Below are a few helpful tips and best practices for public engagement. They can be used at the start of planning efforts with community groups, elected officials, or any initiative where influencing stakeholders is important.
My hope is that these tips will be useful for planners in navigating the sometimes troubled waters of community outreach in all neighborhoods.
Overcoming Skepticism and Distrust
Fear is often a driver of skepticism in communities. Many neighborhoods, particularly in urban areas, have been on the wrong side of planning policies and political priorities and have lived with the results for years. Convincing them that things will change with your current planning effort can present a sizable hurdle.
Don’t go at it alone
If you suffer from a credibility gap in your planning area, find key stakeholders in the community to partner with. Start by doing a stakeholder map like the one below identifying and ranking key influencers in your project area. These may be elected officials or prominent community organizers but they are oftentimes ordinary residents and active volunteers who have gained community worthiness. Getting the support of these people early on in the process can be invaluable to your ability to neutralize distrust and move your planning process forward. Rank the level at which stakeholders need to be engaged and form them into committees. Some may only want infrequent updates when deliverables are ready or decisions need to be made. This will be your steering committee that may meet monthly or quarterly. Others stakeholders may have more available time and want to be included in the details of the process along the way. These may be actively engaged or sub-committee or working group members ready to roll up their sleeves and meet more frequently.
photo courtesy of Kbp Media
Long-standing residents in a community have often seen numerous false starts of projects and new initiatives great and small. They may have been a part of previous planning efforts, charrettes, and visioning sessions and may have seen little tangible fruit as a result. As such, they may develop a sense of “planning fatigue” that moves beyond skepticism to apathy and exasperation with planning altogether. Consistency can be a short-term remedy to fatigue. Set-up regular meetings with stakeholders at a specific time and stick to them regularly. Make sure positive community meetings and any successes are followed up with frequent updates and progress reports to gain momentum according to your stakeholder map. A longer-term remedy is to gain some “wins” in the planning process that you can point to. This can be easier said than done but while you may not get the new sports facility built right away, you may be able to do the arts and culture festival at the neighborhood park.
Nothing generates buy-in like being at the table. Planners are in many cases “outsiders” who don’t live in the places they serve. This is at the root of much of the distrust and skepticism discussed earlier. Finding opportunities to engage with the community that you’re serving outside of usual committee meetings can be invaluable to influencing key stakeholders and the larger community. If residents see you showing up to the summer block club party or the regular Friday night fish fry, they will be much more open to hearing your strategies and recommendations at the next meeting when it’s time to work.
Reaching Diverse Communities
Outreach is not homogenous and it’s essential to know your audience and how to reach them. This is especially true when eliciting input from people in remote areas or regions with fewer resources. While technology can be a great way of engaging a large number of hard-to-reach people, it’s important not to assume all communities have equal access. Older and poorer residents as well as those that are inherently resistant to new technologies may have trouble accessing social media for updates or attending a Zoom meeting. Reaching them may require more “shoe leather” and reliance on local partners closer to the ground than you are. Additionally, if there’s a significant non-English speaking population in your planning area, be sure to have materials in all relevant languages. Diversity training and learning more about an unfamiliar community may also be necessary.