Dear journalists/community groups/alderman: please report the demographics of your public meetings. Thank you!

A while ago, the Metropolitan Planning Council held a series of public meetings to get input on how a big parking lot next to the Logan Square Blue Line station should be redeveloped. There were a lot of interesting things about these meetings – MPC has a pretty cool process, which I don’t understand well enough to expound upon, for showing participants the tradeoffs for various kinds of redevelopment – but I want to zero in on this:

Before leaving last week’s meeting, 90 residents participated in a short survey about the Logan Square train station and the adjacent parking lot…. The poll also revealed a demographic mismatch between people who came to the meeting and the overall population of Logan Square. Two-thirds of attendees were white, a larger share than the neighborhood as a whole, which is more than 45 percent Hispanic.

Now, one way to respond to this is to make whatever noises you make when you come across yet another example of white people’s disproportionate political power. (In case it needs to be said: yes, of course Latinos and other non-whites were allowed, even encouraged, to attend these meetings, but there are a million structural reasons – from work schedules to language barriers to the social networks through which news of these events moves to participatory confidence to whatever else – that white people, wealthier people, and so on, will almost always be overrepresented in these kinds of events.)

But as quickly as possible, we should transition to thanking MPC for a) caring enough about the issue of representation to actually measure how close they’re getting, and b) being open enough to actually release those numbers to the media. Those numbers partially have, of course, the effect of reducing the legitimacy of the results of meetings that MPC worked very hard on. But they also warn the media, the public, and elected officials that there is a gap, and that that gap should be taken into account in the final decision-making. In that way, MPC is actually moving closer to what I assume is their real goal, which is development that does reflect the actual preferences of the entire community, not just people who have the time and inclination to show up for three weeknight meetings about a parking lot.

The method they used to do this – a quick survey that includes demographic information – is both shockingly simple and shockingly effective at conveying crucial information that is absent from, I think, literally every other public meeting I have ever read about in my life. Every alderman and community group should adopt it immediately. And if they don’t, reporters should do a quick, rough count – age, gender, and race would all be pretty simple to get a sense of. And then they should include it in the ensuing articles. When there’s a public meeting at which actual policies are decided – what kind of housing will be allowed, what kind of businesses – who is it that’s making those decisions? Anyone reading an article about that policy process should get that information.

This does’t solve the problem entirely, of course. I think there are largely three problems of misrepresentation at these sorts of public meetings.

First, there’s the issue of demographics discussed here.

Second, there’s the problem of ideology, which in this context I’m just using to mean “how are you disposed to feel about the issue at hand.” Other people have written about this extensively, but it basically boils down to this: 90% of normal people feel only one of two ways about local development and transportation issues. (I suspect the dynamics around, say, schools, are different, though not necessarily more representative.) Either they hate it, or they don’t have very strong feelings one way or the other. Since a disproportionately high percentage of people who have strong feelings are going to be anti-whatever is under discussion, public meetings are going to skew very negative. I’ve heard from people who have worked in aldermanic offices that many elected officials build this into their expectations: if an audience breaks evenly, say, on a given topic, they assume that a solid majority of people in their district are in favor of it.

Finally, there’s the issue of geography, or a mismatch between the people who are affected by a decision and the people who are enfranchised to have a say in making the decision. In the housing context, which is obviously where I spend the most time thinking about this, that means that a decision to, say, shut down residential development in Lincoln Park – thus affecting the mobility options for people in the entire region – is made by the Lincoln Park alderman, who only cares about the opinions of the people who live in his or her ward. Many hundreds of thousands of people who might have a vested interest in the decision are legally disenfranchised from participating because they don’t live in the correct geographic unit.

Releasing demographic data from these meetings obviously only addresses the first of these. Still, that seems to be low-hanging fruit, and is certainly an improvement over pretending that the people who show up to these things are representative of “the community.” They’re not! And everyone involved in this process should follow MPC’s lead and stop pretending that they are.

9 thoughts on “Dear journalists/community groups/alderman: please report the demographics of your public meetings. Thank you!

  1. I worked briefly as a Research Assistant for MPC a while back — they deserve a lot of credit for going above and beyond in terms of minority outreach. Their willingness to make these numbers public (despite the possibility of them casting doubt on their findings) is indicative of a larger organizational effort to really engage underrepresented populations at all levels of their work.

    Great post, as usual.

    1. Yeah, I’ve been really impressed with how much effort they’ve put in – and, as you say, the fact that they publicly own up to not hitting their own goals just gives them more credibility. Thanks.

  2. Yeah, really good post. I think the numbers, in the long run, will give a pretty good feel to how a general community perceives things. It also creates a number target for groups to go for to show ‘hey, we really care about this one’.

  3. In reading your post, I was wondering how common it is for public agencies such as MPC to conduct actual surveys or original market research to get a clearer picture of majority sentiment; not just surveying those who attend meetings but going out and questioning residents at large a la polling used for political campaigns. It sounds like MPC is going far above and beyond the typical outreach efforts of local governments, but I can’t help thinking that actual polling would help reveal so much useful data about how the actual majority of people feel and thus well worth the considerable cost (at least for a select set of very important projects or area plans). Consistent neighborhood-wide polling results could even be used to weight the results of future meeting-only surveys, such that accurate estimations of public opinion on general pro- or anti-development questions could be created without going through the cost and effort of polling every single proposal.

    As an interesting aside, your observation Daniel that most people who show up to public meetings are predisposed to the NIMBY/anti- position reminded me of a Strong Towns podcast I re-listened to the other day between Chuck and Ian Rasmussen.

    It was Rasmussen’s contention that widespread anti-development sentiment was actually rare at the turn of the 20th century and at that time (before most of our current neighborhoods were built) most people were clamoring for almost any and all development that was proposed. Apparently the feeling was that any additional residents would only increase the chances of getting improved services and amenities in the neighborhood (e.g., “If more people live here, the city will have to finally build us a fire house and then maybe a clothing store will open up,” etc.) similar to how many newly arrived residents feel in gentrifying neighborhoods today. The default mood of the regular public meeting attendee began to change when neighborhoods were built out and most desired amenities were attained, such that any new residents brought only added congestion and other ills rather than benefits. The rest of their podcast centered on how to return to the previous era of widespread pro-development sentiment. From the Streetsblog post you linked, in this instance it sounds as if many people in the room were actually pro-development and saw it as a chance to attain something they wanted (affordable housing).

    1. Well, MPC isn’t a public agency – it’s a private nonprofit acting in this case as a kind of go-between, or maybe even consultant, for the government – although I don’t know if any money exchanged hands. I suspect not.

      But yeah, that’s a good question. I think it’s not super uncommon; I know, for example, that transit agencies periodically do this. At that point, though, I think you run into a different question, which is: suppose you know exactly what the public wants. What do you do? Do we have planning by referendum? If not, what principles do we use apart from majority rule? I think that’s a pretty tough thing to answer, and it’s not something I hear discussed a whole lot.

      That’s an interesting theory – have you read William Fischel’s history of zoning? It’s pretty short, and available as a PDF online. (Just google “Fischel history zoning,” and it should come up.) He has a somewhat different take – that what really happened was a) streetcars and cars allowed people to move away from their work, meaning they no longer thought more residents = more customers, and b) cars and trucks did away with what had previously been a quite effective exclusionary land use control, namely, the power to accept or reject the placement of new streetcar lines that would bring dense development.

      If you’re interested in this at all, I’d strongly recommend reading the whole thing. But I think, ultimately, you’re right: you’ll get people to support development if they believe it’s in their interests. That can be affordable housing, or a stronger customer base for local businesses, or whatever; but figuring out why that’s something that fits with what they already want – as opposed to trying to sell them on some vision of urban utopia they don’t already believe in – is key.

      1. My mistake about MPC. I am obviously not from Chicago, and I think I just assumed that MPC was the Chicago-are MPO (which is the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, or CMAP).

        I have not read Fischel’s book, but I certainly will. It sounds well worth the time and thank you for letting me know about it. Incidentally, Fischel’s take and the Strongtown take I mentioned are not necessarily mutually exclusive. As long as more residents equaled more customers and more amenities, it was rational to support development. Once the nexus between more residents and local benefits was lost for a number of reasons, it should surprise no one that, as you said, people will not support what they believe is not in their interests. (Another great researcher to look at about the origins of zoning is Emily Talen. You have done a lot of work about racially exclusive zoning policies, and reading her histories of early zoning regimes – in LA and Atlanta, for example – really brings home the point that zoning emerged almost entirely as a means to keep poor black and brown people out of wealthy white neighborhoods.)

        As far as public opinion is concerned, you are right that we wouldn’t necessarily even want to know with exact certainty everyone’s opinion on any specific proposal. But in our system, local politicians can often be heavily constrained by what they perceive to be public opinion (“We could never take away a traffic lane for transit because most people drive and would have a fit,: etc.). A more accurate grasp of public opinion could go a long way towards informing local government’s strategy for dealing with most issues.

        A local example from where I live in DC would be the whole fracas surrounding former schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. Some of her initiatives were very much needed, some not, but even many of the most important reforms she attempted were met with vehement opposition by many DCPS parents because they felt that she was simply going too far and had blatantly ignored their concerns. (One of the biggest sticking points was firing teachers.) Had she paid more attention to public opinion, she might still in schools chancellor today.

      2. Yeah, the MPO is CMAP. MPC has a long history of working very closely with public agencies on these sorts of issues, though.

        I will definitely put Emily Talen on my list. Thanks!

  4. “And if they don’t, reporters should do a quick, rough count – age, gender, and race would all be pretty simple to get a sense of. And then they should include it in the ensuing articles.”

    Reporters already do this and I don’t think it’s good that they continue. They are subject to their own biases of identifying individuals’ age, gender, and race, and suffer from their own faults in counting groups quickly. It will be made up – a “guesstimate”. I don’t think that’s something that should be promoted.

    The only count I feel confident doing myself and accepting from other reporters is a count of how many people showed up. The quick and easy way to do this is to count the sign-in sheet if you get a peek, or the number of rows and chairs in each row.

    MPC’s counting method, for those who couldn’t attend, was quite simple, quick, and effective. There was a device handed out to each attendee with labeled buttons that connect wirelessly to a laptop. The MPC staffer would ask a question and attendees would select a button corresponding to their answer. Within 45 seconds 90+ people had answered the question and software display the results as a chart on the big screen. It was impressive.

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