Last week was a whirlwind of activity for supporters of complete streets, open streets, parks, and transit in San José. Gil Peñalosa and his team from 8 80 Cities descended upon the Capital of Silicon Valley for a “San José Public Life Summit,” to meet with movers and shakers, skeptics, and undecided residents and impart upon them Gil’s infectious enthusiasm for all things people-centric.

For SVBC’s part, we were happy to be joined by experts in community outreach to help bolster our efforts to shape and support the City’s plan for a “Better Bikeways” network of protected bike lanes and calm bike boulevards in and around downtown. We started off the week at City Hall, where SVBC was invited to join an outreach training aimed at showing the Departments of Transportation and Parks, Recreation, and Neighborhood Services some untraditional techniques for engaging the community around projects. We all had a chuckle at the portrayals of typical public agency announcements (engineering jargon and a map, to be discussed at dinner time at a city office), as well as the non-existent or confrontational community participation that often ensures.

The alternative to the usual approach, we learned, is “unconventional engagement,” for which 8 80 Cities prescribes six rules:

  1. Take it to the streets: Catch people where they are, when they are there.
  2. Be inclusive: Design outreach methods that are accessible to representative groups of community members. This can mean materials are translated, meeting locations are easy to get to, and/or child care is provided.
  3. Play with a purpose: Make the engagements fun. Think of fun ways to get people talking and keep kids entertained so their parents can share their input.
  4. Value people’s time: Include reciprocity in your engagement. This can be in the moment – like a snack for them to munch on while they chat – or later, like a follow-up email that lets the person know if and how you incorporated their feedback.
  5. Create some buzz: This gets to the jargon-filled announcement flyers mentioned above. Take the time to promote your outreach event and make it seem fun! Think of how people announce parties, or companies announce new products.
  6. Take action: Do something that lets people know you heard them and are moving forward. Stage demonstration projects and email interested participants to let them know next steps.

With our new approach to outreach, we joined city staffers out in the community, armed with visually interesting posters, stickers, markers, and snacks! Our target: San Antonio Elementary, where we talked to parents about the City’s proposal to transform San Antonio street into a safer and more comfortable corridor for walkers and bikers. San Antonio is currently the primary bike route connecting the East Side to Downtown, but it only has bike lanes on the wider sections, and the sharrows on the western section leave much to be desired. We know that residents and people who drive along San Antonio were not well represented at a previous community meeting to discuss the project, so it was important to bring the project to the people!

We got a wealth of responses. People were intrigued that we were set up in their community (we started at the school and then, after student pick-up ended, moved in front of a taqueria and liquor store) and seemed grateful to have their thoughts solicited. We brought Spanish speakers with us to make sure language wasn’t a barrier to engagement. And we made the interaction easy – participants were asked to rank how safe they felt walking and biking on a scale of 1 to 5, and to place sticky dots under images of traffic calming solutions that they would like to see along the corridor. We heard plenty of comments that we at the Coalition liked (people want to bike more) and some that we didn’t (lowering the speed limit wasn’t a priority for some). But that’s the point of real engagement – gather a diversity of responses so that we can help design a good project and be prepared for blowback over things that we can’t change.

Thanks to 8 80 Cities, Gil Peñalosa, the City of San José, the Knight Foundation, California Walks, SPUR, Somos Mayfair, Exhibition District, Awesome Foundation, Generation2Generation, and AARP for helping to organize, host, promote, and fund this valuable week (not necessarily in that order). We’re looking forward to helping with better, broader engagement as we work to build a network of better bikeways in San José!