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Does Public Input Really Matter in City Projects?

Austin Parks and Recreation Department
A map of Onion Creek Metropolitan Park. The area takes up 555 acres of land in southeast Travis County.

Public input meetings are places where ideas float around, and where friends with similar interests reconnect.

At a meeting this week at Dove Springs' Mendes Middle School, you could see neighbors sharing input on what they'd like to see happen at Onion Creek Park.

Susan Willard, president of the Onion Creek Parks Neighborhood Alliance said she wants "[a] picnic area and barbeque grills." She even remembers a place from her childhood called Davey Crockett National Forest that has platforms and rope swings. "They could do something like that back in there," Willard says. "That’d be really cool! You know? Something that fits with nature."

Attendees looked at images of what Onion Creek Park, damaged in last year's Halloween floods, could potentially look like. Ideas ranged from very low key to a radical transformations, include cafes near sited along the creek banks.

Susan Benz is a project manager with Benz Resource Group, the consulting firm in charge of this project. She's an architect by trade and has experienced her share of public input meetings.

Benz says more often than not, projects reflect a degree of compromise between planners and communities. But some aspects are not negotiable; each project must meet certain feasibility standards. "That’s why you have these consultants who are really going to look at the land, they are going to look at the environment," Benz said. "They are going to be considering sun-light and rain-fall and all of those good things."

Once the data is in place, planners will be able to see which community ideas are feasible, and out of those, which are most compatible with the data collected. That’s how teams are able to arrive at a compromise.

But that’s not always the outcome. Sometimes community members leave public input meetings feeling bruised, defeated – even cheated.

That’s certainly how Sharon Mays felt after attending a meeting about the Walnut Creek Park and Trail. Mays lives in North Austin, where she's involved in a wide array of civic organizations. She says she'd never been disappointed with a public input meeting, until she attended the one on Walnut Creek Park.

Mays says "the city developed a solution in a bubble." There was some pushback from the community, and city officials respectfully listened. But the plan didn’t change.

"It was pretty much a done deal," says Mays "The community is going to get what the city came up with."

And there's more instances where community members feel like their voices fall on deaf ears. Take Austin’s future urban rail routes, for example. Many community members have voiced discontent with the plan the city has developed – but so far planners have resisted change.

Unsatisfying outcomes raise plenty of questions: What happened? Was it money? Was it politics?

Whatever the answers, City of Austin Community Engagement Consultant (and former KUT employee) Larry Schooler says the city has an obligation to come back and explain itself, “because we know if someone had the wherewithal to give us the input they probably felt pretty strongly about it. And so, if they don’t see their input reflected in the outcome they at least need to have some understanding as to why. And what might be done with [their input] down the road."

Schooler says coming back and explaining the choices is a new strategy the City of Austin is using to encourage people to continue participating in the process. For Onion Creek Park, the process will be long. Planning continues through 2015.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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