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.