Folding tables were assembled in two long rows. On them, project details plotted on equally long sheets of paper were laid out for review. Tucson Transportation staff placed sign-in sheets and clipboards with surveys on the check-in table. And that’s where the resemblance to a traditional “open house” style public meeting stopped.
Instead of an indoor meeting room, we were out at a neighborhood park enjoying a slow summer sunset. As City staff popped open a shade canopy, we started setting up for an outdoor screening of E.T., The Extraterrestrial.
Within half an hour, a dozen bikes were lined up in front of our free mobile bike repair station and about as many kids romped around the playground nearby. Families enjoyed their favorite flavor of free ice cream…
These are scenes from one of the Bike-in Movie & Ice Cream Social events we hosted in partnership with Tucson Transportation and Mobility Department earlier this year. Our collective goal was to incorporate “nontraditional” community engagement strategies to inform the neighborhood traffic safety projects being implemented as part of Proposition 407, the Parks + Connections Bond approved by voters in November 2018.
It all began with Complete Streets…
We first started exploring, piloting, and demonstrating different community engagement methods as part of our Complete Streets policy initiative last year. Recognizing that not everyone has the time and resources to attend workshops, open houses or other types of public meetings—which is how community outreach/engagements is traditionally done—we developed a pop-up model in a way to engage people without requiring them to alter their daily routines to participate. We worked with two youth partners to conduct on-street engagement at everyday community destinations or places where people were naturally convening.
The pop-up engagement was conducted in Spanish and English and primarily targeted locations where we could reach people who’re likely to have greater barriers to finding out about Complete Streets workshops and participating in longer meetings. The sessions took place at places like the downtown transit center, outside of a public library on Tucson’s south side, and at the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona headquarters during one of their food box pickup events. People shared with us the kinds of issues they wanted us to pay attention to as we were working on developing the Complete Streets policy.
Then the City adopted some of our strategies…
Taking note of the engagement strategies we experimented with and recognizing their potential for more diverse engagement, Tucson Transportation and Mobility Department partnered with us to organize and facilitate similar engagement events as part of Prop 407 Parks + Connections projects to supplement traditional open house-style meetings. We primarily focused on activating parks or other neighborhood public spaces and centering community engagement around a family-friendly event (like a Bike-in Movie & Ice-Cream Social) where neighbors can simultaneously have fun and provide feedback on proposed improvements in their neighborhoods. We also brought our bike mechanic crew so we could offer free bike repairs while people were busy interacting with the City staff.
These events were highly popular, attended by many families with kids—something we’re not used to seeing at public meetings. There was the father who bikes with his daughter daily and was so happy to hear about the new push-button crossing that will be installed on their bike route… Then there was the man who came because he saw the yard signs advertising an event with free bike repair… And the family who made sure to mark their calendars because they figured an ice-cream social would be a fun thing to do on a Saturday night… One woman arrived in her wheelchair and talked to us well after the sun went down. She knew the exact locations of heaving sidewalks and traffic signal buttons that aren’t accessible to people in wheelchairs. She talked about “trick sidewalks”, you know, “the kind you get on, ride for a block, and can’t get off because there’s no ramp on the other side.”
In addition to the Bike-in Movie & Ice Cream Social events we co-hosted with the City of Tucson Transportation and Mobility Department, we also tested out other kinds of engagement strategies. For example, we set up a temporary “pop-up park”on a vacant public parcel to engage neighbors in a conversation about how the area could be transformed into a more inviting place with the Prop 407 funds available. We also conducted on-street “intercept surveys” to help the City staff hear about the walkability concerns and desired improvements from the perspective of the real experts, i.e. the people out walking in their communities.
Exploration is far from over…
Community engagement that meets people where they’re at, both literally and figuratively, can help ensure that more voices—including those who have historically been marginalized—are heard and public participation better reflects the demographics of our community. Diverse, inclusive, and transformative community engagement takes time, intention, and dedicated resources. Therefore, while we’re continuing to partner with the City to explore additional ways of doing community engagement, we’re also advocating for institutionalizing these types of engagement strategies so that they’re a part of every transportation initiative with appropriate resources earmarked in project budgets.
The Complete Streets Policy calls for creating a community engagement plan to ensure robust, meaningful, and inclusive community engagement, with a particular emphasis on communities that have traditionally been underrepresented in city planning and decision-making processes. The plan is intended to include specific strategies for overcoming barriers to engagement associated with race, ethnicity, income, age, disability, English language proficiency, vehicle access, and other factors linked to historic disenfranchisement.
It is our hope that this community engagement plan, informed partly by these early experiments and explorations, will create a blueprint for transformative community engagement that is rooted on government entities co-powering and collaborating with communities and engaging them as true implementation partners.