First Theme Group Meetings Successful, But Need More Input

I would label last night’s meeting generally successful, but reflecting back on what I observed and participated in. Before I get into my reactions, a quick few notes on what actually happened. The meeting took place entirely in small groups. As noted above, I participated in the transportation group. The official title of the theme is:

Getting Around: Transportation: (transportation of all forms, regional assets, partnerships, potential for shared success)

All of the groups basically followed the same format, kicking off with an introduction by the group go-chairs and then moving into the meat of the discussion, which was supposed to touch on four different questions, all with a tilt toward the particular theme’s interest area.

  1. What does Chapel Hill look like today?
  2. Without any preconceived notions about what is or isn’t possible, what should it look like in the future?
  3. What needs to be changed, added or eliminated to get to that future? For the community overall?
  4. The data from the previous meetings provides some ideas for theme components—is everything captured? What potential areas of focus do you see for your theme?

Groups were also supposed to think about what kind of data and expertise would be needed for their decision-making and what other groups of people not present should be involved and how they could reach.

So that’s what happened, here are my thoughts. Looking first at who was there, my group had 12 people (including me) present for all or most of the time. Over the course of the hour, two or three came, gave their opinion and left (presumably for another group). These numbers aren’t bad, but assuming that were an average of 20 people in each group (a very high estimate) that means only 100 people attended overall. Compared to the 400 who attended the first meeting, that number is pretty dismal.

My group wasn’t terribly diverse either. Of the 12, three were women and two were members of minority group. There were no African-Americans present and I was one of the two people under the age of 35. I was the only student. That being said, our group included two great perspectives I didn’t expect to see were that of a town council member (Ed Harrison) and that of a visually-impaired woman who used the town’s EZ Rider service.

I would offer suggestions here, but my group did a much better job than I ever could. They suggested we get the perspectives of students, transit workers, low-income/transit dependent people and people whose primary mode of transportation is the auto.

That ties in nicely to my next point. We had some great discussion about moving Chapel Hill in the direction of transit and non-motorized modes, and I can’t personally emphasize enough how much I support that idea; I did though think that those present represented a very niche group of people in the town. What I mean is that it seemed as though most people in the room were the “wonks” or “usual suspects” that are hyper-involved in transit and bike issues. I think that for this to truly be a plan for everyone the auto needs to be included, because that’s the primary way many folks get around.

Building on that idea, I’m a little bit concerned that the theme group model in general will attract the “wonks” on the various subjects that the groups cover. I’m hesitant to criticize the model because I really like the idea and don’t have a better one, but I think the point needs to be raised nonetheless. It’s not as though I think the groups are destined for failure per se, I just think an effort needs to be made to recruit as broad a swath of participants as possible.

I do have some suggestions on outreach, though. First, I think some true outreach needs to be done. What I mean here is not simply waiting for people to come to the town, but instead sending people out into the community and collecting information first hand. I think this is the only way to ensure that every voice is heard, especially the voices of the most disadvantaged among us. Second, the dissemination of information about the meetings specifically and the process in general needs to be improved. During last night’s meeting, I heard several complaints about things being extremely unclear.

My point here isn’t to put down those that have been working on Chapel Hill 2020 so far. Their enthusiasm has been inspiring and their commitment to hearing everyone’s ideas is clear and absolute, I don’t think anyone can argue with that. My hope is that what I’ve said above can help make the process as fantastic as it can possibly be.


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