One of the key ways that the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) controlled the message on the 6/10 Connector and ensured that it would not be built as a boulevard was by controlling the format of suburban meetings.
As someone who didn’t drive but wanted to make an impact on this issue, it was a struggle to get to these meetings, the majority of which were held in places not affected by the issue.
RIDOT tried to control the format by presenting only its view of what the 6/10 Connector should look like. This was a real curve-ball and should have raised red flags. NBC 10 at the time covered the struggle that went on for me to present images I’d printed of what a boulevard could look like, and to explain what the concept could be.
What I found in practice was that white, middle class, often older and more conservative communities were open-minded to what was presented once you got it to them, but they didn’t come from a starting point of thinking in an urbanist way. The city meetings in Providence were packed with hundreds of people and held in two languages, but the suburban ones were smaller and quieter. But the suburban meetings had all sorts of unfair power assigned to them by politics. We underestimated how much RIDOT would game those meetings.
There are two key methods RIDOT used to control the message, and in the next highway removal fight (perhaps I-95) advocates need to be ready:
- RIDOT created a panopticon, especially at suburban meetings where it had more control. The Providence meetings were remarkably open and allowed different views to be publicly presented and explained, and a lot of feedback. The suburban meetings only presented RIDOT’s side of the engineering, and then attempted to set people off to give individualized comments at tables. We had to insist on being heard, and it was only because the mayhem that ensued was covered in an embarrassing way by NBC 10 that meetings started to get somewhat more open.
- The sound-bite is the enemy. And this also goes with the panopticon model. Sure, everyone could make a comment after RIDOT Directer Peter Alviti presented at these meetings, but his comments were the most lengthy and visually supported, so unless more space was given to explain a complex concept (i.e., removing a highway improves traffic and saves money) there’s no way to succeed.
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Maybe if we learn from this experience, and are more demanding about where meetings are held, and the formats of those meetings, we’ll get better results.