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New meeting tool aids city in gathering citizen input

Friday, January 8, 2010 by Austin Monitor

How do you get the average Austin resident involved in something as seemingly opaque and nebulous as the Comprehensive Plan? The City of Austin, recognizing that it isn’t always realistic to expect residents to show up at official Comprehensive Plan meetings, usually on weekday evenings, has developed an alternative: meeting in a box.


The so-called meeting in a box is exactly that: a box with everything you need to hold a meeting about the Comprehensive Plan: instructions, invitation cards, comment and collection forms, and an addressed stamped envelope to mail the results to City Hall. Anyone who asks can get a box for free and conduct a meeting anywhere and with whomever they like—at home, with a church group or neighborhood association, or at a coffee shop.


“It’s a really simple way of collecting some good information,” said Mark Walters, principal planner with the city’s Planning and Development Review Department. “Right now we’re in the visioning phase, and asking people what they want to be in the future, that’s the essence of vision.”


Walters played host to a massive meeting in a box held last week at the Asian American Cultural Center. Organizers had expected 15 or 20 people, but about 65 showed up. The room overflowed with Austin residents hailing from Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, The Philippines and China. After a short presentation from Walters about the Comprehensive Plan, envelopes went around to each table and everyone got to work.


According to Larry Schooler, Community Engagement Coordinator with the city, more than 80 meetings in a box have been dispatched since the Comprehensive Plan process began in October, and that’s not counting downloads from the city’s Web site, where residents can download the entire contents of the box as PDF files. Although the city has only gotten a handful of boxes back so far, Schooler expects more after the holidays and says the meeting in a box tool has already helped to get groups involved that normally are not active participants in public processes.


Garner Stoll, an assistant director with the Planning and Development Review Department, used a form of meeting in the box when he was planning director for a Denver suburb. When it came time to get Austin residents involved in the Comprehensive Plan, the city got together with Dr. Patricia Wilson and her students at UT’s Regional Planning Department to adapt the concept for Austin.


The concept is fairly simple. Most meetings in a box consist of only about five to ten people, who are asked to answer three questions: What do you like or consider important about Austin? What are our weaknesses? What five things would improve if we addressed those weaknesses? For this last question, participants are asked to write their answers on oversized sticky notes and group them together on the table in clusters that deal with certain areas of concern.


“You can move the notes around and say, OK, these are clustered here and they’re about transportation, and these are about crime, and these are about parks,” Walters said. “And that helps them develop these themes, what they would like to see improved about the parks.”


The city processes the results of these meetings in boxes the same way they would process public input from a community forum series or any other “official” Comprehensive Plan meeting.

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