In the mid-1990s, I was tasked with bringing the campus community and the local neighborhoods together behind a number of ambitious projects ahead of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. I joined the University of Utah as director of facilities planning two years prior to the award of the games to the city. I began assembling a team almost immediately and together we worked continuously on a long-range campus plan that incorporated two Olympic venues on campus—the Olympic athletes village and the stadium for the opening/closing ceremonies—as well as rail transportation lines and pedestrian links.
Recalling Lessons Learned
A dozen years later, I had the chance to recall some of those lessons learned in observations I prepared as part of an interview with Jennifer Salopek, the author or an excellent article on university/community ("town/gown") relations in Currents magazine. An admitted people watcher, note taker and a student of the most effective (and not so effective) public relations tactics used by organizations, I offered some thoughts based on both my personal experiences and those shared by others at conferences, in conversation, etc.
Here are some general trends that I thought were worth mentioning:
1. Over the last twenty years or so, I've noted that neighbors have become more informed. Seriously so. This is likely a result of the development of communication methods that get more information to more people in a shorter amount of time (i.e., the Internet). They've also become far more aware of their options for expressing their concerns and technology has helped make it much easier (and more comfortable) to share those concerns with decision-makers (e.g., city leaders, local legislators, etc.) who can help promote their cause.
2. As with most Internet communication, there is sometimes a lot of misinformation being shared. Institutions must stay abreast of what's being said and then provide enough correct information to enough sources that neighbors can easily find it. Again, not an easy task in this "information age," but one that is well worth the time and effort. I've seen a well-timed editorial or a friendly personal call to a key community leader work wonders.
3. Other than when there is a major conflict that gets everyone talking, I don't know that the general size of opposition (in terms of individual voices) has necessarily increased, but the tone of the arguments have sometimes appeared rather pointed--even personal. This is where some tools like informal (yet regularly scheduled) community meetings--on campus--can be very helpful. It provides a face-to-face opportunity to help replace concern with fact. It may not always resolve the concern, but it does help provide a basis for a negotiated understanding among all interested parties.
4. Organizations (including colleges and universities) have become far more willing to consider the community point-of-view in their planning, though some are dragged to this realization kicking and screaming. Others learned this years ago and some are only now finding the value in sitting down with the neighbors (so-to-speak). Regardless, the general interest in positive community relations as a subject for discussion at conferences speaks volumes about the way community conflicts have helped shape institutional plans and policies in recent years.
5. There is no replacement for diligence and consistency, both in message and application. If neighbors know who to call and that there will be regular, reliable, two-way communication of all types (written, online, meetings, etc.), they are more likely to participate in the process instead of simply firing complaints over the bow of organizational ships. I recall one in a long series of regular public meetings when a new face showed-up in the group. As soon as discussion of "old business" began, he jumped-in and began to express his frustration at the proposal on the table. He hadn't spoken more than a sentence or two when one of the others in the group interrupted him and said, "Hey, we've been discussing that for months. It's been debated and resolved and we'd like to move on to other things. If you'd show up more frequently, you'd know that."
Now it's been a number of years and my memory of the event has likely embellished his words to some extent, but the sentiment was clear. The meeting did go on and that project moved ahead. There are no guarantees you'll get someone so vocally supportive within your group, but unless you meet with them regularly, you'll never know.