Back to the May-Jun 2019 issue

Is Your City Creating Obstacles to Participation?

By Dave Meslin

Four gallons of semi-gloss paint. Fifteen brushes. Twelve hours. That’s all it took for me, my neighbors, and our kids to create a 500-square-foot mural on Springmount Avenue, a twisting midtown Toronto street lined with century-old homes and large trees whose branches reach out from both sides of the road, touching in the middle. Unlike traditional murals painted on walls or under bridges, the Springmount mural was painted flat on the road, stretching gloriously from curb to curb.

Designed by a local artist and carefully outlined by steady-handed adults, our horizontal masterpiece was mostly painted by dozens of pint-sized Picassos of all ages. It was colorful and gorgeous.

Unfortunately, as it turns out, our art project was also a violation of our local bylaws, which didn’t allow road murals—even though programs in other cities had successfully encouraged residents to realize the artistic potential of their pavement.

Councilmember takes notice

But our artistic endeavor did put pressure on the city to do away with the unnecessarily restrictive bylaws, and to legalize and regulate community-driven road murals. Our project quickly attracted media attention, and full color photos appeared in multiple newspapers. I was even invited to speak on radio shows. The icing on the cake, though, was when our local city councilmember agreed to put forward a motion asking City Hall staff to create a proper permit process. Our painting was transforming policy!

I encouraged my neighbors to send letters of support to the City Council, and I invited Melissa Frew, the local artist who designed our mural, to come to City Hall and speak at an important committee meeting where the Council would be voting on our proposal.

As a familiar face at City Hall, I’m too easily dismissed as an “activist,” so I felt that Melissa’s voice would show we had support in the community. She’d never been to a meeting at City Hall and said she was nervous, but she hesitantly agreed to attend. This was participatory democracy in action!


Discouraged by a closed door

At the meeting the following week, Melissa didn’t show up. I sent her a text message to find out where she was, and she wrote back immediately to explain that she’d arrived at City Hall but had trouble finding the committee room the meeting was being held in. And when she did find the right door, it was closed.

Councilors, City Hall staff, lobbyists, political insiders, and activists (like me) know that the committee room doors are always closed, and that everyone is welcome to open them and walk in. But to someone attending a committee meeting for the first time, a closed door sends a strong message: Keep out.

So, when Melissa encountered that closed door, she wasn’t sure if she was allowed in. She did crack the door open slightly to listen, but when she couldn’t determine if she’d missed the item or not, she decided to go home. “I didn’t feel that I could walk in,” she later told me. “I thought I would be interrupting.”

Here’s a challenge for you: Go to any indoor shopping mall and find a store with its doors closed. You can search for the rest of your life, but you’ll never find one. Retail managers know that the smallest details can encourage shoppers to come in or walk past.


The mechanics of exclusion

Our democratic institutions, too, can feel inviting, alienating, or even invisible, depending on how they’re designed. When we talk about democratic reform, we tend to focus on the biggest and most obvious design flaws, such as our voting system or the influence of “big money.” But during my 20 years as a community organizer, I’ve seen how small, overlooked flaws can collectively serve as a significant obstacle to participation.

Just as a city’s billion-dollar sewer system can get blocked by wet wipes and dental floss, a democracy can be clogged when the smallest details coalesce into layers of obstruction. If something as simple as a single closed door can deter a grown adult from participating, try to imagine the cumulative impact of these layers and how they reinforce the idea of politics as an insider’s game. These are the often-overlooked mechanics of exclusion, and this is what makes our system rigged against ordinary people.

The way that governments design public notices to communicate with citizens offers us a perfect example of what I’m talking about. When I presented a TEDx Talk back in 2010, I showed the audience what a public notice looks like in Toronto (dull, monotone, no images, tiny font, etc.), and then I showed how ridiculous a Nike ad would look if the company used the same approach.

The ensuing laughter was expected. We all know that companies like Nike produce fun, sexy, effective advertisements, while governments have cornered the market on dull, useless communication.

Nike has effective ads because the company wants you to buy its products. But the message we get from bland public notices is that governments are completely uninterested in having regular people involved in community planning. In other words, these government notices are rigged. Rigged to keep you uninformed and uninvolved.


Another obstacle: ‘Municipal Gobbledegook’

Of course, good graphic design is just the beginning. The effective use of colors, images, fonts, and layout is great, but if the words themselves don’t make any sense, you’ve still got a useless leaflet, web page, or sign.

A report called “Municipal Gobbledegook,” written by the Toronto Bureau of Municipal Research, explains the problem: “Public notices, rather than clearly informing people of decisions that are pending, may only confuse or perhaps frustrate or even antagonize them. It is too easy to view the notices as mere legal formalities. But they are much more. These notices not only convey specific information to particular individuals, but also are an important mechanism through which citizen participation may be encouraged and informed or discouraged and possibly nipped in the bud.”

Wise words. Sadly, that report was written in 1972—before I was born. It’s almost as if someone has come up with a list of all the things that would make it more comfortable and convenient for citizens to engage politically, and then implemented the opposite.

For example, our governments hold their most important public meetings during regular work hours, presenting an enormous obstacle to those who want to speak at a meeting or witness a crucial vote but can’t take time off work or school. (Timing is everything. That’s why “Dancing With the Stars” doesn’t air at noon, and restaurants don’t send their staff home at 5 p.m.)

Very few city halls offer free snacks during meetings, and some even ban all food entirely from their chambers. Even fewer municipalities offer childcare for public meetings, even though IKEA has been doing it since 1958.

All these barriers or inconveniences create an imbalance at city hall, because lobbyists and special interests will always find their way through the legislative labyrinth. But ordinary people will not.


Think about the user experience

Almost every topic I’ve discussed here can be summed up with two words: user experience. In the world of technology, user experience (or UX, for short) is about maximizing the simplicity and comfort of a device or application—especially for first-time users. But UX doesn’t apply only to laptops or smartphones.

Anything can be designed with UX in mind: a store, a car, or even a pen. All the commercial products and places we interact with daily tend to have incredible UX design. Companies invest effort, attention, and money into making you feel as comfortable as possible. Governments do not. In fact, they seem committed to creating uncomfortable environments.

A healthy democracy must be accessible, comfortable, understandable, and convenient. Every aspect of the system needs to be dissected and assessed based on how it impacts these four necessities.

If we want to create a culture that invites people in rather than pushing them away, the first step is to open the doors—both physical and metaphorical. Once these doors are open, I believe we can create a participatory democracy unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.

Dave Meslin is a Toronto-based community organizer and author of the book, Teardown: Rebuilding Democracy from the Ground Up (


Learn more at the League’s 2019 Annual Conference

Dave Meslin will be a keynote speaker at the League of Minnesota Cities 2019 Annual Conference, June 26-28, in Duluth. During his general session, “Empowering Community Through Bottom-up Collaboration,” he will talk more about the common barriers that prevent engagement, and share ideas for building stronger social bonds at the community level. Using anecdotes, humor, and best practices, Meslin will demonstrate that we all have something to contribute and that the most vibrant cities are the ones that have learned how to tap into the collective creativity, passion, and knowledge of community.