Tomorrow evening (Wed/30) the Planning Department will hold a “Community Discussion” of the Railyard Alternatives and I-280 Feasibility Study (RAB) at the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House. This is a re-do of the February 23 at the Potrero Hill Recreation Center, where an overflow crowd of more than 200 could not be fully accommodated.

The infrastructural changes under consideration, including a proposal to take down I-280 and re-route the former freeway traffic on a boulevard through the neighborhoods, are massive and controversial. What’s also controversial, but has received far less attention, is the Planning Department’s approach to public engagement.

Playing with strings: Is this how planners should solicit community input?
Playing with strings: Is this how planners should solicit community input?

Though the $1.7 million study has been underway for two years, the February 23 event was the first time the community had a chance to weigh in on the project—and the chance it had was paltry. That’s because the planners set up the meeting in a way that would dissipate the public’s authority and aggrandize their own. They chose the format I call Enhanced Science Fair: A ranking public official briefly introduces a complex topic and then directs members of the community to view poster boards arranged on easels or on the wall. A staffer assigned to each poster board chats with the small group huddled around the display.

On February 23, the program was introduced by Citywide Planning Director Gil Kelley, not to be confused with his boss, Planning Director John Rahaim. Kelley showed a PowerPoint (posted here under “Presentation”) and took questions from attendees. Some queries were quite specific. Kelley’s repeated advice that people should ask “the experts” standing by the poster boards in the back of the room or write their questions on a survey that staffers had distributed indicated that he had but a passing familiarity with the RAB. The crowd grew restive. The last neighbor who spoke said, “For you to invite us here and then refuse to answer our questions is insulting.”

Agreed. Communications Director Gina Simi tells me that on March 30 Kelley will give the same presentation, and the meeting will have the same open house format as last time, but that a panel with Kelley, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Director Ed Reiskin, RAB Planning staffer Susan Gygi and Mayor Lee’s Director of Transportation Policy Gillian Gillett will also take questions.

That’s encouraging—but only slightly: What’s missing from the panel are representatives of the affected neighborhoods and members of the public who have expertise about transit and land use, and—more to the point—who can offer well-informed criticism of the RAB. This way, only official supporters of the project are appearing as the sole authorities in the room; members of the public are cast as supplicants.


Science Fair is one of the techniques that city planners are using to mute the public’s say in public policy—all the while purporting to enhance civic engagement. It’s one that the San Francisco Planning Department has employed, sans panel, on other occasions—for example, at “open houses” dealing with the Central SoMa Plan. Nor is this practice peculiar to San Francisco’s planners; it’s also been used by their professional colleagues in my own city of Berkeley and by the staff of the regional planning agencies, the Association of Bay Area Governments and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, in connection with Plan Bay Area.

Last April I attended the Alameda County Spring Open House for Plan Bay Area 2040, held at the Alameda County Fairgrounds from 7pm to 9pm. Driving through rush hour traffic from my north Berkeley home took me an hour. (Public transportation would have taken even longer). The format was Basic Science Fair: there was no formal introduction, just a big room with poster boards displayed on tables that had been arranged in a circle. Each station addressed a major theme in regional land use planning, such as “Transportation System Effectiveness,” “Adequate Housing,” “Climate Change,” and “Economic Vitality.” Attendees could write their comments on a post-it, to be pinned to a poster board.

My favorite station, however, was the one that featured a map on a table, along with colored yarn and push pins in little buckets labeled “Live,” “Work,” and “Play.” People were invited to grab a piece of yarn and two push pins, and indicate familiar routes on the map.

These activities are suitable for the sandbox set, not the deliberations of a political democracy. They trivialize public discourse to the point of meaninglessness. There’s no way they can even begin to address the difficult issues raised by land use and transportation planning in the Bay Area. All they can yield is a laundry list of concerns, which, as the website linked above indicates, is exactly what they did. The February 23 RAB meeting had the same results (posted here under “Poster Board – comments collected at meeting”).

Now ABAG staff, working with Barbary Coast Consulting, have created new “engagement tools” that will provide “an interactive engaging experience for participants in the Spring/Summer 2016 Plan Bay Area workshops.” As described in the staff report for Item 11 in the agenda for the ABAG Administrative Committee’s March 28 retreat, one of the tools is

a simple online game designed for both smart phones and full computer screens that will allow participants to choose between the three scenarios and provide personalized input. The game will feature a description of Plan Bay Area 2040 and each scenario. Users will be able to click on one of the scenarios to express a preference and utilize a text box to share more detailed thoughts about one or all of the scenarios, as well as the Plan. The game will be available on laptops at the workshop and will be available online to gather continuous input that will help inform the development of the Plan.

As luck would have it, on March 28 a relevant and revealing post appeared on the website Planetizen, a great source of information on the planning profession in the U.S. Under the headline “Is Face to Face Community Engagement Dying Out?,” consultant Dave Biggs, chief engagement officer at MetroQuest Public Involvement, identified a major threat to firsthand civic participation: “angry groups disrupting public meetings.”

“When tensions are high, Biggs wrote, “public workshops can provide fertile grounds for disruptors,” for the following reasons:

  1. Since they are time consuming to attend, [public workshops] tend to attract the people who are most passionate (i.e., angry), increasing the likelihood of conflict;
  2. They are typically advertised well in advance, giving disruptors plenty of opportunity to organize;
  3. They provide grandstanding and mic grabbing opportunities for people seeking to influence others and steer the outcome; and
  4. Disruptors can intimidate others into not speaking their mind out of fear of backlash.

Biggs seems not to realize that timely public notice, conflict, organizing, and persuasion are all essential components of a vital democratic politics; or that disenfranchisement of the public can take many forms, including the one he proposes a solution for the problems he perceives, “pop-up engagement”:

Pop-up engagement is a style of engagement in which organizers simply pop-up a booth or table in a busy public location, perhaps in conjunction with another event, and offer simple and fun ways for people to learn about the project and have their say. Trailblazers like Candy Chang who pioneered the “Before I Die” public blackboards that invite people to fill in the blanks have led the way for others. She’s since gone on to “I wish this was” stickers that invite people to propose solutions for community development projects. Others like Projects for Public Spaces use simple stickers to invite people to weigh in on planning choices. There are limitless way to engage people quickly at these pop-up stations. There is typically project staff on hand to chat with people, project materials, fun activities for visitors to do, refreshments, and other inexpensive ways to slow people down and draw them in.


By now, this should sound familiar. It’s as if political discourse has been reduced to the equivalent of Twitter exchanges—with one crucial difference: It’s just the public that’s being subjected to these demeaning maneuvers. The power players aren’t wasting their time playing silly games; they’re meeting with the decision-makers and shaping public policy behind the scenes.

As transportation engineer, consultant, and activist Gerald Cauthen told me about the RAB project:

During at least the past two years there have been ongoing meetings with local agencies, affected transit properties, MTC, state and federal agencies, and San Francisco’s elected officials here, in Sacramento, and in Washington. The tried and true method of getting the political snowball rolling downhill before the opposition knows what’s going on is already well under way. Only the public has been left out of the discussions…until last Tuesday night [the February 23 meeting].

I trust that the dignitaries participating in these meetings were not asked to write their comments on post-its, mess with yarn and push pins, or play simple online games. Members of the public ought to demand equal treatment.






  • susangibbs

    Great points, Zelda. I was shocked at how citizens (broadly speaking, people attending a public meeting hoping for meaningful participation) were treated by the planners at the last meeting on this topic … and I was there to support the proposed changes, if they mean better transit and access to the recreation on the Bay. Thank you for your provocation and insights.

  • Andy M

    It’s really strange that the author can ask why the public is treated like children and then describe all the ways in which adults go to these meetings and behave like children; Mic grabbing, shouting, insulting the presenters, etc. Many of the attendees the author describes deserve a time out.

    It’s almost impossible for someone to go to these sessions and get their questions answered and it isn’t because of the reluctance of the presenters. A small group of attendees is always hellbent on derailing the presentation and usually do so successfully. To the extent that Planning’s tactics derail the derailers than most of the public will have a chance to become better informed.

    • ZeldaBronstein

      I did not describe a single way “in which adults go to these meetings and behave like children” You’re referring to consultant Biggs’ contemptible characterization of members of the public who resist manipulation by officials whose salaries they’re paying.

      • Andy M

        That was my description of your description. I’ve been to many Planning meetings and have been completely unable to hear from the presenters or members of the public because several serial malcontents do not want the meeting to be productive and have no problem being disrespectful.

        I don’t know if you realize how the broader public is intimidated and dissuaded from participating because these presentations are hijacked and cease to be productive or informative.

        • This sounds like a stark generalization based on a minority of malcontents. I’ve witnessed the opposite – individuals who care greatly about their neighborhoods with wisdom to share, drowned out by a minority of outsiders with an altogether different agenda than that of residents.

          • Bob

            The dreaded outsiders!

        • RR592

          Yeah, Andy, the public meetings I have attended have typically been dominated by a small group of loud-mouthed activists who dominate the proceedings. Biggs is right on – the kind of people who attend these meetings (often during the working day) are professional agitators who “work” full-time on trying to influence and distort the democratic process. Tommi Mecca is a perfect example, showing up for anything and everything, and always with the same rehearsed talking points.

          Reforming public comment has been made inevitable by the fact that these meetings have historically been hijacked by the usual suspects. The real key is to make the process both more civilized and to engage the silent majority who never show up but who have views often very different from the mob who vociferously attend each and every meeting.

          Zelda’s problem here is that the new improved method diminishes the voice of the activists and extremists, and elevates the voice of the rational moderate center.

          • Andy M

            You’re point about most meetings taking place during times when most working people cannot participate is a very good one.

  • Bob

    San Francisco has probably more public input into the planning process than any other large city in America. We literally spend YEARS going over specifics on single projects. Sometimes we take so long with this process, that planning extends the workshops because new people have come on board.
    And still people are unhappy with things, people constantly gripe about how planning is in the pockets of developers. If I was a developer in San Francisco and I had planning in my pocket, the first thing I would get rid of is this ridiculous, overwrought, sh*tshow of professional busybodies and malcontents. San Francisco cant move forward because its replaying the same story over and over again for each project.

    • Foginacan

      You realize that’s so the Planners benefit from a little known thing called overtime. Developers I’ve talked to regard it to the equivalent of a payoff.
      The whole NIMBY thing is a problem, but they often employ it as a smokescreen.

      • Marcotico

        Nice try. Planners are administrative staff, and thus salaried. There is no such thing as overtime for salaried staff.

        • Foginacan

          Are you unaware that city workers and civil servants can earn overtime? When these Planners hold weekend meet and greets do you think they’re volunteering?

          Developers pay fees. What do you think gets factored into those fees?

          • Marcotico

            I am a civil servant, I do not work for the city of San Francisco so I cannot say for sure, but I can tell you I do not know of any planners who earn overtime. I attend evening and weekend meetings because I care about my job, and like most salaried workers in America the 40hr work week disappeared with the invention of the laptop computer and the smart phone. I am often allowed to come to work late or leave early if I find myself spending a lot of hrs nights and weekends.

          • Foginacan

            Several developers I’ve talked in social settings tell the same story – hundreds of thousands go to Planning per year, through the duration of large scale projects. They all used the term “overtime”. for the consulting required to get through the hoops.

            Perhaps a journalist or blogger wants to look into it?

            But to clarify…. City workers aren’t working outside their shifts for free out of devotion. When they appear in evening hours, representing Planning, or show up to committee, or an on-site call, they are getting paid.

            Working a private sector job and not clocking in all the hours of your labor is not a comparison.

          • HZCrane

            You are correct, salaried SF city employees do not receive overtime. The MOUs are all on line.

          • jc
          • reedm

            Even the job you linked to is specifically listed as exempt–aka, no overtime pay.

          • jc

            Planners are not salaried. They need special permission to get paid 1.5x OT hours worked. In lieu of special permission Planners will get vacation at a rate of 1.5x hrs worked.

        • jc
  • Tamalpa2

    The article accurately captures the feeling and the mood of these meetings……where the Planning Dept asks the group of interested audience members (PhD engineers, social workers, teachers, execs, parents, etc who have taken their time to participate), to be satisfied playing with toys vs getting answers, having a dialogue. To add insult, the staffers at the ‘pop up’ tables are usually interns/folks who know about stickers and glitter but little about the details of a project.

    • Foginacan

      Absolutely, but have you looked at some of the Planners resumes? The ones hired in the last few years are shockingly unqualified, and not far off from their intern days…and they’re not just tasked with handling the public, they’re making decisions.

      • sebra leaves

        Yep. SFMTA is spending our tax dollars hiring PR groupies to insult us by treating us like children. They don’t answer our questions because they don’t know the answers and probably don’t understand the questions.

        • chasmader

          I have to agree. Look no further than the fiasco the MTA caused in Glenn Park with their misguided social engineering, “road diet”, in tandem with their botched bulb-out at the Glenn Park BART station (wrong intersection template used+ wrong buss measurements = buses couldn’t turn and the whole project had to ripped out and replaced with a crossing guard). Were this the private sector, the whole team would have been canned. In San Francisco, they are commended for their “hard work”.

        • HZCrane

          “PR Groupies” with planning graduate degrees from MIT? What a bunch of losers.

  • Foginacan

    Best post here in a long time. Nobody else has called Planning out on this and I think no matter where one sits on the polarizing issues, we all agree there must be more scrutiny at this time.

  • sebra leaves

    Once again Zelda has outdone herself. Her description of the insulting games agency staff try to pass off as public discourse is priceless. We know the people behind the patronizing attitudes masquerading as civil servants and they know us. The only thing that keeps them employed is the misguided attitude of some of our elected officials who believe that the public still supports or trusts those mouthpieces of limitless development. Have you ever met a planner who did not appreciate the project they were working on or had any qualms about demolishing an occupied establishment? To add insult to injury, these people are using our tax dollars to displace us. How dumb do they think we are?

  • chasmader

    Normally, I’m at the opposite end of the spectrum from Zelda, but she is spot on, with this article. Planning is worse than a joke; they are actually harmful to society, and not just a funny waste of time.

  • Elizabeth Creely

    Oh, my god, yes to this. This is the exact approach the SFMTA took at the rancorous meetings way back in 2010-11 to the proposed changes on Polk Street. It just made things worse.

    • dustinjamesfoster

      The changes on Polk Street made it worse, or did the outreach make it worse?

      When things are made “worse”, we need to ask two question- for whom? and how much?

      For instance, creating a protected bike lane may make the automobile experience worse for drivers, but makes it safer and more encouraging for cyclists and pedestrians (in certain cases). They have been found to impact businesses positively (or at the least, not negatively) as well. So the street may have been made worse for drivers, but better for cyclists and pedestrians and business. Therefore, we need to assess whether the changes made it better for the winners to a sufficient level to mitigate how much ‘worse’ it made it for drivers. If we’re saving lives of cyclists and pedestrians at the expense of between a few seconds and a few minutes for automobile drivers, I would emphatically state that we have made the street better.

      • Elizabeth Creely

        I was talking about what Zelda was talking about. I’m a bicyclist and in favor of the actual changes on Polk Street.

        • dustinjamesfoster

          Great, thanks for the clarification post-hot-air spill by me.

          • Elizabeth Creely

            Dustin, ce n’est rien. 🙂
            Once upon a time I wrote a cycling column for The Examiner, and covered a planning meeting, which featured lots of interactivity, of the kind that Zelda describes. And I remember it maddening the already sullen merchants. It was a weird atmosphere, to say the least.

    • I actually found the SFMTA’s approach to Polk Street useful, there was actual dialogue and information at the “science fair” event. Public meetings interrupted by thuggish yelling and Agenda 21 conpiracy nonsense were the real problem.

  • dustinjamesfoster

    I appreciate a lot of what the author says about the opacity of the process. However, I completely disagree with her protest against pop-up demonstrations and surveys. These are ways we can gauge the acceptance of new projects from a wider range of community members. it is apparent that not all folks have the means to attend a public meeting. By intercepting and informing folks of potential projects and upgrades, you create a more diverse format upon which to lead discussion.

    • ZeldaBronstein

      It’s true that not everyone can attend a public meeting. Pop-up engagement could be worthwhile, if, unlike the examples I cite, it made a serious effort to inform the public. In 2012 I helped lead a successful effort to defeat a measure that the Berkeley City Council placed on the November ballot that would have changed the zoning in West Berkeley to allow multi-block high rises–effectively destroying the city’s light industrial and artisanal economy. Our No on T group had a stand at the Saturday farmers market that included detailed maps, the text of the ballot measure, photos and drawings that showed how the proposed changes would affect the district. That’s what I mean by serious.

      • dustinjamesfoster

        Not too familiar with that specific issue, but it is apparent that it is important that this process is improved.

        Would you agree that planning may be understaffed in many cities to provide adequate outreach, long-range planning, development review, policymaking, providing Council with staffing reports, etc. and this may also impact many of the issues you discuss above? Further, what is your thought on the cumbersome Municipal Codes many of these Planners have to adhere to? Slightly off-topic- do you foresee reduction of parking minimums as a worthy improvement for cities in general?

        • ZeldaBronstein

          I’ve only been covering SF planning for two years, and I’m still figuring out how planning works in this city. One thing I want to look into is the relationship between the Planning Department and the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development. I know that the Planning Department’s enforcement branch is greatly understaffed. As for cumbersome Municipal Codes: it comes with the territory. Based on my research of how SF Planning handles the enforcement of the city’s zoning for light industry (Production, Distribution and Repair or PDR), I’d say that staff has mostly tried to circumvent the rules, not adhere to them. The Chronicle and the SF Biz Times have recently reported a change in this respect–something else I want to investigate.

          Reduction of parking minimums: different topic: devil is in the details. If it serves only to boost developer’s profits, I’m opposed. If it simply forces new residents’ cars onto city streets where there’s already little or no parking, that’s a problem. If it’s tied to new, genuinely affordable housing (and the question is always: affordable to whom?), I’m interested. What do you think?

          • chasmader

            Do you know if the Affordable HOusing fund developers pay into has ever been audited?

          • ZeldaBronstein

            I don’t.

          • chasmader

            I bet there’s a Pulitzer there, waiting for an expose.

          • Bob

            Why bury your thoughts in so many words.. What level of housing development do you support for San Francisco? I get that you hate any housing done by a developer (even though a greedy developer built the housing you currently occupy) – but what do you support – specifically…

          • Bob

            No response. I’m not surprised.

          • AlbertoRogers

            So you are opposed to environmentally sound good public policy if someone happens to make a buck? You would mandate that a developer pour thousands of tons of concrete to build unused, unneeded, structured parking, if not doing so meant his profit margin was a bit thicker?
            This folks, right here, is why human kind is doomed to extinction. We know we are poisoning our planet with carbon, and yet people like Zelda want more useless concrete poured for non-existent cars!!

  • Stephen Nestel

    Exactly. These planners are quite stupid to treat us like sheep. They are not a very imaginative bunch. They all use the latest buzzwords and techniques as if it were some sort of magic potion for the masses. We are educated and will not put up with this nonsense.

    • AlbertoRogers

      This guy. Here. Another white privileged professional NIMBY from Marin County. Keep the poor people out! Keep Marin white! (except for the concentration camp we built called Marin City so we could take all that valuable real estate in Sausalito from black ship workers). Anyone who listens to Marin people talk about urban planning are idiots

      • Stephen Nestel

        Hey Alberto, I see you are having fun trolling everyone. Check out this video. We are for respecting ALL neighborhoods. You really have no idea what is going on. The suburbs are not your enemy. It is the housing lobby and Wall street speculators.

        • AlbertoRogers

          Marin demographics and the politics that created them speak for themselves. Wealthy white haired white people, driving Priuses with Bernie Sanders bumper stickers, have successfully moved 100% of Marin’s African American population from nice waterfront real estate in Sausalito to a box canyon camp next to the freeway called Marin City. For generations you have refused to build any affordable housing so “the help” has to drive from Solano to tend to your heirloom tomato gardens and make your organic sushi burritos. Marin’s status as the whitest and wealthiest County in the country didn’t happen by accident. It happened by design and Stephen Nestel is one of the architects.

          • RR592

            “Marin’s status as the whitest and wealthiest County in the country . .”

            Ha. It’s 71.6% white and dropping: It will be minority white by 2060:


            The Castro district in SF is over 90% white. The entire State of Maine is 97% white. And three counties are 100% white:

            Tucker County, West Virginia (100% White, non-Latino)

            Robertson County, Kentucky (100% White, non-Latino)

            Hooker County, Nebraska (100% White, non-Latino)

            Your stated personal racial preferences would indicate you should criticize those locations more than relatively diverse Marin?

          • AlbertoRogers

            Marin is 80% white.
            California is 38% white.
            You think that happened by accident? Or by design?

          • RR592

            Part of the meaning of the word “diversity” is that the racial make-up of various cities, counties and states will vary. Some have a lot of whites, some a lot of blacks, some a lot of Latinos, some a lot of Asians, some a lot of American Indians.

            Mostly it is a historic and geographic accident. You’d expect more Asians on the west coast, more Latinos in the states bordering Mexico, more blacks in the south and the eastern cities, and more whites in central and northern states, and in rural and suburban areas.

            I’d expect Marin to have a higher percentage of whites because it lacks a major city and major industries.

            Beyond that there is a tendency for locations to attract and appeal more to some demographics than others. Marin being mostly white doesn’t bother me any more than ChinaTown being mostly Asian or Oakland having a lot of blacks.

          • SnapsMcKenzie

            Yep – it’s paradise. And we like it like that too. When you can afford to live here, you’ll be able to enjoy the quality of life we’ve created as well. Though somehow, I doubt that’ll be happening anytime soon.

            See how easy it is to remove the power from an endless complainer like Alberto? People who have very little and blame everyone else rather than try and improve their own situation end up like Alberto – raging on the comment boards against the suburbs. Fighting the battles of 75+ years ago, over and over and over.

          • AlbertoRogers

            You’ve built a nice big wall around Marin and have successfully kept out the poor and people of color. The people who wash your dishes, care for your children, mow your lawns. They all live in Solano County and dive 60-70 miles round trip each day in old beater cars to make sure you get your latte in the morning. But remember this. When you complain about global warming and nasty conservative climate deniers, you are actually worse than them. I don’t care if you drive a Tesla and have solar panels on your house. The fact that you refuse to allow any sort of economic diversity in your leafy, wealthy enclaves, means that YOU are more to blame for this crisis than just about anyone. Your carbon footprint is bigger than Bubba’s.

      • chasmader

        You make a very valid point. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that Mill Valley has been paying the penalty, rather than build it’s mandated share of affordable housing.

  • sfparkripoff

    Zelda. I want to hug you for writing this article. The “public engagement” of this project was at best, a half ass dog and pony show. Where was the engineering analysis, the traffic congestion figures, and the cost estimates?

    How can government planners do meaningful outreach to the public without presenting the facts and answering the public’s questions?

  • AlbertoRogers

    I put this through my headline translator machine and this is what came out; “When bloggers with delusions of grandeur think they know more than professionals because they once read an article about something”

    • HZCrane


  • Dan

    While this article does make some valid points about the types of activities that go on at public meetings, the staff (and from her article planning professionals as a whole) are responding to a real problem that people refer to in this comments section: which is that these public meetings are often not productive because they are disrupted by people who are opposed to the project. These people have already decided that they want to stop the project, and no amount of information would convince them to change their minds. Let me be clear: It’s OK that they’ve made up their minds, and it’s OK that they hate the project and think that the planners are ruining everything. They’re entitled to that.

    But the question that concerns us here is why are they attending the meeting?

    It’s not to get more information – they have enough to make up their minds, and new information won’t change their mind. They’re attending the meeting with the purpose of trying to get people on their side to stop the project, or to disrupt the process entirely.

    This is the part that is not OK. The City is holding a meeting to let people know about the details of a project that will affect them. Sometimes there are parts of the project that can be changed depending on what the the community says, sometimes the project cannot be changed. There are other people who at the meeting because they’ve just heard about the project and they want to get more information. Those are the people staff are trying to reach. The disrupters don’t care about this communication; they just are there to communicate their discontent and they want to stop the process. What would be fine is if the person gets up says they’re opposed for these reasons, and sit back down. Staff hears that person, loud and clear. It’s noted. So what should happen is that we move on. The problem is that there’s no motivation for people opposed to behave well. If the meeting flies off the rails because they create chaos, then they delivered a small setback to the project they hate.

    In an hour long meeting, someone holding the mic hostage for 6 minutes has just taken over 10% of the meeting. So staff keeps trying to find a way to make sure that people opposed have the chance to come out in opposition, but also to keep the meeting on track. This leads to this type of dumbed-down meetings the author complains about.

    Really what should happen is that people opposed should hold their own meetings, either independently or as part of a community group, to discuss all the reasons why they’re opposed, rally people against it, and get them to write their Supervisor or come in to City Hall to speak against the project. That’s all OK.

    The planning meetings are not there to be hijacked, they are there to let people know about the project. Now sure, people might feel like they have the right to disrupt a process that they don’t agree with (see: Oakland City Council meetings). And in breaking the process, they might stop some projects or get some of their views across. But in breaking the process, they also…break the process – causing staff to scrap the old meeting format and invent new meeting formats that limit disruptions so that they can at least have a shot at creating a two-way dialog between the City staff and the community. So the next time around instead of “we want to hear from you” you get “Let’s play a game.” Disruptive behavior at meetings leads to meetings where the public is treated like children. And around and around it goes.

    It’s up to each person how they engage – you can have a bad relationship with government, yell at them, and disrupt their meetings. Or you can engage with them, try to have a two-way dialog and maybe get through to them. I would encourage everyone to be respectful when engaging in public conversation. And if you’re opposed, even though it may be something that affects you personally in a very big way, I’d encourage you to work within the process to stop the project, by setting up your own meetings, having your own campaign, and not by hogging the mic for 10 minutes.

    • Foginacan

      It’s not just responsive, Planning arrives at the meetings with the patronizing materials already written up.

      The info on their websites is more marketing than informative… it’s not always accurate. It reminds me of how health care was sold, with an end justifies the means approach, and cartoon videos, that was misleading and difficult to stomach even for supporters.

      • RR592

        But these meetings are not a brain-storming session where the bureaucrats show up to listen to your great new ideas for projects and developments. Rather they have already provisionally approved an application and are now spreading information about it.

        I fear you may have a highly inflated idea of your ability to influence and change a project. The vast majority of projects that get to the “public input” stage will go ahead. At best some details may be refined. But the idea that a few dozen people can show up and stop a project that has probably already had thousands of man-hours put into it is naive.

        And not just planning meetings either. Transport issues are the same, as are housing issues and pretty much everything at the BofS. Watch a meeting there – hours are spent consumed with an endless of procession of “citizens” all saying their piece, and then the supervisors vote the way they would have done if there had been no commentary.

        I doubt that commissioners and supervisors have their mind changed much by public speakers. Even if 200 people speak against something and none for, they know that there are asymmetric factors at work – those who oppose a project generally feel more strongly and passionately than those who approve it, and are more likely to show up. But a silent majority may approve of it anyway.

        I think some participants have delusions of grandeur over how much their opinion really matters.

        • Foginacan

          Fair enough, and I’ve been disturbed to see drafts of approvals citing a vote, which were posted online *before* a commission vote, and actual hearing. You’re correct that this happens, but it’s still not legal procedure.

          Re: Planning and brain storming sessions – the problem is they’re omitting that process for some while using community input to block, or derail others.

          Look at how they handled the bonus density rezoning? People freaked because of how it was presented, and then they backtracked and lied about protected units being prohibited from inclusion. But they never changed their cartoons. Much of what they’re doing is out of their jurisdiction, and undercuts State controls. So it’s not a matter of letting the people play architect (though that too happens), it’s a matter of Planners playing architects, and lawyers, and dictating policy that’s never been approved or voted on, then enforcing it.

          • sebra leaves

            You bring up a good point. What we are dealing with here is a matter of administrative law versus legislative law. That will play a strong role in some of the bills and taxes we are being asked to pass soon. Who has, or should be jurisdiction to determine how taxes are collected and spent? Elected officials or appointees?

          • Foginacan

            How is this about taxes?

          • sebra leaves

            Prop AA is an attempt to pass a parcel tax on every property in a 9-county area. You will see it on your June ballot.

          • Foginacan

            Ah. Got it. Your reply was clear in retrospect.

            It’s just how Planning has operated in the last year or so.

        • sebra leaves

          If the public has no power, why did the Planning Commissioners and other city authorities respond to the massive number of public comments at neighborhood meetings, letters and statements opposing the Affordable Housing Bonus Program by killing it?
          You are right. It is often hard to effect change, but, it can be done. We proved it. Now it is time to take on the next big fight with the next big city agency that is out of control. I leave it up to your imagination to figure out which it will be.

  • hiker_sf

    I get it. San Francisco is a tough sell and there are always some nutcases who disrupt everything. Sadly, without proper facilitation, city officials miss out on the greatest body of knowledge, the greatest fountain of ideas: The residents of San Francisco. Shame on city officials for using these tactics.

    • Foginacan

      The flip side of that problem is taking too much consideration from neighborhood groups with ongoing agendas, and treating them as qualified, or in position to make decisions.

      • hiker_sf

        That’s why all community meetings should have professional facilitators.

        • Foginacan

          Okay, but that doesn’t help what goes on after the meetings, or with what’s learned at the meetings. Isn’t part of the issue that this isn’t a process, it’s a presentation that people are then reacting to?

          • hiker_sf

            There are a lot of processes that can be used for that too. Here’s one example:


          • MSS SF

            Hi – this is quite good from USAID.

            On a separate but related point, generally I think some folks in SF act as if we have (project level!) direct democracy instead of representative democracy. Everyone has a right to opine, go to the meetings, question, protest, etc etc. All of it. But I dont think it makes sense to think that every single project or action should or can have approval of every single person. Otherwise you end with a Frankenstein’s monster’s version of a hecklers veto. Which why I am also not a huge fan of these constant ballot measures on net (which like everything has pluses and minuses).

  • Y.

    Great article. It’s not news to many of us, but it’s nice to see it articulated so explicitly. I’d like to add that these meetings have also been presented to the public as a sort of long-term brainstorming, rather than a concrete idea that the city would actually like to put through, another attempt to distract the public from what’s going on.

    The ultimate idea of these particular projects, a cynic would say, is to use public money to convert public land to buildable land, and then sell it to developers at bargain prices, as has happened and is happening elsewhere all over the area. Of course, only a cynic would say that.

    A question to you, Zelda. Does the city actually have any requirements for public input? Are they putting together these feel-good shows for political optics, or for legal reasons? If the latter, are there any regulations as to what these public meetings should be like, or could they be diminished even more?

    • ZeldaBronstein

      Good question. I don’t know the entire answer. There’s always a space for public comment on the planning commission’s agendas. The California Environmental Quality Act has requirements for public notice. So does SB 375, which mandates the preparation of regional Sustainable Community Strategies such as Plan Bay Area. Even if the law does specify opportunities for public input, often those opportunities are puerile. Being able to address the planning commission for three minutes doesn’t mean much–unless you come with lot of fellow supporters and a political organization that has muscle. I suspect that when it comes to “studies” like the RAB, there are no formal requirements. I’m going to find out.

  • Tyro

    In fairness, the buildings and neighborhoods that current residents live in were created without their input and were the result of collaboration between developers and city planners before they got there.

    • Foginacan

      Not so much. City Planning didn’t play the same role when the majority of homes were built, including almost all of the rent control stock.

    • RR592

      A good point. The great cities of the world were not centrally planned by bureaucrats, approved by committees or designed by focus groups. They grew organically via enterprise and the drive and creativity of just a few leaders.

      Of course there are examples of cities that were designed from scratch by planners and bureaucrats sitting in committee rooms. Washington DC, Ottawa, Canberra, Brasilia, Berne, The Hague. But not many tourists visit them compared with Rome, Cairo, Marrakesh, Mumbai, Amsterdam and Venice.

  • Bloviator

    The purpose of these events is twofold: 1) to persuade the public into supporting the city’s plans through propaganda, and 2) to collect intelligence about public opinion to further refine the propaganda. Any pretense that citizens will have a chance to influence government by expressing their views is a charade. The Planning Dept. is going to do whatever its leaders want to do. These events are just intended to quiet dissent, frame the issues, and control the conversation. If someone is really opposed to the city’s plans, he or she has two options: 1) a ballot initiative, or 2) a lawsuit. Those are languages the city understands.

  • njudah

    I ‘ve been to many many meetings where a handful of opponents who don’t care about facts or listening or actually doing something for the community stomp around, scream, act like baboons throwing feces, and try to wring concessions for the sole purpose of defeating any change. But this article DOES fit a meme pushed out by the developers – that NIMBYs are progressive or something. I think that’s bullshit, but 48 Hills should get a medal from developers pushing that in the fall elections because they have helped the developer cause quite nicely!

  • AntiSlice

    What does Zelda want to see at these meetings? A dry presentation for all 4-5 parts of the project followed by orderly Q&A? Or the disorderly Q&A that’s often at these things? I’m really not sure what format was preferred.

    Regardless, I read all the materials from the 2/23 meeting, although I wasn’t in attendance. And it seems like they tried some creative approaches to engage everyone at the meeting. I do wish they had answered the questions with less “bureaucrat speak” — it’s ok to say that you don’t know yet because the research on that topic isn’t done.

    These kinds of activities help level the power imbalance created when the only way to participate is to speak publicly and/or loudly. More people could comment because they could do it in parallel and didn’t necessarily have to speak in front of a group. Stop getting cranky because something new happened and disrupted your usual power imbalance.

  • Ellen Burke

    While I agree that public engagement techniques can be used to obstruct input as much as they can be used to solicit genuine input, I find it unfortunate that the author equates creativity and art-making as the realm of children alone. This bias towards linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligences reflects the bias of our culture at large — only children or the naive draw, compose, sketch, or play, while ‘real’ thinking is done through statistics, charts, graphs, and debates. The recognition almost 30 years ago by Howard Gardner that in fact many people learn and think in ways that include spatial-visual expressions and bodily-kinesthetic modes is one of the reasons that planners increasingly use making as a means of public input. The dismissal that this is for the “sandbox set” not only denies creativity to the adult public at large, but shows an ignorance of what is happening in the meetings with “dignitaries” as suggested in the final paragraph. In fact any planners, architects, or landscape architects in those meetings most certainly would have been sketching, doodling, drawing, and employing other forms of making. These are the tools of designers, and can and should be used by the public in public meetings along with the statistics etc that privilege only a certain portion of meeting attendees. While the meeting in question may not have used making in a genuine or useful way, I suggest we not be so hasty to dismiss creativity and art as a legitimate part of city-making.

  • Donald Graves

    Was this article written to inform me about the proposed plan for 280 and how it will affect San Francisco or was it an article to teach me guerrilla meeting tactics?

  • eitman


    • eitman

      Oh wait, more of it is coming back…. I recall that several of us had design suggestions at the meeting, and the planners were like, “that’s great, but in the interest of time can you please vote on of these three plans? Once we’ve narrowed down to one design, we’ll hold another meeting about the specifics.”

      Sure enough, a few months later there was another meeting. The same suggestions were proffered and we were told, “Sorry, but the community overwhelmingly backed this design at the last meeting. It would be inappropriate to make changes since the current design is what everyone wants.”

  • Dan

    From an equity perspective, it’s critical that we reach out to residents in public space and online to achieve broad-based and diverse stakeholder engagement, but I also understand the need for more effective traditional forums like meetings. What methods would you like to see city agencies employ in public meetings – deliberative polling, participatory budgeting, roundtables, debates?

  • AlbertoRogers

    I’m not one to throw around the word “liar” with abandon. I always prefer to give folks the benefit of the doubt when they write or say something that is factually untrue. In this instance, the author has met my standard for using the word. Tim you are lying. You know that the American Economic Association (the national trade group for professional economists) has surveyed it membership on the issue of rent control and a whopping 93% of them agree that rent control reduces the quality and quantity of housing available in a given market. You KNOW this yet you blithely claim that “any economist worth his salt” …theres a typo in that paragraph BTW, it makes less sense than the rest of the article…presumably agrees with your perspective on rent control.
    You are lying to your readers.

  • I just saw this so am late to the dialog. It’s true that I think that public meetings are prone to hijacking and I believe it hurts the democracy of the process for many of those who have take the time to attend and feel intimidated into silence. I think additional strategies are needed as I said to “add to the toolbox” to give a voice to others in a less heated environment. I agree with many commentators that trained facilitators can make a big difference but chaos and intimidation can happen on anyone’s watch. I did also offer this at the end, “Best practices lead us to offer a diversity of engagement options for people. It’s important to hear from as diverse a population as possible—from your best supporters to those who are angry about the project.” I don’t recommend eliminating public meetings with fair notice but I do suggest that other options should be offered to give fair access to others who are not comfortable in the public meeting environment. I appreciate your efforts to add to this dialog and welcome all contributions. I especially appreciate the spirit of improving the democratic process in planning.

  • David Nelson

    In my interactions with planners, politicians, developers, neighbors, and other stakeholders, one thing has come through with crystalline clarity. Behavior differs by individual, organization, motivation, and culture. While there are valid points raised both in this article and in the comments, it is disappointing to see statements which paint planners (or anyone) with such a broad brush. To reiterate, good points are made, but there is most certainly some prejudice in play here. Why not reach a little higher in this discourse, and distinguish between specific situations and generalization. It’s the neighborly thing to do.

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