involve the public when federal dollars were coming to the City. Arenstein’s article is really quite radical….and most participation today falls in the tokenism category ( think transit open houses). Her article is here:

    The public hearings required for planning decisions ( planning commission /city council) may seem like perfunctory listening sessions for citizens to respond to what is being proposed by a developer. Land rights give the developer the opportunity to vet their project with staff– to gauge compatibility with existing codes and plans so it seems that the “public” is brought in too late.
    In GV we have continued a public hearing to a later date and required developers to have a neighborhood meeting in the interim…..

Leave a Reply