In his TED Global “Listening to Global Voices” talk last month, Ethan Zuckerman makes the case that social network platforms like Twitter and Facebook, rather than widening the World Wide Web for their users, tend to replicate the same social self-segregation we already participate in. We might talk to more people through Facebook than we did before, but they more of the same types of people we were already talking to. We – the big collective we that includes city planners of all stripes, civic participation nonprofits, and planning firms – face this challenge in our public engagement. It’s relatively easy to engage some like-minded constituencies as constituencies. It’s not hard to get the developers to weigh in on a Comprehensive Plan, for instance. And while it can be more difficult to engage some other constituencies (more segregated ethnic communities, for example, or low-income communities), there is a wide range of tools and strategies that make this very possible as well.
The really difficult challenge, though, is creating engagement processes that result in engagement across those constituencies, where you get cross-cutting interaction, shared learning, and real opportunities to understand the perspectives and challenges of those other (the not-like-you) groups of folks. When done well, the results can include better solutions, better long-term relationships across those constituencies, and a more durable community plan. If we are doing our jobs, we are doing good work engaging individual constituencies and engaging them with each other.