Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Community Involvement or Community Engagement?

There's only so much that can happen through blogging, twitter, and facebook. At some point, you need to be involved if you want to make a difference.

The role of the public in the NorthSide project is still evolving, depending on what happens with the developer's own processes and the City's public hearings and project reviews.

On May 21, approximately 300 people attended a community meeting to learn more about the proposed NorthSide project. The meeting was held at Central Baptist Church, 2843 Washington Avenue.

Speakers included Alderwomen Marlene Davis and April Griffin as well as representatives from the development team. The meeting also marked the beginning of a community engagement process.

The audience was broken up into small groups for roundtable discussions, described on the meeting agenda as "an opportunity for residents to identify concerns, best practices, and unanswered questions".

To organize the small groups, audience members were each given a different colored paper card. I was given a blue card, and instructed to join others from the audience with the same blue cards. Each group was assigned a meeting facilitator. There were probably ten or so such small discussion groups. We were sent to rooms in other parts of the building.

Our group was made up of a mixture of residents from in and around the NorthSide project area as well as from other parts of the St. Louis metro. I felt bad for our facilitator, because when we arrived, the room was not ready for us. There were an insufficient number of chairs and no easel in place, so the facilitator had to search for chairs and figure out a way to prop up his note pad.

We burned about half of our allotted time getting the room ready. By the time the discussion started, participants felt rushed to get their ideas presented. Then we were pressed to narrow our concerns to the top three. Our group did not feel comfortable by such a limit.

When time ran out, we had generated about two pages of notes on a 2' x 3' sheet of paper. After the small group discussions, all the people were reconvened in the main meeting room to hear reports from the facilitators from the various breakout sessions.

Our facilitator went last. His report was very brief and general, with little reference to the specific concerns mentioned from our meeting making it back to the full audience.

A consultant has been hired to facilitate community engagement. The facilitator gave out a phone number to call for follow up information. The facilitator promised that all calls would be returned. The telephone number for the community engagement consultant is (314) 758-4857.

I called the number to request a copy of the Power Point presentation from the meeting and copies of the unfiltered comments from the small group discussions. I have made two calls since May 22, left messages on the answering machine, and to date have not received a return phone call. Since the consultant promised to return all calls, I am keeping faith that my calls will be returned.

In the meantime, the role of the public in the future of the NorthSide project remains unclear. Community engagement and community involvement are not the same thing, especially when community engagement is being carried out by a private developer rather than a public body. At this time, no one knows what the developer plans to do with public input.

Recurring themes surrounding NorthSide to date are accountability and public involvement. The developer's efforts in these areas will be key to building community support for the project.


  1. If they ever have a meeting like this again (especially with "breakout sessions", you should make sure to get everyone's contact info that you can as a first step. If they (the organizers) are really interested in public engagement, they should not object. As long as you have to go through their middle man, they will be able to control what kind of information gets distributed.

  2. I don't like the idea of conducting the public's business inside a church.

  3. The public engagement coordinator is the Urban Planning and Development Corporation of America (UPDC), operated by Gail Brown of Brown/Kortkamp.

    At Central Baptist, I was unclear on whether UPDC represented McEagle or the aldermen who convened the meeting.

    Does anyone know?

  4. This format is suspect. My guess is they don't really want community involvement. There are too many opinions they don't want to hear.

    Divide and conquer, isn't that how it goes?

    I think the whole project should be put on hold until they figure out a proper community involvement mechanism. They have never had one; that is why they fumble all over themselves at hearings like this.