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A Bold and Creative Approach to Public Outreach: City of Newton’s Public Design Week

Earlier this summer, MAPC participated in Newton’s first Public Design Week, a one week public visioning process hosted by the City of Newton. The event is part of the City’s “Hello Washington Street!” initiative. “Hello Washington Street” is a thirteen-month process that began in April 2018 and is anticipated to go until May 2019. It will result in a vision plan and draft zoning for the areas that link West Newton to Newtonville to Newton Corner. With the help of Principle, an urban design and development company, the City took a bold and creative approach to ensure that the plan represented the residents’ hope for the corridor.

MAPC Staff offered support to City staff in this intensive fun-filled, community-based, discussion-focused outreach effort to learn more about this participatory planning tool. After the event, the City of Newton agreed to discuss the process with MAPC and share tips on using this tool through the MAPC blog.

A Charette Model Approach

Newton’s planners and partners used a charrette model for the Public Design Week. A charrette is a series of multi-disciplinary workshops hosted by experts to discuss key issues with community members.These recommendations are refined into planning documents, renderings, and fiscal analyses. “One of the primary points of emphasis for Mayor Fuller” said James Freas, Newton’s Director of Planning, “was that this be a community driven process, which is what took us down the road of the charrette approach.”

In addition to formal community meetings, city staff occupied a store front in the corridor and implored residents to stop by at any time to add their ideas and comment on the evolving vision. Lily Canan Reynolds, the city’s Community Engagement Manager, remarked, “This was a commitment to a process where you could see ideas come to life.”

Thinking about using this tool?

Below are some recommendations and reflections from the City of Newton:

  • Familiarize yourself with charrettes. Planners prepared for the Public Design Week by studying the principles and implementation of charrettes, but found that stakeholders were not familiar with the word or concept , hence “Public Design Week.”
  • Know your community. City staff relied on members of the consultant team, Principle, on the specifics of charrette methodology. In turn, the consultant team relied on City staff as the local knowledge base for stakeholder outreach, event logistics planning, and learning more about neighborhood assets, histories, and political issues.
  • Visual representation. Newton and Principle brought in experts to turn prospective ideas into visual renderings of the corridor. Consultants were able to quickly produce multiple development/open space/transportation options and their respective fiscal impacts..
  • Everybody loves food. Planners organized key food theme events like a chili cook off and barbecues to create interest and buzz. This offered both a different environment from the typical planning meetings and also engaged a broader audience.
  • Commitment is Key. The city was committed to attracting a broad range of the public. They sought and found support among community based organizations and community leaders. .
  • Guide your participants and let them guide you. Walking and biking tours ensured that participants and consultant had first-hand knowledge of and interaction with the corridor.
  • Be connected socially. Share updates via website and social media and make sure events are widely advertised.
  • Make use of information. Have data, plans, and images at hand so the design team can work in real time. Often times a week is not enough time to identify a data set, get access to it, and organize it in a useful way. The City and Principle made sure that all necessary data was accounted for and available at the beginning of the Public Design Week.
  • High Performance Capabilities. High speed Wi-Fi location in the design studio where the charrette will take place is critical to meeting success. Creating and showing data in real time is powerful and also requires a lot of bandwidth.
  • Accessibility. Make the process as accessible as possible. The City live streamed all of the topic sessions, which were then stored on the City’s website.

Questions to ask before hosting a “Public Design Week”

  • What time of year will you get the best turn out? Newton did their design week in June. And although they were concerned that early summer might negatively impact turn out, they engaged over 400 people in person during the Public Design week – and over 1,300 people responses from people online.
  • Do you have the capacity to do this? During the Public Design week two key members of Newton’s planning staff were released from other responsibilities so they could focus 100% of their time on the charrette.
  • Do you have the technical expertise? Newton chose (and had the resources) to hire consultants to ensure that all possibilities were accounted for. And because of the intensity of the work, a week’s worth of the consultants services was equal to what would typically be many weeks of work.
  • Is there a space within the project area to host design meetings successfully, for at least a week? A key engagement strategy was to have a central space where at any time during the day residents could stop by, get updates on the week, hear about events, and share their insight. It is also important that the space is flexible and can be transformed easily.
  • How will you prioritize what you hear? At any particular meeting there might be 50 ideas that the City and the consultants must segment into priorities. The ideas and discussions from the Public Design Week will be used in vision planning and draft zoning ordinances, which will be made available for public feedback in the Fall of 2018. As Canan Reynolds noted, “We are not planning by note taking. The plan must be allowed to evolve.”

Final Thoughts

Left to Right: City of Newton – Lily Canan Reynolds Community Engagement Manager, Rachel Powers Community Development Programs Manager, James Freas Deputy Director of Planning & Development, Iolando Spinola MAPC Community Engagement Specialist

Newton’s Public Design Week engaged a critical amount of residents representing diverse backgrounds and experiences and turned that engagement into a community driven vision for an important and underutilized corridor. Newton also invested significant resources in the Public Design Week, implementing a version that relied heavily on their staff and on many outside consultants that the Principle Group recruited from all over the country. MAPC and the City of Newton wanted to share this innovative tool and hope that other cities and towns can utilize it in its entirety or choose components that might work on their own.

Links/Resources:

Newton’s “Hello Washington Street!”

http://www.newtonma.gov/washingtonstreetvision

Newton’s “Hello Washington Street!” Facebook Page

http://www.facebook.com/hellowashingtonstreet

Newton’s Snapshot of the Public Design Week

http://www.newtonma.gov/civicax/filebank/documents/90924 

Handbook for Planning and Conducting Charrettes

https://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy09osti/44051.pdf

Principle

www.principle.us