Go to Them and K.i.s.s.

by Tanya Zwahlen

I’m on my way back from the American Planning Association conference in New York right now. By Amtrak train. Which means I’ve got time to kill. Like seven hours.

I’ve never been to the national conference. It was amazing. Four days, 6,000 people, and more than 380 sessions. I saw current consultant partners, colleagues I haven’t seen in 10 years, and  met a lot of people.

I’ll share two quick stories…

Fearless Girls

The first few nights of the conference, I stayed with friends in Brooklyn. I went to four or five sessions and a reception on Saturday night at WSP. Early Sunday morning, I flew home to see my daughter’s dance recital. And then flew *back* to New York and arrived at the tail end of the Women in Planning reception at Cornell University’s Art, Architecture and Planning space on Broadway. I met a bunch of women and on the way out, took this goofy picture with my friend Beth and “Fearless Girl.”

Beth looks adorable and fearless. I look…. extremely tired from flying to Rochester, helping my daughter get dressed for her recital, watching the recital, packing my bag again, flying back to New York, and taking a car to the reception. Right after we took this photo, I went to sleep.

NYC DOT Street Ambassador Program

On Monday, I was at a session called “Participatory Planning in Health and Transportation” at 7:30AM. It was torture to get there on time, but I’m so glad I did.  Inbar Kishoni from New York City Department of Transportation (NYC DOT) told us about the Street Ambassadors program for her agency.

In 2015, NYC DOT acknowledged the reality that everyday people have no time to attend public meetings. So they decided to bring their outreach directly to New Yorkers. The Street Ambassador team is a multi-lingual group that set up mobile information stations in locations where DOT projects are being considered or have been implemented to collect ideas and input from the public. In 2016, Street Ambassadors had 32,000 interactions with people related to 82 projects. They did this over 328 individual deployments. This approach created the opportunity for the agency to receive input from actual street users. It also expanded the number of residents engaged.

My Aha Moment

I reflected on our experience with go-to-them strategies. They are effective and efficient. People are appreciative that you care to ask. And 90% of the time, they are responsive.  And while you’d think it would take a lot of time and effort, it doesn’t. We reach more people than we would with a survey, a public meeting, a focus group.

The take away for me was that the most effective engagement technique is to keep it simple stupid (k.i.s.s.). Go to them. Ten minutes is more than enough time to tell someone about a project and solicit their input.

​Here are some of the handouts and games that NYC DOT uses to engage people:

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