Breaking Out of the Public Engagement Box

As the weather turned warmer and sunnier late this week, Theresa Zajac knew she had trouble on her hands. As Vice President of the Southwest Detroit Business Association, she was working to convene a group of neighborhood residents, business owners and other interested parties to discuss housing needs and redevelopment of vacant land on Friday evening, as part of the Congress for the New Urbanism’s Legacy Charrette program. The event was scheduled to take place at a local high school, but she was afraid the weather would make it unlikely that many people would choose to be inside on a beautiful summer-like Friday night. So she thought on her feet, reaching out to local business owners and invited guests to change the plan: the neighborhood meeting would be outdoors, on the patio of a local favorite bar.

Her last-minute change worked. A multiethnic, multigenerational and multilingual group of people who care about Southwest Detroit gathered in a casual, fun setting and got down to business. The topics they covered weren’t light: environmental justice, crime and low income housing, predatory housing speculators, immigration policy, the state system of funding cities, to name a few. But the setting andIMG_3421 the camaraderie enabled the group to tackle them with enthusiasm and optimism.

It’s an example of community engagement done well, a tricky accomplishment in today’s world of distractions competing for our time. The League has observed and participated in many of these efforts and we can say the same old public meeting, Monday night at city hall, often doesn’t work. It’s important to think differently if you truly want to get community conversations going. So be like Theresa and improvise a bit. And you can’t or don’t have time, ask your target audience to plan the party. Just don’t be surprised when they show up.

This work, called “Building affordable and market rate housing in Southwest without displacement,” is being done as a lead up to CNU24. The project was led by Dhiru Thadani from Washington D.C. with support from NederveldZimmerman/Volk Associates and City Form Detroit.