Art of Public Engagement: Making Engagement Fun

Heritage event. The event will focus on marketing historic resources along the Missouri River and promoting the Great Falls region as a tourist destination. The event is a partnership of the Great Falls-Cascade Historic Preservation Advisory Commission and funded by grants from the Great Falls Tourism Business Improvement District and the Montana State Historic Preservation Office. Visit www.greatfallsmt.net for more information. Graphic provided by Lee Nellis.

Heritage event. The event will focus on marketing historic resources along the Missouri River and promoting the Great Falls region as a tourist destination. The event is a partnership of the Great Falls-Cascade Historic Preservation Advisory Commission and funded by grants from the Great Falls Tourism Business Improvement District and the Montana State Historic Preservation Office. Visit www.greatfallsmt.net for more information. Graphic provided by Lee Nellis.

by Lee Nellis, FAICP, Great Falls, Montana

It’s a dreary Sunday at the 9th Street laundromat. Time to write. With no comments or questions from readers, I will use this column to complete my ongoing project of discussing each of the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation’s core principles for public engagement. We’re ready for the seventh and final of those guidelines. But first, since it has been a while, let me remind you of where to find all seven principles (and many other useful resources): http://ncdd.org.

The seventh core principle presents a challenge.

Sustained Engagement and Participatory Culture: Promote a culture of participation with programs and institutions that support ongoing quality public engagement.

How DO we promote a culture of ongoing participation? I’m working on a modest public involvement campaign myself right now. And as I think about what I’m doing, I realize that mostly I’m trying to figure out how to make heritage tourism planning sound like fun.

Fun and planning?

I can’t prove this, but I suspect that one could measure the success of public engagement and, perhaps, of planning in general, in a community by measuring the amount of laughter involved. The most productive processes I have seen were not too serious. We had a barbecue for 700. We had pizza for 400. We had a band. We staged a street fair. We had a kiosk at the mall (or the post office or the grocery or at a Fourth of July celebration). We played games. We did float trips. Sometimes there were door prizes (that’s next on my list for this event, actually). The printed materials, including invitations like the one shown here were lively.

Yes, as planners, we work in a reality where opportunities for participation are mandated by law and some formality is indicated when we’re operating in the quasi-judicial arena. But we can certainly inject some fun into the process of plan-making. Indeed, if we’re going to follow the direction of the AICP code, which says “Participation should be broad enough to include those who lack formal organization or influence.” I think we’re obligated to make plan-making interactive and fun.

More Fun?

I would love to collect readers’ stories of fantastically fun public engagement events they have held (or even just attended). What more can be done to make planning fun? Write to me at lnellis@greatfallsmt.net.


Lee Nellis, FAICP, is a pioneer of planning in the rural West, starting his career in Wyoming in 1974. Today he is the Deputy Director of the Planning & Community Development Department for the City of Great Falls, MT.


Published in February/March 2015 Issue

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