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Building consensus: public engagement strategist to address justice, equity, involvement in city planning

Don Edwards, Principal at Justice and Sustainability Associates in DC, will be visiting Grand Rapids on Thursday for the GR Forward Thinking Speaker Series.
GR Forward boards, with headings of "This is your river." and "What can your river be?"

GR Forward boards, with headings of "This is your river." and "What can your river be?" /Holly Bechiri

Attend the presentation:

GR Forward Thinking: Speaker Series | Don Edwards

Thursday, December 4

6:00 p.m.

17 Pearl Street NW (Old Federal Building)

On Thursday, December 4 at 6 p.m., the GR Forward Thinking Speaker Series continues with "Economic Development and Equity" at Kendall College of Art and Design (KCAD). This second event will feature Don Edwards, Principal of Justice and Sustainability Associates.

Edwards will focus on helping people to look at the question of investments in civic infrastructure needed to build a consensus for future development. He'll address civic infrastructure and the need to empower people to participate in plans in a way that will help create not just city plans but plans that are "implementable change agendas."

Edwards and Justice and Sustainability Associates work with stakeholders and parties to help them reach consensus around growth and development, and he's quick to note the importance of building many different stakeholders involved in this consensus-building. They work to identify conflicts, differences and stakeholder assessment, "all for the purpose of building an agreement [and] reaching a consensus about what can and should be achieved." With his mediation work, he works from the recognition that there are different views- and differing views not being resolved can be what stands in the way of growth happening.

"Plans are no good if they don't get implemented, if they're not implementable," says Edwards. "A lot of the work to overcome those differences and resolve those conflicts in order to build a consensus is where all the work gets done."

Edwards points out that getting people interested in providing input requires an understanding by stakeholders about how the efforts affect them and why they would therefore want to give up their time to invest in the process. He says there are many factors in getting time invested from the community.

"From a tactical standpoint, there's design elements: where you have it, when you have it, what kind of support to you have for working parents, do you provide snacks- there are all those kinds of things," he says. "But I think the question that you're looking at [has] more to do with answering the question 'what's in it for me.' Ultimately, people are motivated by self-interest and if you're asking folks to basically give some time out of their lives that they may or may not get back, there has to be some trade-off... that's a basic question that I think most reasonable people have. It's part of what has to be the narrative of any particular project that you're trying to build a consituency for."

Edwards says for people see themselves as owners or stakeholders in a project, it's like any other return on investment question that people ask in their lives.

"The most important question we talk with people about is what's the end result- what's the change that's going to be created," he says. "People need to be able to see it- there has to be a vision. The clearer the vision, the easier it is for people to invest in it."

Edwards recognizes the challenge in ensuring all stakeholders are invested, and points out the responsibility that planners have in creating the right environment for stakeholders to join the work. 

"I don't think they own all the responsibility of figuring out who benefits or who doesn't," he says. "The question that really gets raised when you ask if you want to create places and spaces that work for all... is are all people welcome in those spaces. And there's a fundamental question that it leads to: if that's so, then people should be able to see themselves in those spaces and places before they're built and created," he says. Edwards says there is one fundamental question that can determine whether local citizens get involved in the planning and decisions around their shared spaces:

"Is this place for me- or not?"

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