Why equitable community engagement matters—and how to practice it
Overseeing a new construction or redevelopment project in your city is never a simple task. Every phase—from due diligence about the developer, to planning, permits and zoning—takes time and a specialized skill set.
One phase that requires just as much expertise, but that is sometimes overlooked, is community engagement. When a municipality does it right, community engagement is equitable: open to everyone in the community, not just a small portion of the population. Yet too often, just the opposite occurs: community engagement is run in a way that allows only a handful of residents to weigh in, or even learn more about the new development.
This is harmful to the municipality, the planning process and the developer. Residents lose the ability to shape their own neighborhoods and lose faith in civic processes. Developers will most likely face community opposition as a result.
Before explaining how municipal leaders can make their community engagement work more equitable, let’s discuss how and why it can often go wrong. Inequitable community engagement starts when municipal leaders allow developers to make assumptions about the community—what they want or need—rather than gathering real information.
For example, a developer may assume residents desire a modern residential high-rise downtown, despite them really wanting a multi-use structure that matches an existing, more traditional aesthetic. Or an urban planner could recommend a use for open space that doesn’t truly meet the needs of the community—even though, with more insight, the opportunity to meet those needs was there all along.
Another cause of inequitable community engagement is exclusivity—that is, not making the participation process clear or easy. Municipal leaders, urban planners and developers might expect residents to come to all planning board meetings, or read a 100-page project plan, or be familiar with construction jargon. But this isn’t realistic.
Oftentimes, it’s a city or town’s already-marginalized community who are most harmed by these inequitable processes. For example, residents who with limited English proficiency or who don’t speak English at all are unable to fully engage with flyers, surveys, forums, and other community engagement tools and events. Further, low-income residents often cannot afford to miss 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’s essential that municipal leaders don’t make assumptions, nor allow urban planners and developers to make assumptions. Instead, encourage the community to be actively involved as partners. Conduct ample surveys to collect data, but also deploy more informal methods, like simple conversations with individuals downtown.
You can even bring members of the community onboard, hiring them as outreach workers to support community engagement. This benefits the community and the developer, as local staff have relationships and insight that no one else can match. Similarly, you can connect developers with vital local institutions like churches, nonprofits and chambers of commerce to glean their expertise.
It’s also important to practice inclusivity, not exclusivity, throughout the community engagement process. Provide translation services for all the languages that are common in your community, including American Sign Language at events that use the spoken word. Leverage multiple methods of engagement—online and in-person—for those who may not have internet access. And hold engagement opportunities at different times to accommodate a variety of schedules.
Location is also an important element when it comes to equitable community engagement. Municipal leaders should set their meetings at the ideal “neighborhood spot,” like a restaurant, bookstore or other business that is frequented by community members. Government, urban planners, developers and local businesses can work together to foster a friendly atmosphere. Also, make sure the venue is accessible to residents with disabilities.
Community engagement work may not be as visible as actual construction, but it’s just as important. As developers and urban planners chart their next projects in your community, ensure the community engagement strategy is equitable, so it will benefit everyone.
Celeste Frye, AICP is 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 connections across the government, nonprofit and private sectors. For more information, visit publicworkspartners.com.