As an urban planner, I have been exposed to ways that design of public space affects human behavior. This extends to community engagement: how we design our processes affects the amount to which the public is involved in decision-making. Often, it takes an absurd hypothetical to expose an abstract point like this. So, if you don’t mind indulging me….
Let us suppose for a moment that you were given an architect hat and told to design a building. There might be a couple of questions running through your mind, like: Why me? What type of building? Do architects even wear hats? (Is a black cardigan a hat?) Let’s say this building that you were responsible for was your city’s new City Hall, and your task was to design the city council chambers.
One twist: you were instructed to make it as intimidating as possible. But make it subtle.
To design this hypothetically intimidating chamber, you start by considering the council members first. Any good, undemocratic public space considers its rulers before its community members. So you ask: Where will they sit? What resources will they have? How will it be arranged? You come up with the idea to arrange them in a dramatic semicircle, elevated a few feet over the crowd to establish dominance, and give them executive leather chairs and fancy microphones to show who the boss is around here.
Unfortunately for you (remember that you’re still the malevolent architect here), the law usually requires that these City Council meetings have to be accessible to the public. Even worse, these community members are entitled to the opportunity to speak at these meetings. You have to put them somewhere. You come up with another brilliant idea: Make them walk up to a podium in the center of the room, at ground level, looking up at these council members. Give them only two minutes to speak. Make them get in line. If they make a mistake, too bad. These meetings also have to be scheduled at 6 pm on a Wednesday–right during Junior’s soccer practice.
Doesn’t this dystopian chamber look an awful like the ones that exist in real life?
In the real world, people who designed city council chambers never intended to make them intimidating. Instead, their priorities were credibility, uniformity, and efficiency. In other words: That’s what makes us seem important. That’s how all the other cities have done it. That’s what a normal city council chamber looks like. They executed those priorities perfectly but ended up with city council chambers that unintentionally turn away community members.
In an online space, nobody sits higher than anyone else. Nobody is taller, louder, or more aggressive. Nobody can see what type of chair you’re sitting in, the keyboard you’re typing with, or clothes you’re wearing. Nobody knows how old or young you are, what your background is, or what neighborhood you’re from.
Nobody is turned away due to scheduling constraints. Online community engagement is like your favorite greasy spoon: open 24 hours and no matter what time you show up the menu is the same.
Online engagement should never replace in-person public dialogue for the issues that affect your community members’ lives. But communication that is more open, accessible, and unprejudiced will always generate better discourse than communication that is not.