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It happens time and time again. San Diegans show up to a public meeting about a polarizing community issue to banter across the aisle if civil, and battle if not.
Last week’s town hall in Clairemont over the debate to raise the area’s height limit is the latest example of an outmoded process that has further diminished the community’s trust in government.
Yet government has the formal authority over most quality-of-life and neighborhood vitality issues. And often these leaders don’t trust the public to productively engage on tough issues.
At last week’s meeting in Bay Park, a young woman tried to do just that. She rose with the courage to speak out about needing access to public transit and affordable housing. Because of the broiling controversy over the issue, she was shouted down and told to move elsewhere.
Picking up and moving won’t be a long-term option as our region and neighborhoods struggle to accommodate the projected population growth of more than 1.4 million people over the coming decades. That’s roughly half of the region’s current total population, the size of the city of San Diego. Sixty-five percent of this growth will be from children of existing San Diego families, not new families moving here.
Density itself is not necessarily an indicator of happiness. NIMBYs and IMBYs (not/in my backyard) will both be surprised to learn that while San Diego ranks tenth in a Gallup Healthways Well-Being Index among large communities, most of the cities ranked higher are far more dense.
But density aside, better solutions can be developed if residents voice what we want in well-designed communities. That means showing up and engaging.
When residents are disengaged from government, special interests and “professional citizens” can dominate the agendas of city councils across the region. This is where we get the pervading “You can’t fight City Hall” perception.
Current sunshine laws and regulations, designed mainly (and rightly) to combat corruption, often hamper the ability of government agencies to more meaningfully engage the public. Deferring to the three-minute public comment model is easy, but it hinders any meaningful two way exchange, which is key to building greater trust.
We need a new system.
Imagine a transparent public advisory process with two-way communication. With open, broad participation from stakeholders across diverse perspectives, we would solve more problems and create better communities.
In our new system, civic anchor institutions could mobilize people for input. Universities could guide their students in public service to local communities by surveying held views and framing diverse perspectives objectively. Then, they could serve as neutral facilitators for dialogue in safe spaces, which would lead to citizens taking action with government to solve their own problems.
Educational leaders and teachers could engage their students in local issues as part of a much needed revitalization of civics education.
Faith-based organizations would mobilize their memberships to serve in similar roles, and businesses would provide employees with channels to weigh in on issues.
Authentic civic engagement happens from the bottom up. Citizens must be better informed about the issues so their diverse viewpoints are not only heard, but welcomed. With forums for neighbors, renters, small business owners, young people and immigrants to weigh in, government leaders can make better quality decisions.
The San Diego Foundation established the Malin Burnham Center for Civic Engagement to create these forums. It’s our hope both communities and public institutions will help re-imagine public engagement to tackle tough issues that affect all of us.
As a first step, the center will be organizing more meaningful civic engagement on land use planning around Mid-Coast trolley stops to avoid a repeat performance of the unruly town hall meeting.
Creating authentic spaces for citizens to engage with each other and with government is essential to the vitality of this region. We owe it to ourselves, our children and generations to come.
BH Kim is vice president and executive director of the Malin Burnham Center for Civic Engagement. Kim’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.