Over the past three decades, RVi has been involved in dozens of projects that have both required and benefited from the public input process. During this time, we have strengthened our understanding of the process and refined our techniques. As RVi approaches its 30th anniversary, we decided to reflect on the lessons we’ve learned and the successes we’ve had in building public consensus.
As any veteran of design in the public realm will admit, a strict “build it and they will come” mentality won’t get you very far along the path to a successful project. Only occasionally are designers lucky enough to work on projects that take place in our own backyards, where we have a deep-seated understanding of all the critical issues surrounding the situation. More often in the course of our professional lives, we work outside our personal relationships – with communities and stakeholders whose perspectives are the result of their own unique set of circumstances. A very critical component in delivering a well-received design is understanding how to solicit input from these stakeholders in a way that creates buy-in, and then synthesizing that information into a design solution that works for everybody.
So what goes into creating a successful public input process?
“Having a plan for the public input process is essential,” notes RVi Principal Barbara Austin. “It’s not a simple equation – the factors are different every time. You have to work with the client to understand the issues and develop a plan for addressing those issues. Otherwise, it becomes disorganized and ineffective.” Developing a plan includes everything from understanding hot-button issues to targeting specific stakeholder groups. The input process can take many forms – including public meetings, invited stakeholder meetings, presentations to councils and boards, brainstorming sessions with specific departments and individuals, conducting surveys, and more.
One RVi project that hinged on successful planning was the LCRA Lake Travis Parks Workshop. LCRA was interested in developing a Master Plan for development of multiple parks. The group of stakeholders, including multiple scientists, had widely varying opinions on how to develop the sites. RVi was charged with developing a plan for gathering the input of multiple stakeholders for multiple project sites, and presenting that information back to the client in an understandable and actionable format. RVi Principal Mark Smith was heavily involved in the project. “Sometimes you find yourself playing the role of mediator. Your job is not to take sides – your job is to bring the parties together, help them understand one another’s point of view, and hopefully arrive at a solution that is mutually acceptable,” Smith said.
At the conclusion of the Lake Travis Parks Workshop, LCRA took the information generated from the public input process and created a working master plan for the parks system to guide future development of the areas.
Some public input sessions are geared more toward building consensus and support from the community for the project at hand. These activities typically take the form of meetings with stakeholders where a short presentation is given by the design team, and the majority of the time is spent in a question and answer or discussion format.
“One strategy when developing a presentation for these meetings is to start with big concepts. For example, if you’re designing a new public park, you could pose the question: What makes a good park? This gets the audience thinking about the project on a macro-level,” says Barbara Austin.
Austin, who also serves as RVi’s Director of Park Planning and Design, is currently involved in the Oso Bay Wetlands Preserve and Learning Center project in Corpus Christi. The Oso Bay Project included a combination of invited stakeholder group and public open house meetings. The invited group included representatives from various City departments, the nearby Texas A&M–Corpus Christi campus, local K-12 districts, non-profit organizations, and the development community. “Representatives from this group had very strategic suggestions, such as demonstration for water quality initiatives, potential educational opportunities to tie in with existing curricula, and ideas for drawing in tourists and local residents alike,” Austin said.
The public open house, which drew neighbors of the site and other interested private citizens, produced more user-centric suggestions, such as the need for trails, fishing, and playgrounds. “The result is a plan that incorporates all of these needs. From the park entrance signage aimed at attracting tourists and generating interest in nearby development, to the playgrounds that incorporate educational experiences – we really tried to listen to the community and make it a nature park for everyone.”
Other public input sessions focus on allowing the public to actively participate in the design process. These techniques are typically utilized when the public, rather than an owner entity, will be the main user of the facility – such as with parks, sports complexes, and recreational buildings.
RVi’s work with the City of Buda on a plan for their parks system exemplifies this participatory style of gathering public input. RVi Principal Mark Smith, who has received formal training on facilitating design charrettes from the National Charrette Institute, reflects on the process. “The Buda Parks Workshop was conceived as a day-long charrette where the community stakeholders would be actively engaged in the process of creating design concepts.”
The workshop focused on planning for six separate facilities ranging from a sports complex to a historical park. Stakeholders were divided into six groups based on their interest in a particular facility. Each group was led by an individual RVi staff member who helped facilitate the process and the group’s development of a conceptual plan for their respective park.
“The end result was a set of plans for the parks that were actually used in securing funding and developing the facilities,” Smith said. RVi went on to provide complete design and construction services for both of the parks that have been developed to-date (pictured below).
The ultimate goal of all RVi’s public input projects is to create a space that is both a good fit for the community and a responsible use of the land. In going through the public input process, you not only create a sense of ownership of the project among the community, but you also arrive at design solutions that you would not have otherwise.
RVi’s recent Quarry Splash Pad project for Williamson County, which opened last Spring, is an example of a project that has enjoyed remarkable success due to programming elements conceived in public input sessions. Productive public input processes almost always involve the end users of the project – in this case, the end users were ages 3–14.
“The kids brought incredible energy and excitement to the project. Their involvement helped us adults see the experience through their eyes. The children advocated for amenities like the waterfall, water slide, and spray cannons. Now that the splash pad is complete, those features are the most popular areas of the park,” reflects Barbara Austin, Principal-in-Charge of the project.
The kids also enthusiastically requested a sandbox in which to play – an idea which initially conjured up frightening visions of clogged drains in the minds of the designers and engineers in the room. In working with this idea, RVi integrated water and sand in an educational area of the park designed with a separate water system to prevent such disasters.
“The public input process for the Quarry Splash Pad project allowed us to think beyond our adult frame of reference, and create a really unique and exciting place for kids to enjoy,” Austin said.