Get On The Wagon

by Tanya Zwahlen

Highland Planning had a great 2017. Our team gained two talented members – Sue and Christopher. We incorporated some new tools into our practice – Textizen, Metroquest, a few iPads, and a wagon that we don’t know how we lived without before. This fall, Sue trained with the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2). We worked with federal agencies, private developers, non-profit community development corporations, housing authorities, cities, villages, counties, universities, metropolitan planning authorities, water and sewer authorities, and transit agencies. Revenue grew by 45% over 2016. We were all a little worn out, but things slowed down for us in December.

The coming year looks equally promising. Andre is expecting his second child and Christopher is buying a house. We will be starting several projects in Rochester, Buffalo, and New York. On behalf of the Federal Transit Administration, Sue and I will travel to Miami, Tampa, New Hampshire, Lake Charles, Savannah and El Paso to train regional transportation planners and emergency responders on All Hazards Transportation Recovery Planning. We are holding a training at our office in February, and the American Planning Association accepted our proposal for a session about public engagement at the April 2018 National Conference in New Orleans.

Appeal to the Bottom Line

When Highland Planning began in 2007, I wasn’t sure anyone would buy what we sold. A decade later, I realize public engagement appeals to the bottom line of any project, plan or policy. Not only that, but ignoring stakeholders is no longer a risk worth taking. Everyday we are seeing uncivil discourse and mob mentality in the public arena. Instead of understanding each other’s differences, we are demonizing the other side and dismissing them for not agreeing with us. In my view, engagement processes that allow space for dialogue and debate are needed more than ever. Projects cost more in time, expense and political fallout when they bypass community input.


In 2018, I would like to incorporate three concepts into my practice. These might seem obvious, but they are sometimes forgotten.

  1. Acknowledge that change is hard. However, defending the status quo is not always the best solution and avoiding problems doesn’t make them go away.
  2. Expect differences of opinions. If you don’t have disagreements about the right next step, you might not have included enough people in the process.
  3. Seek to facilitate understanding through discourse. We achieve progress by talking through hard decisions. It takes longer, but the decisions are more likely to stand the test of time if they have been thoroughly discussed.

Happy New Year. Here is to avoiding stagnation, accepting difference, and listening until we understand.

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