Lab | Log

Filling the Cracks in Public Process

On Thursday night, two fascinating organizations partnered for a presentation at the Lab that was equal parts inspiring and frustrating.

The Hester Street Collaborative and the Center for Urban Pedagogy are New York–based nonprofit organizations that use art and design to empower people to work toward positive change in their communities.

And while they have slightly different mandates, both have the goal of providing communities with new tools and language with which to better understand and advocate for their own community’s rights and needs.

It was uplifting to learn how these organizations have pinpointed notable gaps in the process of public education and engagement and filled those voids to allow various types of citizens to take part in the development of their communities.

But there was also an underlying question that nagged in my mind throughout their presentation: Why should organizations such as these even have to exist in the first place?

If the job of our civic agencies is to engage with citizens in a meaningful way, why should artists, designers, and nonprofits have to step into that role and mediate? Whose fault is this, and how can it be changed?

After the presentation, I had a great conversation with Dylan House, program manager of the Hester Street Collaborative, who proposed an interesting answer to my question, suggesting that the fault lies on both sides, as does the responsibility for change.

He said that the New York City government has not only conducted too little public engagement on issues pertinent to community members, but that the little consultation they have sought out has been meaningless.

“Usually what happens is that the city has a plan about something and they want to implement it, and then they go and do community consultation. There’s not usually a process from the ground up, where the city goes in and talks to the community about the needs of the community and then creates a plan based on that,” House said.

“The government needs to see the community as a partner in [its planning] and not just a rubber stamp.”

As a result, House said, people tend to become more resistant to everything.

“Sometimes consultation is not possible. Everyone can’t have input on everything, and I think most reasonable people understand that some things are just necessary—they have to happen,” House said. “But what happens is that when these necessary things go forward, because that trust and goodwill hasn’t been built already, people are more inclined to feel left out.”

But at the same time, he said, communities also shoulder some of the responsibility.

By nature, people tend to get involved in their community’s well-being only when they have a problem with something that is about to be implemented, instead of being involved proactively by participating on their community councils, for example, or facilitating other community meetings.

House said a lot of this comes down to unfamiliarity with public processes.

“People don’t really know what government does, and people don’t really know how to get involved,” he said, before sharing a gloomy prognosis for the future.

“A lot of our work is trying to facilitate conversation between communities and government agencies, because of the lack of just that. It would be great if we were made redundant, but I don’t think that will happen any time soon.”

I’d like to believe that House’s pessimistic forecast is wrong—that we can have better public processes that help civic agencies and communities create the cities they want to live in.

How do you think this can happen, though? What do cities and their citizens need to do to begin playing nice, learning from each other, and working together?