Public participation for building public benefits

“How we put together the built environment within our public right-of-way determines much about how we can conduct daily life for years to come.” I can’t get this quote from civil engineer and bike advocate Fionnuala Quinn neatly out of my mind because it so eloquently captures the long-term significance of street projects for a community.  As the Woodley Street project progresses, public meetings are now scheduled – the first meeting is tonight – so this is the time to think together about how we would like to be able to conduct our daily life along and across this corridor and move the conversation from costs (or perceived costs) to shared benefits.

Woodley - looking west from Union Street to Division
Woodley – looking west from Union Street to Division

Importance of public input

Typically, street projects are designed by consultant engineers – Bolton and Menk, in this case – with limited knowledge of the community context of the street. While Bolton and Menk have worked in Northfield frequently, that’s not the same as knowing how the street and surrounding land uses work together, or how Woodley connects more distant parts of the city.  Community members, both those adjacent to project boundaries and those who travel through the project area, can inform the non-native designers about the community, how this street connects to other places (or how it doesn’t now, but could in the future), and other local knowledge about the place and how people move around in it.  In other words, showing the engineers what matters in human terms so the design can respond to local context rather than just slapping down the standard plate over whatever might be it its path.

Rice County design standards
Rice County Context-INSENSITIVE Design Standards (Image Bolton & Menk)

It’s no secret I’m interested in broadening the conversation and changing the street to do more and to change the way the space functions for the longer term. Northfield and its hired help need input from the people who currently use or cross Woodley Street and those who avoid it because of perceived problems to determine what change is needed.

I’m also a design idealist (despite believing this video to be all too true).  Having had the luxury of living in and visiting other cities, I have seen how well-designed infrastructure makes getting around easy and pleasant as well as experiencing less than well-designed places and struggling as a result. Local people know their places well, but are not street design experts and rather than asking residents (or the City Council) to be citizen engineers and do the drawing, I’m wishing for local people who provide great feet-on-the-street knowledge and innovative designers who can create a street corridor which works for Northfield.

Copenhagen bike lane
Copenhagen bike lane

The challenges of public input

Who shows up?

Northfield has made great progress in the last few years publicizing meetings, providing on-line engagement, and increasing the number of face-to-face opportunities for input. Even so, it is difficult to reach and engage community members beyond the adjacent property owners for whom personal notice is built into the legal requirements. BikeNorthfield (I’m on the its steering committee) and other organizations like Sibley School and the school district, advocates for public health, etc. can help spread the word that input is needed about the project (and we should get to work).

Not that the adjacent property owners should be ignored; I appreciate the very real concerns (and have paid my own special assessment in the last few years) – project residents mostly own their homes and their home is likely a very substantial portion of their assets – of course they are concerned about the impact to that asset and whether the project will affect its value or their ability to enjoy their property. The way we assess a portion of the project cost to adjacent property owners makes it completely reasonable that they may have an aversion to loss of “their” property when a sidewalk is constructed or fear how any change in the street corridor will affect their investment. On the other hand, Council members who simply give residents veto power abdicate their responsibility to consider the long term benefits for the community.

What do we ask?

Perhaps my biggest concern is how little education takes place to guide public comment. Most of us do not spend much time looking at street cross sections, learning about intersection geometry, or know what design features have been demonstrated to calm traffic, improve safety or address other relevant issues (hence my comments above that residents supply context so thoughtful designers can get to work). In the past, consultants and staff have done little to help policy-makers or residents learn what design choices are possible, how design could help solve problems identified, and what choices cost in both the long and short term, but instead stood by their diagrams and maps waiting for whatever questions or comments emerge.

If we’re simply shown big diagrams and asked “So, what do you think?” or “Do you like it or not?” we don’t know much about what we’re being asked and are more likely to give feedback which is irrelevant (when I scribble “Make Woodley a 32′ wide street!” when the 44′ width has already been decided) or merely reactive (“I don’t want a sidewalk!”).

How do we ask?

What if we framed the discussion this way: The City is working to implement its Safe Routes to School plan and make its streets more “complete” by improving bike and pedestrian connections to important destinations like Sibley School, the Spring Creek Soccer Complex, the City Pool at Old Memorial Park and downtown. The County requires a 44′ wide street with 12′ travel lanes.  The remaining space can be allocated in different ways to provide better bike connections, prioritize private parking, or a combination of uses. Sidewalks are included in Northfield’s policies, too, and can be included in this project. Then, the City could present some alternative configurations with some of the benefits and costs of each.

From east side neighborhood and downtown across Woodley
From east side neighborhood and downtown across Woodley

What do we show?

Flat maps and diagrams don’t help much with visualizing change and can even be rather alarming as this diagram showing trees to be removed as small explosions which make it difficult to see much beyond loss and destruction:

Tree bombs?
Tree bombs?

Hennepin County has recently been doing some planning and adding bike lanes on Lowry Avenue. In addition to the flat images, the County has tried to market the change positively. The image shows cars still moving efficiently, but also includes the bikes and new trees to present a positive image of change rather than a documentation of loss.

Helping visualize change (Image Hennepin County)
Helping visualize change (Image Hennepin County)

What is the broader benefit or how do we change?

City staff and elected leaders could emphasize values and priorities as articulated in city policy. Our policies are really good and forward thinking. Allocating space for bicycles is less about space than about making different choices (and allocating all the space for cars was a choice made in the past).  If we presume the space is for motor vehicles, then every reduction in driving or parking space seems like a loss or (worse) a threat.  If, on the other hand, we start from the position than the public right of way should be allocated for the broadest inclusion and choice across the network, we can use the space to both permit safe, uninterrupted vehicle movement and safe, clearly identified space for bicycles.

Woodley Street needs fixing as anyone who has driven, ridden or walked on it knows. But remembering this needed repair to pavement and pipes is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for change, what are the other benefits the city could realize? My interest is how Woodley Street helps us get places and links destinations – and it is a key link to many places in Northfield.

If Northfield and Rice County rebuild Woodley Street by repeating choices of the past – a car-only county highway without sidewalks, safe intersections for pedestrians, or bike facilities, the City will miss the chance to help anyone who walks, bicycles or uses a wheelchair/scooter right now to reach downtown, parks, schools and moving around the neighborhood and, more importantly, will preempt these choices for decades more to come.




3 responses to “Public participation for building public benefits”

  1. “The County requires a 44′ wide street with 12′ travel lanes.”

    Question one: what the hell is wrong with the county, and can it be fixed?

    I’m sure you know and have references to the data that shows that 12′ wide lanes encourage speeding at 55 mph plus. With 44′, this seems to mean 10′ wide parking lanes (!!!!), and with most cars much narrower than that, the 12′ wide lanes will seem even wider to drivers.

    There was a big fight in Ithaca, NY not long ago over road widening. People were fighting for 10′ wide driving lanes, 8′ wide parking lanes. This has the effect of slowing cars below 30 mph reliably. In the end, after fighting with state DOT for a while, the locals finally accepted 11′ driving lanes and 8′ parking lanes. This is still unsafe and encourages speeding, but less so than the 12′ lanes which state DOT was pushng for.

    It would be advisable to not rebuild the street at all if the county insists on encouraging speeding. This is a matter of lives.

    • While I would have liked to have seen 11′ or 10′ lanes, part of the challenge is coordinating County objectives (think rural highways for cars, trucks and agricultural equipment) with City priorities (local street where speed is less desirable, linking walk/bike destinations, local property access) and the cost sharing which accompanies this.

      The street is desperately in need of rebuilding, so not rebuilding is not a live option. As it is a county route, the County can veto designs. As we are all cash-strapped local government units, the project requires federal, state, county and local funding making the design negotiation at best.

  2. […] In 2015, I wrote about building more robust public participation to gather more thoughtful input from the entire community (not just adjacent property owners and those within 350 feet) about how they’d like to get around, educate Council and community about possibilities and issues in a project, and be very intentional about building an equitable and inclusive process for projects which determine how we can get around for a generation. […]

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