Early and continuing outreach leads to successful public engagement in major roadway project
Developing public trust and building social capital for a project as large and controversial as Grant Road is a challenging process. In addition to this challenge, these elements are not traditionally included in transportation planning that is convened by government and design professionals. The Grant Road Improvement Plan is a project that has demonstrated how including elements of public engagement can lead to a successful project and gain public trust and support for the necessary improvements and for the public agencies involved.
In 2006, former City of Tucson Department of Transportation, Deputy Director, Andrew Singelakis promoted a “context sensitive” approach to roadway improvement planning which involved the public in framing the overall design process for the improvement of Grant Road, one of Tucson’s busiest and largest cross town arterials. This approach was an excellent example of public participation and, to a lesser degree, of public engagement. In public involvement, the public takes a role in providing input to a design process. In public participation the public recommends final design decisions and in public engagement, the public has an opportunity to actually implement some, if not all, of the approved design decisions.
Soon after the voters approved the 2006 Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) plan the City of Tucson took a proactive approach to engaging the public by convening Community Conversations, working with Community Renaissance with assistance from University of Arizona Planning Program graduate students. The City of Tucson invited the public to participate in sessions of small, structured conversations which gathered their stories and memories in words and pictures of the history of Grant Road. This effort created a sense of place for Grant Road and shaped community language for the project. One specific example of the language shift was changing the way Grant Road was referred to as a “corridor” to a “roadway.” The public did not share the technical perspective of Grant Road as a means to move cars from here to there, similar to a hallway between rooms. Rather, they saw the area as a roadway, capturing the early history of Grant Road as the original dirt road to Mt. Lemmon which connected fruit and flower orchards to the University and to lodgings for patients with tuberculosis. The public also expressed a community-based interest in implementing doable, neighborhood and business-based improvement projects for the roadway. For example, they offered to help with maintenance of improved medians and buffer zones, and to help design public art and lighting improvements. These were actions of an engaged public, not just a public who had participated in workshops or conversations. The outcome of these conversations became the framework for the City of Tucson’s request for proposals for the planning and design of Grant Road.
Kimley-Horn and Associates was the engineering firm awarded the project. They contracted with Community Design and Architecture of Oakland, CA. With their combined backgrounds in the Context Sensitive Solutions (CSS) approach to roadway planning a continuation of public participation methods was included in planning the future Grant Road. Kaneen Advertising and Public Relations was contracted to do public education and participation for the project and carried forth many of these methods. Community Renaissance was retained to develop (and sometimes advocate for) public participation methods that continued to provide opportunities for public engagement.
Public engagement is not a community behavior that can be produced by a community project, but the elements necessary to provide opportunities for engagement can be developed and encouraged. Public trust and social capital are two key elements for public engagement, and are necessary for effective public involvement and public participation. Early in the development of the Grant Road Improvement Plan, the planning team set a goal of establishing public trust by demonstrating reiterative feedback with the public, the project Citizen Task Force, and the planning team. Documented public comments from public workshops and Task Force meetings illustrate early 2007 public attitudes as they shifted from mistrust of the planning team and the City of Tucson with the project design process to their current 2011 public attitudes of improved public trust.
The demonstration of improved social capital in the geographic areas surrounding key intersections along Grant Road was illustrated by a matrix developed by the planning team. This matrix was used to assist the Citizen Task Force in making their decision to identify the reconstruction phasing for the first construction project for Grant Road. Social capital is defined by the World Bank as “norms and networks that enable collective action.”
Yes, the building of public trust and social capital is a challenging process. It is also a fragile one and can easily be frayed by community tensions. These positive community character elements, generated by the Grant Road Improvement Plan, can be the complementary goals to other transportation and planning processes. For example, the year old Imagine Greater Tucson effort has incorporated the practice of community conversations into their first planning phase and is focusing future strategies on multiple ways to expand regional community involvement to include public participation and engagement. Designing Grant Road has been an intentional plan for building community. The project’s continued success depends on a deeper understanding and support for the connection between a roadway and the people whose lives are connected through it.