Monday, February 1, 2010

Memo to Creatives: You Didn't Miss Much at the January 25 Meeting

The City's Cultural Arts Divisions billed the evening meeting at the Mexican-American Cultural Center as a chance to "be a part of Imagine Austin, Austin's comprehensive plan providing broad-level guidance for the city's future growth and development."

That was fair and truthful billing. About 30 persons turned up for the event, which in structure and appearance resembled pretty closely the image you see here.

Some clarifications, however:

- - Imagine Austin (the long-term plan) is not Create Austin (the study and phased action plan aimed at the many creative sectors of this town). Coordinator Janice Siebert, working for the Cultural Arts Divison, was straightforward about that. "The city planning officials say that they intend to take Create Austin into account at some future date."

- - Imagine Austin will replace the City's previous master plan, written twenty years ago.

- - Austin theatre wasn't particularly well represented. The City had about 25 pre-registrations with names printed out on sticky labels. I found my own name. I recognized the names of two of Austin's workingyoung theatre artists and did not see either of them at the meeting.

- - The tasks assigned were of such scope and vagueness as to have little direct relation with the creative sector. This was a "meeting-in-a-box" consultative process.

After the obligatory explanations and exhortations, attendees gathered around the tables, each with a facilitator from the planning process. The procedure was straightforward:

(1) Austin's strong points/advantages: discuss. Encourage each person to participate (10-15 minutes total).

(2) Austin's challenges (code word for "weak points"): discuss. Encourage each person to participate (10-15 minutes total).

(3) Brainstorm (on schedule and within time-limits announced and monitored by Siebert). Each attendee gets three Post-It Notes and a pen. On each Note, attendee writes a brief description of an initiative vital to Austin's next 30 years, out to the year 2039.

(4) Discuss. Facilitator puts down a large blank piece of poster paper, then goes around the table, soliciting one idea/Post-It Note and a brief explanation from each participant. Facilitator takes the Post-It Notes and affixes them to the poster in related groups, continuing the polling and delivery until all the Notes have been delivered. Participants discuss the facilitator's classifications. At our table we agreed that the principal clumps were "transportation infrastructure," and "central city density." My blue sticky about "greater support for the arts" sat unaccompanied in a blank paper wilderness.

(5) Facilitator thanks participants, folds up poster with stickies, says "We're done, now." She engages in conversation with the young man sitting next to her, rep from an arts NGO.

No, it wasn't a total bust. We were 30 persons, providing views to be assimilated with the 1700 others polled in this way in order to build a semblance of the opinion of the 750,000 or so citizens currently inhabiting the greater Austin area.

You might say that each of those polled was speaking for about 430 fellow Austinites.

Or you might say that we spent an hour and a half in a secular prayer meeting, providing data points so that the planners and consultants can justify the recommendations that they're already well on their way to formulating.

A comment from a contact in the Planning Department at University of California, Berkeley: "Yeah. Planners just love that process. They take coursework in obtaining citizen participation and buy-in, and they really believe in it. It's neat and it's clean. It's obvious big-picture stuff with little to do with the messy political process."

So, Austin creatives: you've been consulted. That box has been checked off, and TV-8 was there to video and report the process. (Click to watch. Grit your teeth through the 10-sec advertising intro for Louis Shanks furniture. Or just click here for a partial transcript. )

And eventually the planners will get around to seeing if they can find space to consider Create Austin.

1 comment:

  1. thank you for going and writing this -- it is actually a great service