“Perception is reality,” the saying goes. Despite the city having a mechanism for public input into zoning changes, 47 percent of Portland voters believed that Question 2 on the city ballot would have been a better solution to having a say in proposed zoning changes in their neighborhoods. Residents’ perception is that they currently have no voice or control over zoning changes that could affect them. Even though the referendum would have excluded the participation of our New Americans, refugees and residents who aren’t registered to vote, Portlanders felt this was a better option than the 100 percent inclusive process that is currently in place.

Their perception is their reality, and all of the sharing and explaining of the current process is not time well spent. If a person does not feel heard now, why would he or she listen to yet another explanation? I believe there are three key steps and one essential trait that we need to build a more inclusive and participatory community, where everyone is heard and where perception and reality are aligned: 1) hold community conversations; 2) widely share the city’s vision for 2030, and 3) have developers and residents become 50-50 partners in advancing Portland.

Convening community conversations begins with an invitation extended from one person to another person and includes a concrete reason for attending as well as assurance that a group will not be “talked to” but instead will be “listened to.” While perhaps more efficient, a mass mailing communication via email or snail mail is not effective. A model I embrace is called a Shared Space Cafe; it has been done very successfully by Portland Empowered, a group connecting our refugee and immigrant families to high schools. Neighbors inviting neighbors, friends inviting friends, all gathered around one question or topic, sitting in small circles with translators as needed, ensures that all voices are heard.

Simple model, simply effective. Does it take more time? Yes, but it is how we build community – one conversation at a time, over time.

The city spent close to two years developing its most recent Comprehensive Plan, called Vision 2030. This is an awesome document that most likely 99.8 percent of Portland residents have not read or do not know about. Why don’t you know about it? Because it has a dry title and is over 300 pages long. And, yet, our Comprehensive Plan is truly a vision and roadmap for growing Portland – and, most importantly, it was created by the community.

Sessions similar to what I described above were held, a citizen survey drew more than 2,000 respondents and the city had more people share their voice to create this plan than perhaps at any time in its history. Really, do yourself a favor and just read the first six pages of the document. If you don’t feel excited about Portland’s future after reading it, then we have even more work to do.

In any successful transformation effort, stakeholders who will be most affected by the change are engaged early in the process. Often, but not always, zoning changes are proposed by developers. Creating an atmosphere of 50-50 partnership means that developers reach out to residents early on – before the city currently requires it – to share information, hear concerns and respond with best intentions.

Does this mean everyone will be happy? No, but as the Western Promenade Neighborhood Association experienced with the Americold project, there is a possibility of a more positive outcome and a stronger project. Breaking down the “us”-and-“them” atmosphere is essential to building trust.

The final piece that we need to activate this process is leadership. There are leaders in our community, our neighborhoods, our nonprofits, our schools, our institutions and our businesses. You, dear reader, are most likely a leader who loves and cares about Portland. If a connected, authentic, sustainable, secure, equitable and dynamic city is where you want to live and work, then I am asking you to activate your leadership by doing three things: 1) participate in community conversations; 2) read at least the first six pages of Vision 2030, and 3) if you are a developer, partner with neighbors; if you are a neighbor, reach out to developers, to move the city you love forward.

Portland needs your leadership to align perception and reality – we are all counting on it.

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