Monthly Archives: January 2013

Old South Meeting House: How Public Participation Formed Our Nation

If these walls could talk…

The walls of Boston’s Old South Meeting House have witnessed some of the most historic conversations in our nation’s history, from the first whisperings of the American Revolution to the boisterous protests that led patriot Samuel Adams to kick off the Boston Tea Party by crying out “This meeting can do nothing more to save the country!” This building has proven that the location is every bit as important as the discussions and actions that take place at it.

The simple brick, slate, lead, and copper that provide the foundation of “Old South,” as it is lovingly known, in many ways is also the symbolic foundation for public participation in our country. Beginning as a Puritan meeting house its congregation has welcomed some of our nation’s most influential minds, including Benjamin Franklin, and Phillis Wheatley, the first African American woman to publish a book.

Part and parcel of public involvement is the ability of citizens to speak their mind. In 1929 Old South fully embraced the role of protector of free speech by establishing its free-speech policy. This policy provides a haven for controversial speakers and subjects that may be denied a forum elsewhere, and serves as a reminder to Americans that we cannot turn our backs on the First Amendment.

A portion of Boston's Freedom Trail(Credit: International Communication Association)

A portion of Boston’s Freedom Trail
(Credit: International Communication Association)

Today this National Historic Landmark located along Boston’s Freedom Trail is used primarily as a museum that commemorates these historic conversations and events through exhibits like Voices of Protest, which opened in 2000. Old South also offers a variety of educational and interactive programs for school groups and adults.

Today we hear from Emily Curran, Executive Director of the Old South Meeting House. She shares with us the building’s legacy and her thoughts on the ways public participation has changed or remained the same since Old South first opened its doors in 1729.

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Old South Meeting House was a gathering place that spurred many of our nation’s most influential historic events such as the Boston Tea Party and the protest meetings held before the start of the America Revolution. How did this location come to be such a significant meeting place?

Ever since it was constructed in 1729 as a Puritan meeting house, Old South Meeting House has been a gathering place for debate, discussion, revolution and celebration. Standing in the very heart of Boston, this was the largest gathering place in all of colonial Boston and was used for large public gatherings as well as for religious services.

An 1801 bell made by Patriot Paul Revere was connected to the 1766 tower clock in October of 2011. Image courtesy of Julie Sterling Williams,

An 1801 bell made by Patriot Paul Revere was connected to the 1766 tower clock in October of 2011.
Image courtesy of Julie Sterling Williams,

Ideal for mass meetings, by the mid 1700’s Old South Meeting House had became a favorite stage in Boston’s drama of revolution. As colonists became increasingly outraged at the way they were treated by the British government, they gathered at Old South Meeting House to challenge British actions. On March 6, 1770, the morning after the Boston Massacre, more than 3,000 men gathered at Old South Meeting House in an angry protest meeting, demanding the withdrawal of British troops from the town of Boston. Their protest was successful and every year afterwards a huge annual commemoration of the victims of the Massacre at Old South Meeting House drew thousands of women and men keeping outrage alive.  The largest protest meetings ever held at Old South Meeting House took place in 1773 when more than 5,000 men from all walks of life debated what to do about a controversial tax on tea. At their final meeting on the night of December 16, after all attempts to reach a compromise failed, Samuel Adams adjourned the meeting and 340 chests of tea were dumped into Boston Harbor in the famed protest that became known as “The Boston Tea Party.”  These gatherings at Old South Meeting House began a revolution “in the hearts and minds of the people,” as John Adams  put it, before a shot was ever fired in the American Revolution.

Because of its significance in the days leading to the American Revolution, citizens came together in 1876  to save the historic building from demolition in one of the nation’s first successful preservation efforts, and Old South Meeting House opened to the public as a museum and active meeting place. During a time of censorship and suppression in the 1920’s the Meeting House opened its doors to those not allowed to speak elsewhere.  Since then, Old South Meeting House has been a haven for free speech, committed to presenting topics and speakers regardless of their popularity or unpopularity.

Exterior of Old South Meeting House. Image courtesy of Fayfoto,

Exterior of Old South Meeting House.
Image courtesy of Fayfoto,

How important is location when is comes to public participation?

A welcoming and accessible location is very important in ensuring participation by a broad range of people. Old South Meeting House has always been in the heart of Boston’s city center and is still a central location today. Although the city has grown and changed around it, downtown Boston is still an astonishingly vibrant urban area.  The busy corner of Milk and Washington streets where the Old South Meeting House stands is passed by an estimated 100,000 pedestrians daily. Old South Meeting House is accessible to all public transit, allowing it to be frequented by people of all ages, races and nationalities, and by residents, workers and tourists from around the world.

A vial of tea collected at the 1773 Boston Tea Party is on exhibit at Old South Meeting House. Image courtesy of Julie Sterling Williams,

A vial of tea collected at the 1773 Boston Tea Party is on exhibit at Old South Meeting House.
Image courtesy of Julie Sterling Williams,

The Old South Meeting House has become a symbol for free speech. What are some of the most controversial topics discussed and debated here?
The topics that are considered controversial change rapidly over time, and span the full spectrum of political viewpoints. As a place that is committed to presenting speakers and topics regardless of their current popularity, perhaps the most controversial speakers in modern times have been those individuals associated with reviled extremists such as the Ku Klux Klan. But usually controversial topics are those that attract a range of viewpoints: the use of torture, the war in Iraq, same-sex marriage, climate change, modern-day slavery, legalization of drugs, and the death penalty. The conversations about contemporary issues that take place here reflect the broader questions that are confronted by our society. Often topics that were very controversial a few years ago, such as same-sex marriage as an equal right, are now considered much more mainstream – at least here in Massachusetts!

Iraq War Protesters
Credit: Chang W. Lee / The New York Times

Many famous men and women have graced Old South Meeting House throughout history. What is it like to work at a place with such a famous history?
It’s fantastic – and a true honor.  After many years of working here, it is still an awe-inspiring experience each time I stand in this beautiful building where so much of America’s best-known history has happened. The stories of the men and women who are part of the vital heritage of dissent and free expression that are so important to our country include both ordinary people and famous individuals. I am especially inspired by the ways that ordinary people came together here to make a difference and made their voices heard.


Interior of the Old South Meeting House
Credit: Julie Sterling Williams,

In every century since the first colonists settled in Boston, significant public participation events have been held at Old South Meeting House. Why do you think that the public and community leaders continue to be drawn here?

This is an extraordinarily beautiful historic landmark filled with history and meaning, and that proud history continues to be compelling for people today.  It is a completely different experience to hold a meeting in this historic hall than it is to meet in a modern auditorium or hotel ballroom. To be gathering in the very place where the Boston Tea Party began gives a perspective on current events. Our mission is to preserve this remarkable building and ensure that it is actively used as a museum and vital gathering place in the city of Boston. The board and staff feel strongly that preserving the building as an active place for community discussion, public discourse, artistic presentation and the freedom of expression is critical.  We work to ensure that the Old South Meeting House continues to serve the community through our own programming and collaborations with many other organizations.

Boston Tea Party

Old South Meeting House was the first public building in the United States to be saved from demolition because of its historic significance. How important was its salvation and what would the generations since have missed out on if the building had been demolished?
The saving of this building from demolition back in 1876 was a pivotal point in the recognition and understanding that the history of the United States was important. At that time the United States was only 100 years old as a nation, and had recently emerged from a bloody Civil War. The building was saved and opened to the public as a museum and meeting place so that instead of being preserved as an “idle monument” it would become a living reminder of the revolutionary ideals that built this country.  Education programs here were among the very first that promoted the study of American history – in schools at that time, European history was studied instead.  So the beautiful building from 1729 was saved, but just as important, its history and its active use as a meeting place were also saved – and today people who participate in programs here or visit can understand its significance on all these levels.

How do you think public participation has changed or remained the same in the years since the first Puritan community gatherings held at Old South Meeting House?
Now in the 21st century we are exploring new ways of bringing people together in this 18th century building.  Most recently, the BBC program “World Have Your Say” held a global town meeting about the November Presidential Election at Old South Meeting House that was broadcast live and included a full audience of people inside the meeting house, as well as people participating from throughout the world via Twitter, Facebook, Skype and other ways of connecting. It was special because it brought together the energy of a live discussion within Old South Meeting House with a truly global audience from places like India, Nepal, Nigeria, Thailand and Israel.

BBC’s “World Have Your Say” at the Old South Meeting House

What is the most important act a host can do to foster constructive public dialogue?
I have come to believe that the commitment to allowing divergent points of view to be expressed is a critically important part of fostering constructive public dialogue.  By upholding the right to free expression of ideas – even those ideas that are unpopular or offensive – Old South Meeting House helps to provide a place where discussion can take place.

Old South Meeting House is primarily a museum today. What other functions does it serve and what exhibits, events, and meetings are held there today?
Today the Old South Meeting House is a busy museum, a treasured National Historic Landmark, and an active center for civic dialogue and free expression. Open to the public daily, visitors to Old South Meeting House experience exhibits, interactive educational programs for students and teachers, and a vibrant year-round schedule of public programs and performances for all ages.

This spring alone, we will present a variety of programs for all ages including a lecture series on traditional New England food-ways and one on cultural clashes; a discussion with local teenagers about their performance art project Freedom Trail on Trial; a Mother Goose puppet show for the little ones; a nautical-inspired, history-themed trivia game show; and an engaging public poetry reading. Perhaps we are most famously known for our Boston Tea Party Reenactment, annually held in December. Imagine sitting in one of our wooden pews next to Samuel Adams or John Hancock, as you become part of the event that sparked the American Revolution!  Information about all of these programs can be found on our website or on our Facebook page.

Annual Reenactment of the Boston Tea Party

What is your favorite fact about Old South Meeting House?

That’s a hard question! Perhaps my personal favorite is the extraordinary life and poetry of Phillis Wheatley, who attended Old South Meeting House services and became a full member of the congregation here in 1770.  She had been kidnapped from West Africa as a child, survived a brutal voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in a slave ship and was sold as a slave when she arrived in Boston. As a young girl she learned English and Latin and began to write poetry, eventually becoming a world-famous poet with the publication of her book of poems in 1773. I think of her sitting in Old South Meeting House, the only surviving site in Boston that was central in her remarkable life.


Phillis Wheatley, 1753–1784

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Thank you Ms. Curran for sharing your insights. We are excited that the history of public participation in our country is still alive and will be celebrated at Old South Meeting House for generations to come.

The Collaborative Services Blog Team

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Guiding the Vision for Utah and Beyond Part II

Since its inception in 1997, Envision Utah has grown into one of the nation’s pre-eminent models for large-scale public participation. Earlier this week, we posted the first part of our interview with Kevin Fayles, Envision Utah’s community relations manager, who describes the group’s outreach efforts as a prime example of “democracy in action.”

In the second part of our interview with Mr. Fayles, he discusses how the group’s approach has influenced other organizations both in Utah and around the nation. The Envision Utah model, he notes, has made a mark in roughly 75 different metropolitan areas. In Utah, the group’s model has “changed the dialogue with respect to planning for growth,” Fayles says. The result: Everybody seems to be “speaking the same language.”

An invitation to a public open house for the Mountain View Corridor, a Utah Department of Transportation project influenced by Envision Utah.(Credit: Envision Utah)

An invitation to a public open house for the Mountain View Corridor, a Utah Department of Transportation project influenced by Envision Utah.
(Credit: Envision Utah)

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How was consensus for the preferred growth strategy measured?
In 1997 and 1998, the four scenarios of how the 10-county Wasatch Front could grow were finalized.  (Remember that these scenarios were based on extensive public involvement, values research, and technical analysis.)  Residents were asked what they liked or disliked about each scenario, rather than choosing a favorite scenario.  Twenty thousand Utahns participated in this review process (3,000 through workshops and 17,000 through an on-line survey.)  Based on further refinement, the QGS was created, based on elements from the four scenarios that received the greatest public support.  In addition, and this is a critical point, an independent poll also looked at the four scenarios and we were able to scientifically determine those elements that had the greatest support.

Two of the Envision Utah scenarios developed through public participation.(Credit: Envision Utah)

Two of the Envision Utah scenarios developed through public participation.
(Credit: Envision Utah)

The QGS was released in November 1999 as part of a large public awareness campaign.  As public awareness grew, so did community concerns, and even outright opposition.  Envision Utah was committed to resolving as much of this opposition as possible.  Much of the concern that surfaced originated from misinformation, which Envision Utah staff and board members worked to correct in a timely manner. One predominant theme was the idea that by accommodating growth Envision Utah was advocating growth.

By previously having one-on-one presentations with news organizations, reporters had resolved most concerns that arose later within the public and, therefore, did not react significantly to much of the public criticism.  Envision Utah has also proactively met with possible opposing parties before the public-awareness campaign, including with developers and conservationists.  After adequate communication took place, both groups seemed to express support for the Envision Utah process and goals.

Public input helped Envision Utah form the following criteria for proceeding with the QGS:

  • Use market-based approaches and incentives
  • Effect change through education and promotion, rather than regulatory means
  • Advocate incremental steps that can take place over time, provided the right regulatory and market environment exists
  • Primary responsibility for land-use decisions will, as it should, remain with local governments
  • Strategies must be tailored to each community’s unique character and needs
  • Strategies are not aimed toward restrictions or additional layers of government. Rather, they will help our communities and decision-makers provide a broader array of choices.

The Quality Growth Strategy was created in 1999. How have the outcomes from it been implemented since then?
I see the QGS as the ‘big picture’ that most everyone can agree on.  Its six goals are quite broad:

  • Enhance air quality;
  • Increase mobility and transportation choices;
  • Preserve critical lands, including agricultural, sensitive and strategic open lands;
  • Conserve and maintain availability of water resources;
  • Provide housing opportunities for a range of family and income types; and
  • Maximize efficiency in public and infrastructure investments to promote other goals.
Credit: The University of Utah

Credit: The University of Utah

At the time of its release, Envision Utah also released strategies to achieve these goals and communities were encouraged to use those that fit their local circumstances and goals.  Examples include the following:

  • Promote pedestrian friendly/walkable communities;
  • Preserve critical land and open space through re-use, in-fill development and conservation techniques;
  • Create a network of bikeways and trails; and
  • Foster development that supports transit by offering housing, work, shopping and play near transit stops.
Credit: Envision Utah

Credit: Envision Utah

Since then, Envision Utah has facilitated more than 40 local and regional visioning efforts that support the broad goals and principles of the QGS.  In addition, we have created more than 30 reports and resources as well as hosted more than 15 educational forums.  We are trying to educate local planners, developers, realtors, elected officials and others who are the likely implementers of these strategies.

Have any of the outcomes changed over the years?
The broad outcomes of the original QGS have not changed; however, we are now exploring a statewide vision for managing growth.  We would want to update the strategy with new technologies and emerging issues such as regional energy use, agriculture, air quality, changing demographics, and affordability.

What has been the most significant achievement of Envision Utah to date?
Leading metropolitan researcher Chris Nelson has said that Envision Utah makes a difference because “it is willing to take on scary projects that others avoid.”  Issues of land-use, environment and growth stir strong passions.  Attempts to address these issues often wilt in controversy.  By contrast, Envision Utah has been invited into regions experiencing political stalemate and has successfully helped residents find common ground and a consensus vision for the future.  Its innovative approach is replicable and overcomes skepticism often associated with government initiatives.

In Utah, I feel we have changed the dialogue with respect to planning for growth.  City councils and developers are speaking the same language: “We want walkable communities.”  “Let’s maximize infill and redevelopment opportunities.”  “How can we protect our quality of life while enhancing economic development possibilities?”  Around the country, our model of civic engagement has also proven to be successful.  I’ve often said that Envision Utah is democracy in action.  We’re facilitating conversations among regular citizens, elected officials, developers, environmentalists and others.  Everyone is invited to sit at the table and to share their opinions.

Envision Utah successfully encouraged the Utah Legislature to create the Utah Quality Growth Commission that distributes state funding for lands conservation and planning.  Land-use patterns of new developments along the Wasatch Front have become more sustainable.  Civic leaders credit Envision Utah with creating the climate for the successful launch of the light rail system.  I believe Utah is currently spending more per capita on public transportation and is the only region with commuter rail, light rail, bus rapid transit and street car simultaneously under construction!

The Utah Transit Authority TRAX light rail.(Credit: Utah Transit) Authority

The Utah Transit Authority TRAX light rail.
(Credit: Utah Transit) Authority

Do you know how many other communities have used a model similar to Envision Utah?  Can you provide some of the best examples?
Envision Utah has influenced some 80 regions around the country, including Envision Central Texas, Chicago 2020, South Carolina’s Upstate Forever, Sacramento Area Council of Governments, Baltimore 2030, and the Southern California Transportation and Land-Use Coalition.

Credit: Our Greater San Diego Vision

Credit: Our Greater San Diego Vision

For the past decade, Envision Utah’s recently hired President and CEO, Robert Grow, has been taking the Envision Utah collaborative, voluntary approach to other places throughout the country. He has helped initiate or strengthen regional efforts in more than 75 metropolitan regions. Most recently, he led the consultant team for the “Our Greater San Diego Vision” effort, which set a new national record by involving more than 30,000 participants in planning the future of the 3 million residents of the San Diego region.

Credit: Our Greater San Diego Vision

Credit: Our Greater San Diego Vision

What does Envision Utah do today and what are its plans for the future?
Envision Utah is currently involved with two major HUD grants, the first for the Wasatch Choice for 2040 and the second capacity building for other regions.

On October 15, 2010, HUD announced that out of more than a thousand applicants nationwide, a Wasatch Front partnership was one of only two to receive the maximum $5 million grant.  This partnership will focus on implementing The Wasatch Choice for 2040 (TWC2040), the foundation for our long-range regional transportation plan in Weber, Davis, Salt Lake and Utah Counties.  In announcing the grant, HUD emphasized Utah’s record of successful collaboration and national leadership in engaging the public to build a livable region.  Envision Utah is co-leading this effort.  To date, more than 225 presentations have been given.

The Wasatch Choice for 2040 (WC2040) envisions new mixed-use villages and economic centers tied together by an efficient, modern transportation system. WC2040 is based on extensive market research showing that changing consumer demographics and preferences, increasing land and energy costs, and a growing desire to trade commute time for family and recreation time are driving demand for living in centers.  In short, it gives people the housing and transportation choices they want in a way that benefits us all.  Elected officials—who have ultimate authority to make land-use decisions for their communities—have reviewed and approved WC2040.

Credit: Envision Utah

Credit: Envision Utah

For the other HUD-funded effort, Envision Utah has been tasked to equip and assist other communities around the country with grassroots, market-driven scenario planning work.  In the spring of 2012, representatives from 39 states participated in Envision Utah-hosted webinars.  During the summer, Envision Utah staff went on the road to North Carolina, New Hampshire, and Ohio to provide training at regional conferences.  A major goal of these activities is to maximize public dollars through the sharing of efficient and effective tools and processes. In September, representatives from nine regions came to Salt Lake City to learn how to facilitate locally-driven planning efforts.

As mentioned previously, we are also exploring a statewide vision for quality growth, looking to update the original QGS with new technologies and emerging issues such as regional energy use, agriculture, air quality, changing demographics, and affordability.  We have a few other potential projects around the state and country.  It’s a very exciting time for Envision Utah.

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Thank you Mr. Fayles for sharing your insights on the sucesses of Envision Utah. We are encouraged that your organization has pioneered a new approach to long range regional planning with public participation as its foundation. We look forward to seeing the influence of Envision Utah in many more community planning efforts.

The Collaborative Services Blog Team

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Guiding the Vision for Utah and Beyond Part I

It’s a spectacle we’ve seen a thousand times: Someone comes up with a grand idea. The idea is introduced to the public. Interest groups emerge to support or oppose the idea. Egos and reputations become heavily invested in the outcome. Positions harden.

Unfortunately, the end result, quite often, is no one is satisfied and everyone leaves cynical about the process.

Some 15 years ago, a group of people in Utah imagined a different approach for making big decisions about big public issues. They devised a model for public participation that has become wildly successful. It is an approach that has influenced planning decisions in roughly 80 different regions of the country, from cities like San Diego, Chicago, Baltimore, and Sacramento to states such as Texas and South Carolina.

The group is called Envision Utah. This week, we interview Envision Utah Community Relations Manager Kevin Fayles about how his group was able to create a national model for involving the public in regional planning and other decisions.
Envision Utah Logo

As Mr. Fayles explained to us, Envision Utah began as an effort in 1997 to design a long-term growth strategy for the Salt Lake City region – a strategy that would preserve the region’s quality of life and strike the right balance between economic development and environmental protection.

They had a simple idea: Rather than a top-down approach in which regional leaders come up with a plan and then pitch it to the public, why not take a bottom-up approach in which the citizens themselves come up with the plan?

To be sure, there would be a team of experts in regional planning to help guide these citizens through the process, synthesizing enormous amounts of information along the way. But all the big ideas would come from ordinary members of the public. The elected leaders, consultants and government technocrats would follow the public’s lead.

Some 175 public meetings and 20,000 completed questionnaires later, Envision Utah produced a plan that still serves as the guiding document for land-use and transportation decisions in the section of northern Utah known as the Wasatch Front.

The Wasatch Front, Utah(Credit: The University of Utah)

Utah’s Wasatch Front
(Credit: The University of Utah)

Soon the Envision Utah model of public participation was being used by other agencies in Utah. Other parts of the country started taking notice. Envision Utah’s President and CEO, Robert J. Grow, began touring the country, helping spread this model to planning groups such as Baltimore 2030 and the Southern California Transportation and Land-Use Coalition.

Mr. Fayles described Envision Utah’s model of public participation as “democracy in action.”

“We’re facilitating conversations among regular citizens, elected officials, developers, environmentalists and others,” he said. “Everyone is invited to sit at the table and share their opinions.”

Below Mr. Fayles explains more about how Envision Utah started, what it has become, and where it is headed.

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The planning and public participation process used by Envision Utah has set the standard for long-range regional planning across the country. Why do you think that is?
Envision Utah has dramatically transformed the culture of regional planning both in the formal mechanisms of project review criteria and process approach.  Local governments are collaborating as never before, recognizing the regional impacts of their individual decisions.  People are concerned how growth will affect their lives and feel powerless to do anything about it.  Envision Utah gives voice for the opportunity to share their ideas and understand the complexities of community form.  Envision Utah gives them hope that we can accommodate growth without sacrificing quality of life.

Envision Utah’s efforts began in 1997 with an unprecedented public process involving 175 public meetings, extensive media coverage and public education, distribution of 600,000 questionnaires, 70,000 work-hours dedicated to technical modeling, and scores of meetings with key decision-makers to help chart the course for future development. Twenty thousand Utahns completed the questionnaire.

The effort resulted in the Quality Growth Strategy (QGS), which is reflected in most local ordinances and is guiding land-use and transportation decisions along the Wasatch Front.  The Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget determined that over 20 years the QGS would save $4.5 billion in infrastructure costs, result in 171 fewer square miles of land being developed, and reduce air pollution and water use.

Credit: Natural Resources Defense Council

Credit: Natural Resources Defense Council

The Envision Utah process gained national and international attention for its innovative use of scenarios planning and values research to enabled citizens to explore the impacts of a range of choices on future quality of life as they work toward a shared vision for the future.

Previous to Envision Utah, scenarios planning was common to military operations, but the organization’s application to regional visioning and planning processes has proved highly successful in the state and beyond. Scenarios planning has enabled citizens to see the impacts of today’s choices on the future and, as a result, shifted public opinion in ways not otherwise possible.

How is the Envision Utah process different from the ways long-range regional planning has historically been done?
Traditionally in local planning efforts, cities decide what they want to do through analysis and research, educate the public about their proposed “solution,” announce their plan, and then defend it.  On the other hand, through the scenario analysis process, residents are educated early on about growth challenges and possible solutions, have opportunities to evaluate and contribute to possible solutions, and are more likely to support the final product because of their involvement.

In each local visioning efforts, Envision Utah has a steering committee of diverse leaders from the public and private sectors as well as those (municipal staff and elected officials) who are likely to implement the final product.  This committee ensures transparency, helps identify other community leaders who should be involved, and helps to publicize the process.

Envision Utah realized that politically actionable plans dealing with growth best come from direct citizen input, and that in a state where citizens are often suspicious of government programs and initiatives, change would have to come from the bottom up.  Hence, Envision Utah focuses on the use of scenarios to discover how residents want to manage their growth issues.  Values analysis strengthens our marketing efforts as well as the creation of growth principles that resonate with residents.

A visioning plan built upon the personal values of residents removes much of the personality and politics and provides critical legitimacy to the direction and priorities of the vision.  It’s not about doing what this person or that group wants; it’s about doing what the people value most.

By catalyzing state and local government collaboration with community and business leaders, and by then creating opportunities for local residents to play a major role in making decisions about a community’s future, Envision Utah-facilitated efforts to respond to the public’s desires.

Extensive public participation was done to create the future vision for Utah.  Why was having so many opportunities for the public to participate important?
I think the first reason is we wanted to hear from as many residents as possible.  Envision Utah was not creating the vision to manage growth; the people were.  We facilitated the conversations.  We worked with our partners to provide technically-sound information. It sounds simple, but we believe that when people are given good information, they will make good decisions.

I think there was some early skepticism that somehow Envision Utah was a Trojan horse for state planning.  In the early 1970s, for example, the Utah Legislature passed land-use planning legislation similar to Oregon’s (a more top-down model).  A coalition later pressured the legislature to overturn this legislation.  So not only did we have to give the appearance of being a grassroots effort, we sincerely believed in the collective wisdom of residents and wanted to hear from them.  I’m not an expert on planning issues, but I have great confidence in the Envision Utah model of involving citizens and learning from them.

Participant's at an Envision Utah workshop(Credit: Envision Utah)

Participant’s at an Envision Utah workshop
(Credit: Envision Utah)

How was public input gathered?  What tools, methods and strategies were used and which were the most effective?
I’ve been with Envision Utah for more than 11 years.  A key part of gathering public input is having a strong and diverse steering committee of local leaders.  They often will have suggestions on the best way to reach residents.  The steering committee should be a huge resource.  Depending on the size of the budget for a process, we could run TV spots or radio public service announcements and newspaper advertisements.  We would also draft fliers and letters for our stakeholders to distribute with their peers and organizations.  Sometimes, we’ve worked with school districts and are able to have students take home workshop fliers.  On one recent project, we literally walked around the geographic district and surveyed people on the street, in businesses and even a homeless shelter.

A scenarios feedback survey form used by Envision Utah to create alternative growth scenarios for the Envision Cache Valley regional planning effort. (Credit: Envision Utah)

A scenarios feedback survey form used by Envision Utah to create alternative growth scenarios for the Envision Cache Valley regional planning effort.
(Credit: Envision Utah)

Keep in mind, too, that when we conduct mapping exercises we ask people to problem solve, not philosophize, and how they use paper chips, markers and colored tape are very valuable input.  In Washington County, the beautiful red rock southern area of Utah, for example, we had 115 maps to analyze from the public workshops.

Credit: Imagine Greater Tucson

Tools such as markers and paper chips used in land use planning public workshops.
(Credit: Imagine Greater Tucson)

When we facilitated conversations regarding the Wasatch Canyons east of Salt Lake City, one of our partners, the State of Utah, allowed us to invite state employees to participate in an on-line survey.  As a result, we likely reached a couple of thousand people that we otherwise may not have reached.  More than 16,000 Utahns participated in that effort, for example.

I recall one effort where some of the local political leaders felt “the environmentalists have taken over the public workshops.”  We then had an independent poll commissioned.  Although the people in the workshops received more information than those who participated in the poll, the independent poll confirmed the workshop results.  The political leaders understood that the workshop results reflected the values and goals of their community and they became stronger advocates of the process as a result.

In many of our earlier public processes, we would have a letter from the mayor or county commissioner go to residents and invite them to the workshops.  These were very effective, especially if the salutation was personalized – “Dear Betty,” and not “Dear Resident.”  This reminds me that it is important to not only develop the right message but to identify who is the right messenger.  Who is respected by residents?  It may be a current business leader or political leader or it may be someone who is retired.

Many stakeholders were involved in the Envision Utah planning process, including elected officials and civic leaders.  What, if any, were the challenges of working with so many influential people to achieve and implement a common vision?  How were these challenges overcome?
Before Envision Utah could work to help preserve Utah’s high quality of life for future generations, it had to define what residents valued about living in the state.  One of the biggest challenges in regional planning is developing and then building consensus around a regional vision and plan.  Competing personalities, agendas and politics quickly begin to erode direction and momentum.  A regional plan that is built upon the personal values of the people living in the region removes much of the personality and politics and provides critical legitimacy to the direction and priorities of the vision.  It’s not about doing what this person or that group wants; it’s about doing what the people value most.

In 1997, Envision Utah hired Wirthlin Worldwide to identify shared, core values Utahns associated with quality of life and growth issues.  Wirthlin Worldwide had previously used their methodology for product placement, never public policy issues.

By understanding what Utahns cared about most, we were able to find areas of commonality among citizens.  This built the support for implementation.  Wirthlin conducted a series of in-depth interviews to find out what residents valued about living in Utah.  Careful survey work validated this research.

Arches National Park, Utah(Credit: My Travel Backpack)

Arches National Park, Utah
(Credit: My Travel Backpack)

The central premise of the Wirthlin communications strategy is that one persuades by reason and motivates by emotion, tapping into the emotional component of personal values.  A communication strategy, then, should provide the rational “reason why” but also create a link to personal values and emotions, which are ultimately what motivates people.

Envision Utah applied information learned in values research in advertising, marketing, presentations, and strategies.  It has influenced our communications with the public in many different formats.

The Wirthlin research also validated Envision Utah’s underlying philosophy that the public should determine its own future.  When asked, “Who can best deal with growth issues in Utah?,” forty-two percent said “residents like you and me.”  Only 20 percent answered “state government,” 18 percent said “local government,” and 14 percent preferred “business as usual.”

By catalyzing state and local government collaboration with community and business leaders, and by then creating opportunities for local residents to play a major role in making decisions about Utah’s future, Envision Utah fulfilled its goal and responded to the public’s desires.

A basic assumption of Envision Utah is that when people receive good information, they make good decisions.  By focusing on the shared, core values of residents, our scenarios and visions were relevant and our messages have resonated and endured for many years.  We have been successful in our activities because we seek to educate by reason and persuade by emotion; both are needed. Values are the central guideposts for human decision-making. Values research was key to bringing Utahns with divergent perspectives to common ground.

– – –
We’ll hear more from Mr. Fayles later this week as he talks about Envision Utah’s Quality Growth Strategy and the influence the organization has had on regional planning and public participation efforts across the country.

The Collaborative Services Blog Team

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The Pedestrianization of Balboa Park: The story of the 66 design changes made through listening

A famous person said the opposite of love isn’t hate but indifference. If many Americans are fed up with all the anger-filled public discourse these days, there’s at least one benefit to remember: We have proof that people care, that the stakes really do matter.

And nothing can spawn a boisterous debate quite like the proposed redesign of a beloved public space. People have a deep sense of personal ownership about places like these – historic buildings, neighborhood blocks, iconic parks – even though these places are shared and belong to the public. These are places we know, even take for granted, and we think of them as “ours.” And when talk turns to changing these special places, we all have different aesthetic tastes and different priorities to balance. We want our ideas be acknowledged and respected.

The people in charge of rebuilding Lower Manhattan after 9/11, for instance, had to navigate a delicate maze of raw emotions and conflicting opinions about the proper way to memorialize the victims of that tragedy and re-imagine New York’s iconic skyline. There are elements of that public debate that remain unresolved to this day.

Credit. The Weather Channel

Credit. The Weather Channel

Here in San Diego, there has been much heated discussion involving what’s known as the Plaza de Panama redesign project. The Plaza de Panama is situated in the heart of one of San Diego’s crown jewels, Balboa Park, which any local citizen will tell you is the nation’s most beautiful park. Cars and parking are currently allowed in the Plaza de Panama. The redesign proposes reserving the plaza exclusively for pedestrians.

Credit: DesignCollab

The Plaza de Panama at Balboa Park, San Diego, CA
(Credit: DesignCollab)

After literally years of discussion and hundreds of public meetings, San Diegans seem to have reached something resembling a consensus, an extraordinary accomplishment given there are probably as many different opinions as there are thorns in the park’s famous rose garden.

The road to achieving consensus is not an easy one and rightfully so. When people feel strongly about something they need to be given adequate time to process and consider all options on the table and determine the degree of consensus that they are most comfortable with. Consensus can be measured in different ways. In community engagement activities, there are at least six levels used to measure consensus to encourage finding agreement where agreement can be found.
From a personal point of view, these levels are:

  • I strongly support this decision and will speak in favor of it
  • I support this decision
  • This decision is okay
  • I am not completely comfortable with this decision, but I can live with it
  • I dislike this decision, but defer to the wisdom of the group
  • I absolutely do not support this decision and will speak against it

So is “consensus” possible? It is, especially when ranges of support are defined. It’s not all or nothing, actually its everything in between. Consensus does not sit on one  side of a bright line. Instead, it is a range of support and that range allows more people to participate and identify where their agreement is or is not.

So how was consensus achieved for Balboa Park’s Plaza de Panama? In part, by making sure every voice was heard. Gordon Kovtun of KCM Group, the firm managing the project, counts a total of 66 design changes that resulted directly from public input. Today, we hear from Kovtun as he explains the painstaking evolution of a project that is now within months of a groundbreaking.

– – –
What role have you played in the Plaza de Panama project?
I am the principal of KCM Group, a construction management and consulting services firm in San Diego. KCM Group was selected by Dr. Irwin Jacobs and the Plaza de Panama Committee to manage the Plaza de Panama project from concept through construction.

As the program manager, I was responsible for putting together the team that designed and engineered the project; led the public outreach process; developed the planning documents, Environmental Impact Report and associated studies and analyses; brought the project to the various advisory groups and the City Council for approval; and now will oversee the construction, landscaping and related park improvements through the last detail.

Our team included the urban planning and landscape architecture firm Civitas, Inc; the historical preservation firm Heritage Architecture; Rick Engineering; MJE Marketing; Estrada Land Planning and many others. And throughout this process we worked closely with the city’s Director of Special Projects, Gerry Braun, and the office of Mayor Jerry Sanders, in what was truly a public-private partnership.

How many different proposals have been floated over the years? When did the current one begin to gain traction? And why, after all these years, was there finally a consensus that these changes needed to happen?
Over the last four decades, there were dozens of proposals to address the traffic and circulation challenges of Balboa Park, though few were ever advanced beyond a color drawing, a general description or, more recently, a PowerPoint presentation. Many of them received their first serious review in the 4000-page Environmental Impact Report for the Plaza de Panama Project, which analyzed 13 alternatives covering a range of approaches. Foremost among them was the 1992 Balboa Park Precise Plan, which allowed traffic to continue as it does today, taking the parking spaces but not the road out of the Plaza de Panama. This was a half-measure that excited few people; soon after it was adopted, it was put on a shelf to gather dust (like so many other plans).

The Plaza de Panama project gained instant traction because its introduction of the Centennial Bridge resolved age-old questions: How can you reclaim the plazas if you continue to let cars dominate and degrade them? And how do you get rid of the cars without closing down the Cabrillo Bridge, the park entry used by roughly 40 percent of vehicles?

This paradox was revealed by every traffic study done in Balboa Park. People wanted the plazas back, and they wanted the Cabrillo Bridge access to remain. The Centennial Bridge was an elegant way to achieve both of these community objectives, diverting the traffic after it crossed the Cabrillo Bridge but before it reached the plazas.

Cabrillo Bride, San Diego, CA(Credit: Balboa Park)

Cabrillo Bride, San Diego, CA
(Credit: Balboa Park)

I’d like to say that the simple genius of this approach was solely responsible for the consensus that emerged, but other factors were important.

First, the funding was not an issue. By and large, the project is a gift — free and clear — to the citizens of San Diego. The Plaza de Panama Committee was offering private funding and asking that the City contribute nothing more than its own staff time and permitting costs plus the proceeds of a lease revenue bond that would be repaid by parking garage users. (Some previous proposals had generated a lot of excitement by promising hundreds of millions of dollars in park improvements. But as they were developed without funding plans, these were little more than theoretical studies.)

Second, our team had an extraordinary understanding of Balboa Park. Mark Johnson of Civitas, David Marshall of Heritage Architecture and Vicki Estrada of Estrada Land Planning had been involved in nearly every planning effort in the park for decades. And KCM Group augmented that experience by commissioning rigorous studies of the park’s traffic, parking and circulation. This in-house expertise was invaluable in dealing with the hundred nuances of Balboa Park.

Third, the adverse effects of continuing to run two lanes of traffic through the park core had become progressively worse in recent years and painfully obvious to everyone. The lurching, stop-and-go traffic in the plazas, the gridlock and backups over the Cabrillo Bridge, and the increasingly risky interactions between cars and pedestrians were an obvious detraction to the visitor experience. We took time-lapse videos — showing the traffic congestion and close calls with pedestrians — that would have been humorous had they not been taken in the heart of one of America’s greatest parks. And the inadequacy of the trolley service inside the park — too few seats, too few trips, no access for the disabled, difficult boarding for the elderly and families with strollers — was all the more apparent because of this dysfunction. In short, people were fed up with the status quo, and as they stepped forward to say so, they asked to be on the supporter list, which eventually numbered more than 2,500 people.

Fourth, the people who knew the park best — its institutions, its regular users and two of its greatest historians — recognized the importance of this opportunity. Their endorsements carried a lot of weight, and as the planning advanced and they better understood the project’s positive impacts on the park experience, they became increasingly enthusiastic. At every public meeting, we could count on solid participation from park leaders. As an aside, one of their chief concerns was that this effort, like so many before it, would be bogged down by the Balboa Park naysayers who believe they have veto power over anything that happens there. Once it became clear that Mayor Sanders and Dr. Jacobs were not going to be intimidated by these individuals, our support from park institutions reached critical mass.

Any time you propose a major design change to a civic jewel like Balboa Park, people are going to have very strong opinions. How were you able to strike a balance between respecting everyone’s opinions and advocating for your particular proposal?
The key was recognizing that most people who hold strong opinions about Balboa Park do so out of love for the park. Not all of them were our allies at first, but we viewed them as future allies. Indeed, many turned out to be our strongest supporters once they processed for themselves the challenges the park faced and the merits of the project. We began a dialogue with each of them, listened carefully and responded to their concerns.

The fact that we were willing to listen to new ideas and incorporate them into the project was a huge factor in our success. We did not advocate for the proposal so much as we advocated for a balanced solution to the park’s problems — one that would serve the interests and values of all park users. Anyone who wanted to strike that balance was a natural ally.

Credit: San Diego Reader

Credit: San Diego Reader

People often started out thinking that everyone used the park like they did. Only as they became better acquainted with how the park was used by their neighbors — by young families, or the elderly, or the disabled, or bicyclists, or tourists, or nearby residents — could they recognize how  important it was to not let one group’s vision preclude others. In the end, we believe our project improves the lot of everyone, even the historic preservation community whose leaders remain skeptical. They will now be able to enjoy the park plazas and architecture as they were enjoyed in 1915, and the pedestrianization of the park core will certainly lead to renewed interest in restoration and preservation. Although I will say that those who insist on being able to drive through the historically pedestrian plazas will be disappointed.

To what extent did you solicit public input during the planning and design process?
City policy spells out a rather extensive public-input process for Balboa Park. The Plaza de Panama team did that times 10. We conducted more than 200 meetings to solicit public feedback and usually met with stakeholder groups several times. For 18 consecutive months, we made presentations to, or conducted workshops with, the Balboa Park Committee, which is the land-use advisory group for the park. We also hosted monthly walking tours in Balboa Park, including one in Spanish, and met repeatedly with surrounding community groups, park institutions and park users. Our project team kept journals of every suggestion that came out of these meetings and workshops. This ongoing dialogue helped to generate ideas that improved the project and it also won us many supporters. As a general rule, the more people knew about the project, the more they liked it.

Did public input change any of the planning or design for the project?
Absolutely. We counted 66 changes that resulted from public input, including a major redesign of one of the project’s signature elements, the two-acre park on top of the underground parking garage.

The first public meeting the team held, incidentally, was with leaders of San Diego’s disabled community. Every one of their suggestions to make the project elements more accessible was incorporated into our design, and we were especially proud of the strong support we received from that segment of our citizenry.

Does any public hearing or meeting stand out in your mind as the single most contentious? Describe what happened and how it was resolved.
In May 2012, the Planning Commission held an informational workshop on the project, one month before it was to come before them as an action item. The project opponents showed up in strength, about 50 in all, and by varying degrees, characterized the project as unnecessary, unworkable and unimaginable. Alternatives were presented and numerous concerns were raised. As the session ended, the commissioners addressed the chasm between the project we presented and the opposition’s claims by asking us to provide additional information. They had a lot of questions they wanted answered, tables of information they wanted compiled, photographs they wanted to study — and all of it needed to be done in advance of the next meeting.

Credit: City of San Diego

Credit: City of San Diego

This list of tasks was daunting at first. Then we realized that this development played into our strengths: fact and analysis. So our team compiled a comprehensive Project Summary that answered every question from the commission and rebutted every (reasonable) criticism of the project. It was a majestic document — we had requests for copies from throughout the city — and it was distributed not only to the planning commissioners but the City Council members who would vote on the project in July.

When the Planning Commission met again in June, its members had all read the Project Summary and were armed for a high-level discussion. An entirely different meeting then took place, one in which the commission and our team discussed every aspect of the project in great detail, and the commissioners’ comments demonstrated a keen understanding of the challenges that must be overcome to construct any improvements in Balboa Park. The meeting ended with the Planning Commissioners endorsing the project in a rare, unanimous vote. Coming on the heels of the Balboa Park Committee’s endorsement two months earlier, this vote confirmed once again that the more knowledgable people were, the more they liked the project. That 7-0 vote provided the momentum that carried us to an easy Council victory one month later.

Many local politicians and leaders voiced their support for or against the Plaza de Panama plan. How were you able to get these people to begin to see eye to eye and work towards a consensus?
We worked with many politicians and all they ever asked was that we address the fears and concerns of their constituents, and thoroughly consider every alternative. When they saw that we had done that effectively, and they saw how project support kept growing month by month, their reservations melted away. A perfect example was Council President Todd Gloria, whose district includes Balboa Park. He was initially wary of anything that might disrupt the fragile politics of the park, and he heard frequently from those who shared that view. But he also studied the public campaigns, pro and con, and saw for himself the extent of our outreach campaign. In time, he became one of the project’s biggest champions.

In July the City Council approved the Plaza de Panama plan for Balboa Park. What’s next?
Once we get past the lawsuit phase, we expect to begin the project in a matter of weeks. The first phase of work will begin in March with some utility relocations and other preparatory work, and the excavation for the underground parking garage will begin in April. Assuming no further delay tactics, the project will be complete in time for the opening ceremonies of EDGE2015, the Balboa Park Centennial Celebration, in December of 2014.

During construction, KCM Group will continue its dialogue with park users and the Balboa Park Committee to address concerns and reduce impacts. We will have construction information available at the Balboa Park Visitor Center and look forward to hearing from the public.

Credit: KCM Group

Credit: KCM Group

Moving forward, what opportunities will the public have to be involved?
There will be many opportunities for public involvement, including a groundbreaking ceremony and educational programs to explain what’s happening. Construction of this type — building a bridge, excavating for a parking garage, restoring historical features and installing new landscapes — has a natural attraction for students in particular, and KCM Group hopes to create educational opportunities during construction for school groups and park visitors. You can follow our progress and receive e-mail updates on our website,, and follow us on Twitter at @Plaza_de_Panama.

But the most exciting public opportunities will come when the project is complete and San Diegans can enjoy the acres of new parkland, plazas and gardens, and most importantly a car-free experience in the Plaza de Panama, just as they did when it opened a century ago.

At KCM Group, we believe strongly that Balboa Park’s best years are ahead, and look forward to being a part of that exciting future.
– – –
Thank you Mr. Kovtun for sharing your experience and insights on such a publicized project with such an interesting history. We look forward to seeing how the project continues to unfold.

The Collaborative Services Blog Team

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Public Participation = No Carmegeddon

It had the all makings of a total disaster. Imagine: Closing a major Los Angeles freeway for a full weekend.

No wonder the media dubbed it “Carmageddon.”


Traffic on Interstate 405

But the work on the Interstate 405 in July of 2011 was critical for a widening project. So the word had to get out: Stay away! If the public did not heed that warning, a traffic jam of epic proportions was expected.

This month, the Collaborative Services’ blog is looking at a topic near and dear to our heart: public participation. It’s critical for the success of any project. Public involvement, after all, can help create all-important public support. It gives people a stake in the outcome. It gives them ownership.

As noted by the International Association for Public Participation, “Good public participation results in better decisions.” Good public participation enables people to have meaningful input — input that can actually make a difference. Public participation can take any number of forms, from active support to active opposition to everything in between. It can involve speaking at a public hearing, writing a letter to the newspaper, starting a Facebook campaign or standing on a street corner holding a sign. And sometimes – as in the case of LA’s Carmageddon – the best form of public participation involves simply tuning in and following instructions.

Carmageddon could have been a nightmare, obviously. The 405, after all, is one of the busiest freeways in the nation. The impacted 10-mile stretch carries a half-million passengers every weekend. But the California Department of Transportation, along with Los Angeles city and county officials and the city’s police department, staged a huge public outreach campaign.

Credit: ArcaMax Publishing

Credit: ArcaMax Publishing

Public participation was paramount. People simply had to avoid the area. The outreach campaign involved traditional media, of course, such as newspapers, radio and TV. But it also used social media in a rather unique fashion.  The Los Angeles Police Department asked celebrities to use their Twitter accounts and tweet warnings about the closure, for instance.

One example: – Ashton Kutcher (@aplusk) “LAPD askd me 2tweet: 405fwy btwn 10 & 101 will b closed July16-17. In xchange I would like a free pass on that stoplight tickt IT WAS YELLOW.”

According to this LA Times story,  more than 30 celebrities pitched in. Combined, they had more than 100 million followers. Not bad outreach, right?



The story of the upcoming closure had so many LA cultural features – it’s hard to imagine a freeway closure in Raleigh, North Carolina, attracting as much attention – that it went viral as well. Even late-night comedians couldn’t help but chime in:

“You won’t be able to go anywhere on the 405, as opposed to when it’s open and you can’t go anywhere on the 405,” Jay Leno quipped on “The Tonight Show.”

And the result? People avoided the area. The work was completed – early. Officials were delighted with the results.

Credit: KABC-TV Los Angeles, CA

Credit: KABC-TV Los Angeles, CA

They also got the same result this past year, when Carmageddon II took place, causing another closure of the 405.

Without public participation, who knows what might have happened during such impactful closures. It’s why we believe so mightily in the process. Indeed, public participation is a hallmark of our firm’s services.

This month we will look at other public-participation success stories and see how and why they were successful.

What kind of outreach was done? What methods were used? We will talk with a number of experts who will explain the ins and outs of this critical process.

Mike Stetz and Alex Roth,  Senior Writers
Collaborative Services, Inc.

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From Holidays Around the World to Public Participation Successes

We’re taking down the decorations. We’re zapping the holiday music from the iPad. For sure, we’re hiding the scale – at least until May.

In December, the Collaborative Services’ blog took a trip around the world – in the spirit of the Big Guy at the north pole – to see how holiday celebrations are observed by other cultures. Our nation is becoming more diverse. It’s enriching to learn how other citizens of the world live.

For instance, we learned that in Spain you gobble 12 grapes at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve.

Credit: Noble Pig

Credit: Noble Pig

We learned that, for refugees, holding on to holiday customs is vitally important to their well-being and in helping them make the transition to a strange new land. After all, they lost everything else. Holiday tradition is something that can’t be taken away.

Credit: Jenelle Eli/USCRI

Credit: Jenelle Eli/USCRI

And, in my house, we learned that a puppy as a Christmas present really lights up a 7-year-old’s eyes. (We also bet that kind of reaction spans many cultures too!)

As always, we thank our contributors and have one more very special thank-you to add:

Robert Carr, a former State Department employee who shared with us his experiences celebrating winter holidays in the many foreign lands where he has lived.

As we enter the new year, we look forward to continuing this award-winning blog as a venue for exploring a host of fascinating topics that help us better understand the world we live in and assist us in learning how to communicate with each other.

Collaborative Services is first and foremost a public involvement firm that seeks to unite people and communities and give them a voice in their growth and development. Innovations are coming fast and furious and we see ourselves as the bridge between those seeking to implement them and the many different locales in which they will be placed.

Credit: Fregonese Associates

Credit: Fregonese Associates

This  month, we will explore a vital part of our mission: public participation. We will look at the importance of engaging citizens and community groups to make projects – no matter how complicated or controversial – realities. We will look at key strategies, such as communication plans and stakeholder outreach methods and the new technologies available that can enhance those efforts.

We’re excited about 2013 and invite you to continue to visit the blog and, like us, learn and enjoy.

Mike Stetz, Alex Roth and Liz Faris
Collaborative Services Blog Team

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When Home is Far Away at the Holidays

For many folks, the end of the holiday season tends to produce a mixture of sadness and relief.  We’ll miss family bonding, the great food, the good cheer. We won’t miss the daily bombardment of Christmas commercials and the inability to escape the chords of Auld Lang Syne.

If you’re an American who cringes at the excesses of holiday-season commercialism, however, you might be surprised to learn that other countries can be every bit as over-the-top as we are.

Bouche de Noel is a traditional French dessert at Christmas(Credit:

Bouche de Noel is a traditional French dessert at Christmas

Last month, we saw the holidays through the eyes of refugees new to our country. Today, we see the holidays from the reverse angle as Americans abroad in other places in the world.

Today we see the holidays through the eyes of Robert Carr, a U.S. citizen who has spent much of his life abroad. As a longtime State Department employee, he’s served in eight nations over his career, including some, such as Saudi Arabia, that don’t celebrate holidays such as Christmas. Unlike Mr. Carr, many Americans don’t travel abroad. Indeed, only 30 percent of us have passports.

Credit: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services

Credit: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services

Living abroad can bring a host of challenges. There are different languages, foods, cultural traditions, and a little bit of homesickness, no doubt. But there is also the excitement that comes with living in a land that is new to you and learning more about what the world has to offer.

Exciting, yes, but unfortunately it can be dangerous, too. As we learned earlier this year, State Department work can be deadly. An attack on the consulate in Libya left four dead, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.

Mr. Carr endured at least one close call in his time as a foreign service officer. His first assignment with the State Department was in the embassy in Baghdad, Iraq in 1966. This was before the rule of the Saddam Hussein. As he puts it, “There was a different thug in charge.”

He was doing interviews for U.S. visas at the time. “My tour came to an abrupt end at the time of the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war when the Iraqis broke relations with the U.S. and we had 48 hours to get out,” he said. “We drove in a convoy to Iran where we spent many weeks waiting for new assignments.”

Mr. Carr retired in 1992, but still has temporary assignments for the State Department, primarily doing visa interviews.  He now lives in Western North Carolina, near Asheville.

We welcome his thoughts on experiencing the holidays in many different lands over the years:
– – –

Serving in the State Department took you to many different nations over the years. Is there any particular winter holiday celebration that a nation observes that stands out from the others?
Other than the absence of any celebration in most Moslem countries, celebrations I have observed were not much different than here.  There was considerable commercialism in the European cities in which I have lived, and some differences in the type of decorations one sees, but nothing that a person raised in America would find radically different.  In Paris, I thought the decorations had a bit more style than one sees here, but this should not be a surprise.

Christmas decorations in Paris, France(Credit: Flickr user ~pauline sirks ~)

Christmas decorations in Paris, France
(Credit: Flickr user ~pauline sirks ~)

Which one was the most similar to what we celebrate here?
Most European countries have similar celebrations.  After all, we imported most of our Christmas traditions from there.  One sees trees, lights, Santas (or St. Nick), etc.  There are some local traditions that take place within individual families, but I didn’t observe any of these.

Which was the most different? And how so?
Again, in Moslem countries there is generally no celebration, and Christmas is pretty much like any other day.  There are some exceptions in countries like Egypt, where there are Christian populations, but their celebrations are much more subdued and largely confined to Christian neighborhoods.

Credit: Redlands Primary School

Christmas decorations in Egypt.
(Credit: Redlands Primary School)

Our nation puts so much emphasis on the holiday season. We celebrate it through movies, music, food, parties. How did it feel for you, as an American, to celebrate the holidays in a foreign land?
We celebrated Christmas in our families and within the foreign (mostly U.S.) community, and these celebrations were quite similar to celebrations here.  Of course, in every country one might not be able to get all the things one is accustomed to here, but often some group would make an effort to import things to make Christmas a bit more like home – frozen turkeys, for example.  When I lived in Kuwait in the 1970s, Christmas cards were hard to find.

Our culture, rightly or wrongly, is sometimes criticized for over-commercializing Christmas. Did the holiday season seem more authentic in other nations? Which ones?
No, commercialism is everywhere.  There are perhaps different styles of advertising and display, but anyone dropped in the middle of a shopping neighborhood in Paris or Brussels (the two cities where I lived in Europe) would immediately recognize that it was the Christmas season.

Oddly, in Saudi Arabia, the local merchants quickly figured out what Christmas was all about and had the shops and malls decorated for the season.  Eventually, however, the Saudi religious police put a stop to any show of Christmas decorations.

Credit: Open Places

Credit: Open Places

You also served in nations with the State Department that don’t celebrate December holidays. So what was it like on days like December 25th in Saudi Arabia? Just another day?
Just another day, although the Embassy was closed and we had the day off.  Only a worldly and well-traveled Saudi could have told you that it was Christmas Day.

Even though Americans like to think of ourselves as being worldly, the majority of U.S. citizens have never lived outside of the state in which they were born. How important do you think is to experience other cultures?
Well, obviously, I think that’s very important – otherwise we’d be even a more insular nation than we are now.  Most Americans have no idea how America is viewed from abroad, and many might be surprised that things about ourselves we take for granted are not viewed in a similar way from overseas.

So where’s the best place to celebrate the holidays? In an exotic, fascinating locale – the sort of place that James Bond finds himself? Or home, such as George Bailey, from “It’s a Wonderful Life?”
There’s no real way to answer that.  I have always liked the new and different, so being abroad at Christmas time was interesting to me, even though the differences were often subtle rather than dramatic.  Most folks, however, think being home for the holidays is all-important (more than a few movies have been made with this theme).

Credit: USA Today

It’s a Wonderful Life
(Credit: USA Today)

– – –
Thank you Mr. Carr for your time. We hope you had a wonderful holiday – no matter where you spent it!

Mike Stetz, Senior Writer
Collaborative Services, Inc.

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