Overseeing a new construction or redevelopment project in your city is never a simple task. Every phase, from developer due diligence to planning, permitting and zoning, takes time and a specialized skill set.
A phase that requires just as much expertise, but is sometimes overlooked, is community engagement. When a municipality does things right, community engagement is equitable: open to everyone in the community, not just a small part of the population. Yet too often the exact opposite occurs: community engagement is managed in a way that only allows a handful of residents to have a say in or even learn more about the new development.
This is detrimental to the municipality, the planning process and the developer. Residents lose the ability to shape their own neighborhoods and lose faith in civic processes. As a result, developers will likely face opposition from the community.
Before explaining how city leaders can make their community engagement more equitable, let’s take a look at how and why it can often go wrong. Inequitable community engagement begins when city leaders allow developers to make assumptions about the community – what they want or need – rather than gathering real information.
For example, a developer might assume that residents want a modern high-rise residential downtown, even though they actually want a multi-purpose structure that matches an existing, more traditional aesthetic. Or a town planner might recommend a use of the open space that doesn’t really meet the needs of the community, although with more insight the opportunity to meet those needs was there from the start.
Another cause of inequitable community engagement is exclusivity, that is, failing to make the process of participation clear or easy. City leaders, city planners, and developers can expect residents to attend all planning board meetings, read a 100-page project plan, or be familiar with construction lingo. But it is not realistic.
Often, it is the already marginalized community of a town or city that is most affected by these inequitable processes. For example, residents who have limited English proficiency or who do not speak English at all are unable to fully participate in leaflets, surveys, forums, and other community engagement tools and events. Additionally, low-income residents often cannot afford time off work to attend a community engagement session. The result of all this? The residents whose voices matter most are never heard.
So how do you make equitable community engagement a reality? First, it is essential that city leaders do not make assumptions, and do not allow planners and developers to make assumptions. Instead, encourage the community to get actively involved as partners. Conduct large surveys to collect data, but also deploy more informal methods, such as simple conversations with people in town.
You can even involve community members, hiring them as outreach workers to support community engagement. This benefits the community and the developer, as the local staff have connections and knowledge that no one else can match. Likewise, you can connect developers with vital local institutions like churches, nonprofits, and chambers of commerce to glean their expertise.
It is also important to practice inclusiveness, not exclusivity, throughout the community engagement process. Provide translation services for all common languages in your community, including American Sign Language at spoken language events. Take advantage of multiple methods of engagement, online and in person, for those who may not have internet access. And organize engagement opportunities at different times to fit a variety of schedules.
Location is also an important consideration when it comes to equitable community engagement. City leaders should hold their meetings in the ideal “neighborhood location”, such as a restaurant, bookstore, or other business frequented by community members. Government, city planners, developers and local businesses can work together to foster a friendly atmosphere. Also make sure that the place is accessible to residents with disabilities.
Community engagement work may not be as visible as the actual construction, but it is just as important. As developers and planners plan their next projects in your community, make sure that the community engagement strategy is fair, so that it benefits everyone.
Celeste Frye, AICP is the co-founder and CEO of Public Works Partners LLC, a WBE / DBE / SBE certified planning and consulting firm specializing in multi-stakeholder initiatives and building strong links between the public, non-profit sectors. lucrative and private. For more information, visit publicworkspartners.com.