Austin: Comprehensive Planning Through Community Engagement

Austin was one of four communities selected for an in-depth case study in the NLC and Knight Foundation's Bright Spots in Community Engagement report. The full case study is reprinted below.

“This is a city that prides itself on, and has a long history of, successful community engagement. there is an underlying culture of engagement that is a part of how the city is governed. What we designed was not your father’s comprehensive planning process.”
— Larry Schooler, Community Engagement Consultant, City of Austin

In 2009, the City of Austin embarked on an e#ort to create a new comprehensive plan to guide the city’s growth, spending and conservation of resources. Austin’s planning effort was designed and driven by a community engagement process that employed a diverse set of tools and strategies in an iterative and open process that engaged more than 25,000 residents in the development of the final plan, Imagine Austin, which was adopted in June 2012.

The Austin city charter calls for the city to have a comprehensive plan that “shall contain the council’s policies for growth, development, and beautification of the land within the corporate limits and the extraterritorial jurisdiction of the city.” In 2009, the city council embarked upon a process for creating a new comprehensive plan. "e previous plan was first adopted in 1979 and had been updated in 2008. But the process of updating the old plan exposed the need for a new plan that could better fit the growth projections for Austin, one of the nation’s fastest growing cities, over the next three decades.

Comprehensive planning is a common city function, and most cities have planning processes that solicit public input. But Austin chose to use a more aggressive participation strategy, establishing “community engagement” as one of three overarching goals of the process for completing the plan (the other two goals were sustainability and implementation), and allocating a $1.3 million budget to drive public participation and deliberative processes over a three-year process from 2009-2012. A public participation plan was developed with two principles:

“The plan will reflect the values and aspirations which citizens will be invited to express in a multiple of ways.”
and
“The process will engage members of the public who are not usually involved in city planning and decisions.”

Imagine AustinAccording to Larry Schooler, a community engagement consultant to the city, city leaders wanted to ensure that the comprehensive plan was developed and essentially written by the citizens of Austin. “This is a city that prides itself on, and has a long history of, successful community engagement,” says Schooler. “There is an underlying culture of engagement that is a part of how the city is governed. What we designed was not your father’s comprehensive planning process.”

The development of the comprehensive plan was guided by a task force of 38 stakeholders from key constituencies and sectors in the city. The community engagement process started with a workshop that was attended by 70 people who helped map out the broader public participation plan. Key components of that plan included four sets of community forums. The first community forum series focused on visioning what Austin would look like in 30 years. The second series then narrowed to options for where and how the city would grow, using 64 different maps of Austin that were developed by the city planning department in response to the values and principles expressed in the first series.

Participants in the second series of community forums were presented with different maps and engaged in weighing tradeoffs and choices in terms of neighborhood growth and land uses. Austin’s planning officials noted that the workshops conducted in this series were often controversial because the choices facing citizens about where to allot the projected population growth challenged people’s notions about their neighborhoods and the city as a whole. But city planner Paul DiGiuseppe noted that the process worked. “It helped attract people to the workshops who aren’t normally active in city government,” he explains. ”Despite the difficult tradeoffs, most people liked the exercise and left the workshops energized about Austin’s future.”

The planning department used the priorities identified by citizens across these mapping efforts to narrow the options down to four growth scenarios that reflected different values and preferences of citizens. "e four scenarios were deliberated upon in-person by citizens, and supplemented by a survey as part of the third community forum series. Citizen preferences converged around two of the four scenarios, which the planning department used to develop a combined, preferred growth scenario to present to the city council.

Following the development of the preferred growth scenario, working groups were formed and convened around the different building blocks of the plan—economic development, environment, culture, land use, and services, among others. Each working group was comprised of a mix of citizens and experts charged with developing action items for inclusion in a draft comprehensive plan. The draft plan was then completed and deliberated upon in a fourth community forum series.

The city then hosted a release party and asked for online public input using a “Speak Up” process across eight priority areas in the plan. The city received over 1,800 comments in online form, which were compiled and summarized for further deliberation by the task force overseeing the comprehensive plan development process. As DiGiuseppe noted, “We were able to document every comment and every sticky note from the process, resulting in a huge record of public input in the process.”

The city estimates that over 25,000 citizens took part in the process, through the community forum series, surveys, neighborhood meetings, working groups, social media, and other online communications. "e city also developed “meeting-in-a-box” options, both in hard copy and online, for citizens to participate at home, or to host meetings of their own with their individual groups of neighbors, friends and associates. A five-minute overview video and 30-second public service announcement were aired regularly on the city’s public access channel and made available on YouTube, and the city maintained an online presence throughout the process at www.ImagineAustin.net.

The final plan was approved by an overwhelming majority of the task force and adopted by the city council in June 2012.

Lessons and Observations

Austin’s community engagement efforts were ultimately successful in generating a new comprehensive plan for the city. Garner Stoll, Assistant Director for Planning, summed up the success of thecommunity engagement process this way: “Looking back at the process, it often felt long and difficult, but in the end we developed a better plan because we were challenged by our citizens. The community engagement effort helped the task force and the city council reach consensus on the final plan because they could be confident that it reflected the values and preferences of the citizens of Austin.”

City leaders also offered a number of lessons learned and reflections. Two observations were offered about the city’s efforts at attracting a diverse and representative mix of citizens. First, while diversity was a stated priority of the public participation plan, ensuring that the people involved in the process were representative of the social, economic, ethnic and racial diversity of the Austin population as a whole was a challenge. Stoll noted that “it was an ongoing struggle and we made a lot of course corrections along the way, but it was particularly difficult to penetrate the Hispanic community.”

The city’s efforts included bilingual gatherings and online tools, special events to attract youth and younger families, working with the school system to conduct outreach efforts and attract participants and hosting meetings and events at other community events such as recreational outings, PTA meetings and churches. City leaders said that the meeting-in-a-box tool was particularly successful with harder-to-reach groups. But, as Jill Goodman in the city’s communications office noted, “Most of the efforts we used would succeed at attracting harder-to-reach groups, but percentages-wise, it wouldn’t move the needle much because those efforts would also attract traditional audiences as well.” And city planner Meredith Bossin reflected that “the length of the process was probably a bit much for people who don’t interact with government as regularly, such as youth and the Hispanic community. But, overall, we had better success with the Imagine Austin efforts than in the past and learned a lot to help us in the future.”

Another measure of diversity, however, is the city’s success in engaging parts of the community beyond the typical participants and entrenched interests—a stated goal of the engagement plan. City leaders deemed their efforts to have been successful by this standard, in large part because the community engagement effort was designed to get beyond the usual voices. Stoll noted, "We wanted to gauge a broad base of the community’s values and, in the process, hopefully recruit new leaders. This took power away from the usual groups that participate in city government, in some respects, and that was a political challenge, but it also resulted in those groups having to moderate their views as consensus emerged around key aspects of the final plan."

City leaders also reflected on the array of tools used throughout the process, from the in-person meetings to surveys to online and social media efforts. Bossin noted that the key was always finding the “right tools for the particular phases of the process. Each phase had education elements and engagement elements. The online and social media components were particularly useful for standing up the public education components, while the quality of the engagement was usually better in the in-person elements. The online and social media efforts the city used were also very useful at keeping the buzz going and making sure that Imagine Austin didn’t seem like a dry city process.”

While the planning process seems to have been successful, whether it will lead to sustained community engagement is an open question. Participation in public life is certainly much lower now than it was when the face-to-face events and online communications of Imagine Austin were going full steam. City staff have complained that the members of the Citizens’ Advisory Task Force, who were appointed to help guide future engagement efforts, are mainly concerned with giving input on how local government should implement the plan. The Imagine Austin plan is far-reaching, but none of its main planks and none of the specific measures are concerned with long-term civic infrastructure.