1. RFI Topic: Public Participation in the Planning Process

Recommendation: Draw upon best practices in the field of public land planning to establish an official JIA policy on public involvement in the process of planning for Jekyll Island’s future; implement this policy prior to the revision of the Master Plan

Engaging the public in park planning is the most fundamental and crucial component in successful park planning. Successful park planning is a process of envisioning the desired park future and laying out a plan to help realize that future. The desired park future is one that provides visitors their desired recreation and educational experiences and protects the integrity of park natural and cultural resources. Collaborating with the public in park planning requires involving representatives across the full spectrum of citizens in all steps of the planning process from design of the process to critique of management of the park once the plan is implemented. There are no secrets or undisclosed proceedings, written, verbal or otherwise.

The benefits of fully collaborative planning are many. Among them is the realization by members of the public that they have gained knowledge and expertise concerning their parks and how they function. Also, benefits are realized by the broader community of citizens by way of enhancement of their credibility and seeing pride in its accomplishments. The benefits to the managing park agency are gains in credibility, defusing of controversies, and opening doors to opportunities and resources very likely not to have been there had a closed process been employed.

Effective public participation spelled out in a number of published studies (especially transportation planning, e.g., Shively 2007) has these characteristics:

  • Use of a mixed-methods planning and design process

  • Employment of a local champion in the processes of visioning the future and organizing members of the public and stakeholders

  • Clear identification of the desired outcome of public participation and park planning

  • Emergence of political leadership working toward needed institutional change and addressing public opposition

  • Use of professional experts to supplement local knowledge

  • Employment of visualization techniques to educate participants so that there is a clearer vision for the future (Shively 2007).

There is no one approach for properly engaging the public and collaborating with them in park planning. Generally, however, the following are widely accepted as best practices:

1. Select a group of unpaid, neutral citizens and professional experts to collaborate with the park management agency in setting up an initial set of procedural steps for conduct of the park planning process and to work with the park management agency throughout the planning process.

2. Standard and professionally accepted park planning frameworks and best practices are a recommended starting point. Usually this framework needs only be refined to fit the specific park context and any special park purposes. If a planning consultant is employed, they should be intimately familiar with and in agreement with these best practices. No shortcuts should be permitted. Collaboration with the public is central to professional planning.

3. Conduct a random-selection public survey to identify a vision for the future of the park that is consistent with park establishment purposes. Survey procedures are well documented. A neutral surveying entity (e.g., a university human dimension research laboratory) should conduct the survey. Careful professional review of the survey process, survey instruments, analysis approach, approach for use of results and the reporting process is essential. This vision can and should be refined as planning proceeds and new information is gained.

4. Before further public participation processes begin, conduct two or more focus groups for the purpose of refining and clarifying the park vision and further public engagement processes. Members or member characteristics of the focus groups must be selected by a neutral entity who is viewed by the public, by park management, by stakeholders and by politicians as neutral (having no interests other than the welfare of citizens and the park). Focus groups must be conducted by neutral and disinterested facilitators.

5. Throughout the planning process, take steps to assure that everything is kept documented and that documentation is open and easily available. Updates on what has been accomplished, who has been involved, options being identified and documentation should be posted frequently. Social networking is recommended.

6. Conduct appropriate qualitative research to clarify and better understand survey, focus group, political feedback and any other information seeming to not fit the park future vision.

7. With the help of the unpaid panel of citizens and professional experts, monitor and refine planning and public participation processes and breadth of engagement.

8. Layout the full scope of park vision implementation options. Widely solicit public comment on these options. Actively use public comment and the unpaid panel to evaluate the options thus far identified and to identify their priority.

9. With the unpaid panel, describe the process for monitoring implementation and management of the park after the plan is approved and management toward the identified future is underway.

A Jekyll Island Authority official policy on engaging members of the public and collaborating with them in park planning should be established prior to revision of the Master Plan so that the public can fully participate in this important endeavor.

– By Dr. H. Ken Cordell, Senior Research Scientist, Athens, Georgia [kencordell@gmail.com]