I experienced a lot of anxiety when I first considered researching the Mt. Tabor planning group in order to gain insight into effective public participation. My introduction into ethnographic research through the Leadership in Ecology, Culture and Learning program (LECL) at Portland State University had me intimately question the role of the researcher.  Conversations with my peers, both in seminar and outside of the classroom, revolved around how we, as researchers, could take ourselves out of the research being conducted?  Or, would we take ourselves out of the research?

 

Learning about participatory-action research as a tool both muddled and cleared my confusion.  It muddled it because it throws the researcher straight into the research, creating as many, or more, observable moments than would otherwise materialize organically.  It clears it, though, because it acknowledges, and almost celebrates, that the researcher is inherently biased and that their action should be part of the research.

 

The idea that the researcher can be part of the research set my mind at ease, and I began to see the benefits of being intimately involved with the process while I was studying it.  I would have insight into personalities, conversations, and background that an outsider wouldn’t have.  Relationships with participants had been established and members would be approachable if I needed further information.  Furthermore, I would have the ability to relay my research back to the group, adding to the collective wisdom and completing the circle of reciprocity.

 

Knowing that my observations and experiences would be deeply intertwined with the process, I designed my research to capture meaning created through interactions with the group. I participated in the lives of the research subjects, conversing with them in social contexts as well as at scheduled meetings, “creating constructs, ideas, and meanings” as they occurred (LeCompte & Schensul, 1999, p. 50).  I would also be able to study or refine any individual idea at any time, creating and recreating the research as I progressed.

 

Research Paradigms

I chose to use the both an interpretive and a critical approach paradigm in this study because of my interest in how the political and economic structure maintained by the City of Portland exerts domination over both the citizenry and its employees in its planning process (LeCompte & Schensul, 1999). By highlighting how the City has been viewed as partisan in its business practices, I aim to showcase how it can improve its relationships by allowing equal voice to the decision-making process.

 

Additionally, I am looking at this process under an umbrella of sustainability, measuring how well the collaborative effort meets the needs of the environment, the economy, and is equitable for all stakeholders.

 

Concern

Though progress has been made between the City and the neighborhoods to form a collaborative partnership, there is concern that the system that created the chasm with the neighbors in the first place will, in the race to deliver an updated Mt. Tabor Park Master Plan, be pushed through with little public input on fundamental issues, such as providing direction into PPR’s service plan and business model.

 

Origins of Knowledge

As stated above, the history of inequity in decision making revolving around Mt. Tabor, both in keeping the public in the dark over planning decisions and by the on-going state of disrepair of the facilities, runs so deep that it’s shameful. Though citizens are working diligently to change these patterns, they unfortunately continue to surface in various ways throughout the City’s business practices.

 

For example, in late 2007, long after the community established that care for the welfare of Park’s employees should be of utmost importance, PPR bypassed the labor union to establish contracts with the Oregon Department of Corrections for park maintenance (Pein, 2007).  The decision put the economic bottom line ahead of establishing local jobs that provide for local, experienced people.

 

Nor is the City alone in its label of being untrustworthy.  Neighbors, especially those involved with the Mt. Tabor Neighborhood Association and the Friends of Reservoirs, have been accused of being overly dramatic and confrontational in their discussions with the City.  Furthermore, the demographics of the neighborhood – wealthy, white, retired – do little to squash the notion that neighbors are simply looking out for their own interests.  From conversations with residents in other Portland areas, “not-in-my-backyard” is a common characteristic associated with Mt. Tabor residents.

 

Although my relationships with Mt. Tabor neighbors have always been, and continue to be amiable, they have occasionally veered from being reciprocal.  One of my biggest disappointments as President of the STNA was when members of the MTNA refused to help their neighbors to the south in starting up a fundraising event. 

 

The annual neighborhood cleanup is a key fundraiser for Portland neighborhood associations, as it’s proven popular with area residents who are in need of dropping off their unwanted goods that they’ve collected for a small fee.  The MTNA had had a very successful system of marketing and coordinating their event, while my neighborhood association had never held one and were unsure of where to start.  For guidance, we inquired with MTNA’s cleanup coordinators to get a sense of how to proceed and possibly combine events to ease the need for marketing.  Citing economic reasons – they were worried that their potential paying customers would skip their location in favor of ours – they felt it best that we manage without them.  It was the first time I felt a philosophical divide between the two neighborhoods.

 

While being critical of hierarchical structures, it does not escape me that I must also be critical of my own agenda, status, and role and how I may be perceived.  Throughout my involvement I have been a loan voice in bringing issues of sustainability to the table, educating participants on the issues of climate change, energy use, and society’s footprint on the earth.  Support for tackling these issues has increased among the parties involved, but I am cautious to appear book smart, simply telling others what they should do.  This is particularly true with sustainability, a term/direction/lifestyle that isn’t easily definable, or easily reproducible across varying situations.

 

 

 

Role of researched 

Participants have been, and will continue to be, active in working together to make collaborative partnership a valuable tool in city planning.  Citizens have been outspoken in their attempt to be recognized, employees are realizing the power in their expertise, and management has been accommodating in facilitating interaction.  All parties involved know that their input is beneficial to the welfare of the city and that their actions speak louder than words.

 

Procedures and process

Congruence among the values, goals and objectives is the aim of critical research, as is, coincidentally, the aim of the Mt. Tabor Planning Group.  It is key that research and theories are transparent to remain true to the spirit of public process and be consistent with the values and goals set forth in the original master plan. 

 

Compressed design

The timeframe I have chosen to conduct and evaluate my research is December 2007 to May 2008 with inquiries into historical interactions between the City and Mt. Tabor neighbors.  Though the research ends halfway through the public process, it has been beneficial to highlight strengths and weaknesses of the group effort.  Furthermore, my role as participant in the process allows me the ability to present refined ideas in a timely manner, strengthening the effort as it proceeds.

 

Data collection methods:

Observation:  As an active participate in the collaborative process between the community and the City of Portland, I relied on my ongoing observation as my main source of data collection.  Though intimately connected to the process, I was able to step outside of my community to reflect on our actions.  Conversely, I was able to step inside the role of the city planners to understand their perspective on dealing with multiple bureaus, budgets, vendors, zoning laws, hiring practices, and community groups.

 

Interviews: In addition to using my personal reflections and experiences to gather information on the process, I utilized open-ended interviews to obtain insight into why this process happened, what obstacles appeared, and how it can progress. Though I asked several standardized questions, my aim was to conduct interviews in an informal, conversational way.  Although it takes intuition and skill to analyze data coming from informal conversations, my relationships with the participants allowed for a fluid exchange of information and follow-up interviews were possible.

 

Secondary text and visual data:  Countless documents, from the original memorandum-of-understanding promising a sale of public land to Warner Pacific, to the resolution passed by City Council establishing the update of the Mt. Tabor Master Plan, are available for review. Additionally, documents produced by the planning group are referenced. Included are photographs of the maintenance facilities and the park.

Multisensory data:  Though I received few submissions, I invited participants to share their understanding of Mt. Tabor outside of the context of formal meetings.  Planning group members each received an invitation to send images, poems, artwork, etc., that expressed their relationship with the land.

 

One of the reasons I was drawn to this issue between the neighbors and the City was that everyone involved was there because of the land.  Some were there because their careers depended on it, some because their taxes depended on it, and others because they cherished open spaces.  In order to create a truly visionary plan for Mt. Tabor, perspectives detailing the importance of humanity’s connection to the land would have to be captured in ways that public documents and speeches couldn’t do alone.

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