Bright Spots in Community Engagement: Keep Austin Engaged

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This is the fourth post in a blog series highlighting communities that were profiled in the new Knight Foundation and NLC joint report, Bright Spots in Community Engagement.  The report showcases 14 U.S. communities that are building greater civic participation and engagement from the bottom up. Previous blog posts included an in-depth look at Philadelphia, Detroit, and Chicago.

 “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

The City of Austin, Texas has grown dramatically over the last decade. Between 2000 and 2010, the city saw a 37% increase in population. Many new residents have come to the city with a diploma in-hand; 43% of adults 25 and older in Austin now have a bachelor’s degree or above.

The city has seen strong growth in the manufacturing and technology sectors in recent years, and the region’s rapid growth led Forbes to rank the Austin metropolitan area first among all big cities for the best places for jobs in 2012.

Austin’s original comprehensive plan was adopted in 1979, and was updated in 2008. However, the update process exposed the need for a more extensive overhaul of the plan to better fit the significant growth projections for the city over the next three decades and reflect the community’s values and vision for the future.

In 2009, Austin began a three-year process for creating a new, 30-year comprehensive plan. Most cities have planning processes that solicit public input, but Austin chose to use a more aggressive participation strategy, establishing community engagement as an overarching goal of the process. City leaders wanted to ensure that the comprehensive plan was developed and essentially written by the citizens of Austin.

Austin’s community engagement efforts used a diverse set of tools and strategies to engage more than 25,000 residents in the development of the final plan, Imagine Austin, which was adopted unanimously by the city council in June 2012.

Austin Citizens had the opportunity to participate in a four-part community forum series; respond to surveys; provide input through social media; and attend neighborhood meetings, bilingual gatherings, and special events targeted to youth and younger families. The city also developed the “Meeting-in-a-Box,” a self-conducted small gathering of friends and neighbors to brainstorm ideas about how Austin should grow and allocate its resources that comes prepackaged with invitations, scripts, and questions. City leaders reported that this tool was particularly successful with harder-to-reach groups.

Austinites Make Their Voices Heard

Similar to the success of the participatory budgeting process in Chicago’s 49th Ward, Austin succeeded in engaging the community beyond just the people that Chicago Alderman Joe Moore refers to as “meeting junkies.” Garner Stoll, assistant director for Austin’s neighborhood planning and zoning department, summed up the success of the city’s community engagement process:

We wanted to gauge a broad base of the community’s values and,
in the process, hopefully recruit new leaders. Looking back, 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.

While the planning process appears to have been successful, it is an open question whether it will lead to sustained community engagement. The city is off to a good start though. It has a dynamic Imagine Austin website and maintains a very active social media presence around the plan’s implementation.  There is even an Imagine Austin speaker series that focuses on issues discussed in the plan, such as creating more walkable communities.

Imagine Austin is a big plan with big ideas, and it will take strong, continuous effort to ensure the plan is implemented in a way that reflects shared community values and vision.