Chris Jennette, AICP
Nothing about us without us.
This phrase came into use during disability activism campaigns in the 1990s, to communicate the idea that decisions and policies are only truly valid when they are shaped and supported authentically by those who will be affected by them. There is perhaps no more concise, more accurate way to communicate the importance of community engagement to the outcome of a planning process. When the community is given influence and a voice in the decision-making process, both the process and its outcomes are incredibly enriched. By cultivating community relationships through a thoughtful and multi-pronged engagement approach, we as planners and designers can take a big step toward ensuring that our plans and products are informed, supported, and implementable.
That said, it ain’t always easy.
The aspirational goals of community engagement often collide with the harsh realities of scheduling, budgets, and people’s everyday lives. For community members, it can be difficult to make it to evening meetings, or to read project materials on a website when you’ve got a full-time job, previous commitments, and limited free time. Similarly, for planners, it can be easy to lose track of the importance of building trust and authentic relationships within a community when you’re struggling to simply get butts-in-seats at meetings, or to increase the number of hits on a project website.
Achieving “buy-in” through an effective community engagement process that respects and incorporates local needs and desires can greatly increase the capacity of a community to move plans forward, and can be the difference between implementation or stagnation. To this end, we’re happy to offer these seven tips, aimed at boosting both the number of people who are actively engaged and interacting with the planning process, as well as the value of those interactions.
- Be Flexible.
In our planning, design, and regulatory work across the country, we’ve learned the value of authentic and effective community engagement. As consultants, we can offer expertise in best practices and current approaches, and we bring a wide range of skills and experiences to every community in which we work. That said, every community is unique and as such is heir to unique customs and traditions, a unique culture rooted in history, geography, and demography, and a heterogeneous and evolving mix of modern needs and desires. In short, every community deserves a unique approach.
While the last community you worked in may have responded extraordinarily well to your project website—leaving comments, responding to surveys, uploading photos, and engaging with all of your creative content—the next community may not be as interested. Similarly, some communities may turn out in full force for public meetings and open houses—giving you quality feedback and engaging with the project throughout its course, while others may simply not show up. Community engagement strategies that rely too heavily on one platform, or one particular tool will be unable to respond to these types of conditions.
Working with your client at the outset of a project to “take the temperature” of the community regarding different types of outreach will give you a leg up in designing an effective, adaptable strategy. Chances are that staff or local agencies will have insights into what has and has not worked in the past, and will be happy to share. By acknowledging past efforts and gaining some insight up-front, you can move toward developing an informed, multi-pronged strategy that is easily adaptable should you not see the results you’re hoping for.
- Build on Existing Networks and Relationships.
There are often existing local networks that can be valuable partners to the planning process, helping to get the word out, solicit feedback, and lay the groundwork for high-quality community engagement. Are there especially active local organizations in the community, such as block groups, non-profits, or service agencies? If so, it may be helpful to reach out and share some information about the process or to see if there may be opportunities to partner. Such organizations often have an established network of leaders in the community, and a level of trust with community members that can be important to leverage at the outset of a project.
Other local groups and organizations can also help to spread the word, and establish an active network of participation in the community. Faith-based groups or non-profits may be willing to help spread the word among their memberships, or to assist with hosting community events. Local library branches may allow you to set up a display, or to distribute project materials to those interested. We’ve also had great experiences partnering with educational institutions such as local colleges or universities. If there are undergraduate or graduate programs offered in relevant fields such as planning, landscape architecture, or public health, there may be opportunities to partner with faculty and students to expand your engagement efforts while facilitating an enriching experience for students.
Establishing partnerships and taking advantage of existing networks requires more work at the start of the planning process, but is very often worth the effort. These types of partnerships can help to build capacity and create connections among local organizations that augment a community’s ability to carry forward the recommendations of a plan, and to create action over the long-term.
- Make Participation Pay Off.
Also known as: “Beyond the Brownie Bite,” “Conquer the Cookie Tray,” or “Surpass the Soft Drinks.” Seriously, I could do this all day. When it comes to increasing turnout at public meetings, it can often be beneficial to give people an incentive to get them through the door. Whether it’s setting up dining tables and chairs and offering them something more substantial than chips and soda before the meeting (we’ve found pizza and pasta to be easy and relatively inexpensive options), offering child-care for the 2 hour window during the meeting, or giving away gift cards as door prizes, incentives can often boost attendance, giving you the opportunity to make a positive impression and pull people into the process for future meetings.
We’ve had great success holding public “kick-off” celebrations in a number of communities, incentivizing community members to attend with a number of free events and activities. Recently, in Brownsville, Texas, we took part in a celebration in partnership with the Housing Authority of the City of Brownsville to kick-off a Choice Neighborhoods Transformation Plan. The event included dancing, food, live performances, activities for kids, and booths set up by local organizations and service agencies. During the event, attendees participated in activities to choose a logo for the project, learned about the process moving forward, and engaged with staff and the consultants to provide feedback on initial mapping of the community’s assets and opportunities.
Another example of using incentives effectively comes from our recent work in Birmingham, Alabama, as part of a neighborhood planning process in coordination with the Housing Authority of the Birmingham District. In order to incentivize participation in a community needs assessment survey, we procured a number of relatively inexpensive tablet devices, trained local staff and volunteers on how to administer our tablet-based survey tool, and encouraged participation by offering a chance to win one of the devices in a raffle at the end of the survey period. As a result, we ended up with a high response rate among residents of the community, and had a great time giving away the tablets at our final community meeting.
- Make it Easy.
Having an online presence, with multiple ways to learn about the project and provide input, is a great first step toward making engagement easy for community members. A number of online tools exist (too many to list here, in fact) that make it easy and appealing for community members to leave online feedback and engage with the planning process on their own schedule and their own terms. Project websites can serve as a valuable resource for sharing information and getting feedback throughout the course of a project, and providing ways for interested people to sign-up and follow the process through intermittent updates via web notifications is a very powerful way to stay in touch with busy-but-interested community members.
There is, however, no substitute for the quality of face-to-face engagement with members of the community. So, we have to do our best to find ways to make those interactions easy as well. Whether that means setting up a booth at the popular weekend farmer’s market (as we’ve most recently done in Bowling Green, Ohio), setting up shop with tablets and informational materials outside the local grocer, or hosting a pop-up event in a vacant storefront space, it’s well worth the time and effort to get out into the community and talk to people about the places they care about – in the places they care about.
Simple tweaks to traditional meeting formats can also make it easier for people to attend and provide high-quality face-to-face feedback. One of our favorites is the “open house” format. Setting up drop-in hours throughout the day, with a number of short, scheduled presentations gives people options. They can come in when is convenient (say, on their lunch break), watch the presentation, and speak to someone directly about their questions, concerns, and comments. Being mindful about where to host such events is important as well – if people are working long hours downtown and can’t make an evening meeting, find a space to host an open house downtown and open early so they can stop in on their way to the office. You could even be really nice and give them coffee. Free coffee is always a powerful incentive.
- Make it Fun.
In addition to offering incentives, it’s always a good idea to make your engagement events fun, and to offer a variety of interesting activities for people to take part in. One of the easiest ways to encourage active and lively participation is through one of the many “instant feedback” survey tools available today. Whether it’s through a more traditional keypad polling system, or a newer tool like “Poll Everywhere” that allows people to participate using their smart phones, letting community members see results in real-time is a fun and engaging way get feedback and start a dialogue.
We particularly enjoy these tools because they give us the opportunity to ask follow-up questions and get folks talking to each other about their ideas and preferences. For instance — if a majority of people indicate a preference for two-story buildings in a visual preference survey, but a number of people also indicated three stories, ask if someone is willing to talk about why they chose three stories. Often, they can provide valuable insight or a point of view that connects with their neighbors and spurs constructive dialogue. After sharing and discussing, you can even ask the question again, to gauge whether or not anyone’s opinion has changed.
Conducting youth-engagement activities is also a fun way to get great feedback and a unique perspective on the community. Activities geared toward young community members can offer the opportunity for a particularly enlightening “report back” session, sometimes (okay, often) with recommendations of rocket-ships and in-ground pools, but also with a great deal of substantive ideas and observations that would otherwise be missed. Sharing these insights with the larger community can help to spur creative thinking and generate new approaches to planning and problem-solving.
Making engagement fun encourages long-term involvement in the process, helps to involve all members of the community young and old, and facilitates the building of genuine connections and relationships within the community, not just data collection.
- Be Innovative Online.
With the advent of online engagement, it has become easy to set up platforms for people to interact with planning processes and provide feedback 24/7, opening up the process to many who would otherwise not have the opportunity to participate. However, these platforms can also suffer from a lack of publicity, a lack of traffic, or a lack of interest in the community. This being the case, it’s becoming more and more important to think outside the website when engaging people online.
So, you’ve set up a Facebook page, and gotten a respectable number of likes. Is this enough? In addition to establishing a Facebook presence for your project, it can be valuable to look for existing active communities and to get them involved in the process as well. Does the community have a particularly well-followed and active Facebook page? Perhaps there are block clubs or community groups that have attracted a large number of online followers? Reaching out and leveraging other online communities can help to build awareness and solicit additional feedback. There are numerous tools now available to get feedback through social media, such as “Polls for Facebook,” that will allow you to easily float a question to the online community and get quick responses.
Additionally, we’ve had great experiences with streaming community meetings via Facebook Live. This is a powerful way to let people engage with each other about the project, and to view a meeting live even if they’re not able to attend. It requires virtually no equipment other than a smartphone, though we would recommend an external microphone to ensure good audio quality, and we’ve found that it can reach a great number of viewers. We recently held a public meeting that was broadcast on Facebook Live and were very pleased with the results: about 50 people in the room, over 100 viewing the meeting live, and well over 1,000 views in the days following its initial broadcast. Not all communities will have such high viewership, but given the ease of using Facebook Live, there’s really no reason not to consider it.
Does the community have an active subreddit? Consider posting information about your project and getting feedback, or even better, host an “Ask Me Anything” session where users can submit questions and start a substantive dialogue. What about meetup.com? A growing number of users are making this one of the more powerful tools to connect with your local community. Making engagement events into social events can help to build connections in the community, and to establish trust while getting high-quality feedback. We recently worked with a client that hosted a gathering in their on-site kitchen to cook tamales as a group, and then pass them out to the needy in their community. Imagine using a tool like meetup.com to host an event like this before a public meeting, preparing snacks or meals for attendees and discussing community issues. These types of activities can build relationships that last, and create champions who are invaluable in seeing the process through, and carrying its recommendations forward. There is great power in the potential for using online tools to facilitate real-world community building interactions.
- Build Momentum Early.
An effective component of all our neighborhood and community planning work is the concept of “early action projects.” We’re committed to demonstrating that change can happen, and that the planning process can result in real improvement for residents and communities. When community members can see results at the outset of a planning process, it helps to build trust in the process and its recommendations, and to encourage lasting and meaningful engagement.
The concept is relatively simple: upfront brainstorming with staff and community members to identify issues and conceptualize potential projects, followed by a community activity to select a preferred project (or projects in certain cases). These projects are often geared toward the “low-hanging fruit” in the community, and consist of ideas such as hosting a neighborhood or park clean-up day, “paint-it, fix-it” events, development of community composting programs, public art or mural installations, and “walk-your-city” programs, among many others.
In Birmingham, Alabama, the chosen early action project was the installation of a bus stop in front of the Southtown Court housing development. The road had recently been widened, and the bus stop was removed and not put back. We worked with residents and staff to get the bus stop brought back. Similarly, in Mobile, Alabama, we worked with the local community to get a crosswalk painted across a busy street separating young residents from their local community center.
Recently, in Bowling Green, Ohio the community chose the creation of a “Good Neighbor Guide” as an early action project. The guide is an at-a-glance resource for community members, providing a host of essential contacts for City and community services, and referencing requirements of current City ordinances to help ensure that everyone knows what is and is not required when it comes to the use and maintenance of their private piece of the neighborhood.
These types of early actions can help to create momentum for a plan over the long-term, demonstrating to residents and community officials that the ideas generated through the planning process can indeed take root and create change in their community.
There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to community engagement that will ensure a successful process in every community. Rather, we’ve found that the key to a successful process is maintaining flexibility and approaching engagement as an exercise in community-building, not data-gathering. The seven tips above have helped us to craft successful engagement programs and achieve “buy-in” in communities across the country – a critical component in ensuring that our plans result in real community change.