Public engagement is exciting! Public engagement is exhausting! Public engagement is frustrating! It stirs as many emotions in planners as it does in the individuals with whom we plan.
Why do we suppress these emotions, particularly those of exhaustion and frustration, as we interact with the public? And how do we find time to both acknowledge and feel these emotions?
These questions are central to Ward Lyles, AICP, and Stacey Swearingen White in their article "Who Cares? Arnstein’s Ladder, the Emotional Paradox of Public Engagement, and (Re)imagining Planning as Caring."
Writing in the Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 85, No. 3), Lyles and Swearingen White define the emotional paradox as “when planners experience the need to minimize and contain the influence of emotions in their work.”
They explore this idea of the emotional paradox in the context of public engagement, against the backdrop of Arnstein’s ladder of participation. Throughout her 1969 work, the authors note, Sherry Arnstein recognizes the powerful emotions present within the public engagement process when describing the power differential between the haves and have nots: “[s]he channels shared indignation at the power imbalance that ‘explodes into many shades of outright racial, ethnic, ideological, and political opposition.’”
However, Lyles and Swearingen White find that the passion seems to escape both the planner and the public as they scale Arnstein’s ladder.
Arnstein mentions lower rungs as being rife with “heated controversy” and “explosions of opposition.” Higher rungs are not accompanied by any discernible emotion at all. Instead, as the public and the planner climb toward their goal of citizen control, the public engagement becomes more stolid — with emotions raised as if as an afterthought.
It is easy to divorce one’s emotions from public engagement in the campaign for citizen control. Here, it is as if the planner is reduced to a tool, used by the public to achieve its end. To separate the planner’s emotions from the public engagement process, however, likely will result in either less meaningful engagement or more apathy. Neither of these outcomes is ideal.
Therefore, it becomes clear: planning discipline cannot shy away from emotions. And it also must take measures to ensure that future planners are educated on how to contend with emotions — both positive and negative — during the public engagement process. Lyles and Swearingen White argue that the current planning discipline is woefully underprepared to engage in these conversations. It implies the proper response is abating these emotions rather than confronting them.
To illustrate their point, the authors cite a 2018 webinar that asked 300 planners: How do you handle emotions?
Forty percent of participating planners answered, "I pay attention to when negative emotions are affecting me," 44 percent said "I just ‘suck it up’ and remain neutral," 10 respondents replied "I want to run away and freeze up," and the remaining six percent said that they yell.
This suggests that 60 percent of those planners do not have the proper skills to confront these emotions. Acknowledging emotion as pivotal to public engagement, Lyles and Swearingen White conclude their article by providing six practical suggestions for planners, so that they may contend with the negative feelings that emerge during public engagement. These include: self-awareness, self-regulation, awareness of others, working with difference, empowering through relationships, and extending compassion.
I wonder if separating our emotions from the public engagement process, too, separates planners’ own positionally and identity. In the desire to create citizen control, do we forget that we come to this work with a background that affects the ways in which we engage with it?
It is imperative that planners discover how to celebrate these negative emotions as much as the positive. As a future planning professional, I want to express my frustration the injustices of capitalism, racism, and climate degradation in hopes of evoking these same emotions in the public with whom I work.
I want to be able to express my exhaustion: to be supported by the public as much as I will support them when confronted with what seem to be insurmountable challenges. I want to be able to express my excitement — to celebrate with the public as we take steps toward creating the future that we deserve.
All of these emotions are important. As Lyles and Swearingen White simply state: “[p]ublic engagement matters because it is emotional, and it is emotional because it matters.”
The Journal of the American Planning Association is the quarterly journal of record for the planning profession. For full access to the JAPA archive, APA members may purchase a discounted subscription for $48/year, or a digital-only subscription for $36/year.
Top image: Public meeting on sage grouse land management issues in Burns, Oregon. Bureau of Land Management Oregon and Washington/Wikimedia photo (CC BY 2.0).
About the Author
Kyle Miller is a joint Master in Urban Planning and Master of Public Health candidate at Harvard University.