Choosing the Right Tools for the Job

Working with Communities to Plan Projects that Matter to Them

Thanks 2020, for delivering us into the golden age of community engagement.

Even before that pandemic year, certainly, planners and decisionmakers were pushing to develop new tools and techniques to broaden and deepen input from communities with a stake in a new neighborhood plan, street redesign, park overhaul or myriad other projects. But when public gatherings became off-limits in 2020, necessity helped deliver a myriad of online meeting formats, interactive data-gathering and multimedia technologies for reaching stakeholders and “co-creating” visions and plans.

Then the George Floyd and related protests shone a bright light on the legacy of maltreatment and neglect of African American communities, especially, but also other non-white and immigrant communities. Elected officials and planners recognized that overcoming that deeply ingrained inequity meant taking special care to truly listen to the voices of people previously excluded from — and often hurt by — public decision-making. The classic public meeting format simply was not going to cut it anymore.

“When you send a postcard and ask people to show up for a meeting,” said community engagement specialist Catherine Girves, “what you get in terms of lived experience, typically, are folks who work 9 to 5; are white-collar; make enough to own, operate and maintain a car; are disproportionately white; and male. Those tend to be the people in decision-making roles.”

Equitable engagement means working to win trust over time by meeting people where they are,building relationships with well-connected community members, and speaking to them in a language they understand.

Post 2020, “out” are the one-off public meetings at city hall or in musty church basements, where officials present what they intend to do and wince through feedback they fully intend to ignore. “In” is equitable engagement — working to win trust over time by meeting people where they are, building relationships with well-connected community members, and speaking to them in a language they understand. This means not only translating materials and interactions into the languages spoken in a community, but also rendering planning lingo and bureaucratese into jargon-free, everyday terms.

Virtual meetings can allow people to attend who otherwise couldn’t make it given work schedule, transportation, child-care, or other constraints. Online data-gathering techniques allow people to add their thoughts whenever they have an opportunity. “It’s a new frontier,” said noted walk-bike planner Dan Burden. No matter their demographics, he said, “One of the big problems is people don’t go to town meetings much anymore. We need ways to re-engage people and bring them back, using the same platforms as social media, but in ways that give them a break from it.” But online is not the end-all, cautions Marisa Denker, founder and CEO of engagement firm Connect the Dots. “Just doing a virtual meeting you’ll miss half or more of your audience. People have access, technical, training and other barriers to online participation.”

Now that there are more tools than ever, Denker said, the key is choosing the right ones for the myriad planning jobs at hand. Below, we look at some that have been especially effective for projects under consideration, whether related to transportation, land use, public space or redevelopment.

Walking Audits, Bike Tours and a “Living Preview” for Safe Streets Planning

Burden today is sought after for his long expertise in helping communities identify and find solutions for removing threats and barriers to safe, comfortable and inviting environments for walking, biking and enjoying public space. Currently the director of inspiration and innovation for Blue Zones LLC, he is perhaps best known for popularizing the “walking audit,” a guided tour for decisionmakers and residents that allows everyone the chance to experience the environment and have a conversation toward developing a vision for a given area. “My whole career has been about coming in sort of like an orchestra leader,” Burden said, “Not selling an idea, but figuring out what people wanted and then putting on a training and a workshop where they came together and figured out how to plan for what they wanted.”

Burden and his team a couple of years ago brought that approach to work in the Iron Triangle area of Richmond, Calif., a largely African American and Latino community working to reverse a reputation for “blight” and crime. A local nonprofit, Pogo Park Association, and the city were looking to calm traffic and create inviting public space along a key corridor that connects parks, schools, transit links and neighborhood institutions. Burden’s team organized a pair of walking audits to help residents “envision an entire neighborhood with traffic-calmed streets, Safe Routes to School and new park projects.” As a demonstration to help local participants refine their plans and get a real-world taste of the possibilities, Burden and company helped organize a “living preview.” Over the course of a weekend, residents worked together to install traffic circles in two intersections, with locally produced totem poles in the center; narrow the crossing distances with curb bulb-outs and refuge islands; add high-visibility markings at crosswalks; and create a protected walkway and temporary bike lane along one street. The city went on to win a federal grant and implementation is ongoing.

When planning for urban trails, Girves — a planning principal for Toole Design — likes to make use of a bike-riding audit, and the insights that can be provided by various types of users. She recalled a recent bicycle tour d speaking to them in a language they understand. This means not only translating materials and interactions into the languages spoken in a community, but also rendering planning lingo and bureaucratese into jargon-free, everyday terms. for a team from the Ohio Department of Transportation that was developing plans for trail connections to transit and other destinations. “We usually take people out in groups of no more than five, so people can get a sense of what it might be like to be out there alone,” said Girves. “We had five women and five men. I took the women, and they noted things like when the bushes were close, where there was an encampment. They were hyper-fixated on what was in the peripheral vision. The men noticed the wetlands, the trees and the nature. The women were concerned about feeling isolated, disconnected and vulnerable. The men were shocked that the conversation was so different. The trail wasn’t designed to make women feel that way but it’s how it turned out.” This led to putting a focus on visibility, lighting, more frequent on and off ramps to trails.

Neighborhood Planning With a Sketch Artist, Door Knocking and a Placemaking Festival

The Fairland and Briggs Chaney portion of eastern Montgomery County, Md., is an “equity focus” area, home to the county’s largest concentration of Black residents, along with newer immigrants speaking Amharic, Spanish and Vietnamese. In 2021, county planners set out to develop a new master plan that would guide development, transportation, parks and open space, “while advancing Montgomery County’s racial equity and social justice goals,” according to a county report.

Community gathering in front of Montgomery County Planning blue tents

Courtesy of Montgomery County

Recognizing that nearly half the residents were renters, who historically are less likely to be involved in such efforts than homeowners, Montgomery Planning partnered with a local nonprofit dedicated to outreach to underrepresented communities, said Bridget Broullire, acting deputy director of Montgomery Planning. Dozens of staff and volunteers began by distributing nearly 6,000 flyers to apartment doors notifying residents of the chance to advise the master plan and letting them know that canvassers would be coming by in hopes of a conversation.

Door-to-door canvassing made a huge difference.

They also were offered a chance at a $100 gift card for filling out an online survey. The follow-up door knocking netted more than 500 detailed conversations. “We had materials translated to five languages,” Broullire said. “Door-to-door canvassing made a huge difference.” Later, when planners held pop-up events at neighborhood gathering spots, many people were aware and more trusting about participating. When the focus was on urban design, she said, “We used a graphic recording artist to sketch a visual representation of proposed placemaking features and what people said about them. People loved that they could see ideas emerge and be recorded in real time.”

Kids in a park writing and gathering around an announcement board filled with pictures

Courtesy of Montgomery County Parks

To make those ideas still more tangible, planners worked with the Better Block Foundation to hold a demonstration event similar to the “living preview” in Richmond. “While we were still developing the plan, we took over a huge park-n-ride lot for a placemaking festival,” said Broullire. “We built play structures for kids, a bandshell, seating and more. This was first time we did a demonstration like this during the planning,” rather than as an interim measure before a plan could be implemented.

An “Engagement Snack Cart” Helps Shape a Regional Rail Plan

Historically, the regional rail network operated by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) served traditional 9-5 commutes. But even before the pandemic, it was clear that patterns had shifted, “reverse” commutes from core to outlying locations had grown, and that the needs of shift workers and many other potential riders weren’t being served. In the wake of COVID-19, SEPTA worked with Denker’s Connect the Dots to engage residents in the service zone on a new, more inclusive strategic plan. An initial online survey drew a robust 5,000 responses, but when the team dug deeper, they found that respondents represented only a subset of riders, and they were mostly well-to-do and white.

But how to reach those who weren’t inclined to respond to an online survey? The answer turned out to be an “engagement snack cart” that served up tasty treats along with information about the plan and survey, and a chance to have a conversation about them. Outreach teams deployed the cart both on trains and in station areas and managed to connect and gain insights from thousands whose views didn’t show up in the initial survey. In two phases of outreach, the project engaged more than 10,000 people. The initial phase sought to surface gaps in what riders needed and turned up issues of reliability, accessibility and inclusivity. A second phase asked for feedback on various service scenarios and “highlighted strong support for transitioning parts of the Regional Rail infrastructure to more frequent Metro-style service, promoting greater usage and accessibility,” according to SEPTA.

Victim’s Stories Inform a Redevelopment Plan for a Monument to Abusive Authority

Known colloquially as the Roundhouse, the longtime police headquarters in Philadelphia’s Center City is both an exemplar of Brutalist architecture and a local icon of law enforcement brutality, so much so that it was a “flashpoint” during 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests, a city report notes. When city leaders decided to decommission it as a police facility, they tasked Philadelphia’s planning department for help engaging with area residents — many of whom had traumatic associations with the Roundhouse — to create a redevelopment plan for the site. “They had assumed people wanted it gone, and the question was what should be put in its place,” said Denker, whose firm was brought on to help with outreach. “We tried to bring in story-telling techniques to let people share their history with the site and their goals for the future.”

After a series of focus groups to get a sense of the best ways to engage residents of varying backgrounds, planners held open houses at the site. “We built a podium where people could speak and tell their stories,” Denker said. An interactive drawing event helped draw people out, literally, and participants also contributed to a mural with representations of people’s stories and hopes for the future. Because young people had the most frequent and recent interactions with the police headquarters, planners also partnered with local youth organizations to conduct youth-to-youth engagement. One of the most popular features, Denker said, was an online “multimedia wall. In addition to a survey, we let people upload a photo, text, video, audio recordings. Some people are more comfortable speaking than writing, and vice versa, and they could do it all there.”

The wall was accessible to speakers of English, Spanish and Chinese and it “became a message board for people far and wide to engage in discourse,” according to the city report.

“A surprise was that more people wanted to keep the Roundhouse than demolish it,” said Denker, “but they wanted to switch the purpose and make it a positive community space. People wanted to memorialize some of what happened there and to reimagine what it could do for the community. They wanted to keep it as a historical landmark.”

Spanish-Speaking Ambassadors Help Negotiate a School Travel Plan

When Girves and Toole Design were asked to prepare a school travel plan for the city of Painesville, Ohio, they were alerted that the parents in the large Spanish-speaking population — about 28 percent of city residents identify as Hispanic/Latino — were “hard to reach.” Girves said she and her team learned that 60 percent of public-school kids lived in Spanish-speaking households, so it seemed critical that her team hear from them. “We hired an ambassador who was known in the community and who spoke Spanish.”

Community gathering in Painesville, OH

Courtesy of the City of Painesville, Ohio

The ambassador was able to speak to groups and individuals to inform them that the city was creating a plan to help create safe routes to schools and promote walking and biking to school. “When we had a meeting in Spanish, we had 50 people show up, an unusually large number in any community and especially impressive for one whose parents typically didn’t engage,” she said.

Surveys and interviews found radically divergent perceptions about walking and biking to school between Spanish and English speakers: Eighty-six percent of Spanish-speaking respondents said walking or biking to school was unsafe or very unsafe, versus just 31 percent of English speakers. Similarly, while 77 percent of English speakers reported that walking or biking to school is healthy or very healthy, only 33 percent of Spanish speakers agreed with those sentiments. “From Spanish-speaking parents we heard that walking to school felt dangerous because kids were fighting,” she said. Latino kids felt vulnerable because “they had gotten the message that they were ‘less than.’”

And there were other fears that English speakers didn’t have: “Parents were concerned kids would be stopped for documentation that could lead to deportation. The local leadership were asking what deportation issues have to do with a school travel plan. What that planning effort surfaced was that we needed to have a community conversation about this and the horrible interactions with law enforcement that they didn’t talk about publicly. How safe parents felt about their kids walking to school absolutely had a bearing on the travel plan. But it wouldn’t come up in conventional engagement.”

Good-Bye Dog Park, Hello Soccer Field: Planning a Park With Those Who Use It

When Montgomery Parks received a state grant to renovate Rosemary Hills-Lyttonsville Local Park in a demographically mixed area of Silver Spring, Md., parks planners thought they knew what they should do: Add a dog park and a community garden and maybe replace the tennis court with other activities. In the past, parks officials might have run it past residents in a pro forma public meeting, but that was before the department committed itself to equitable engagement in the years before the pandemic, said Melissa Chotiner, media relations and community engagement manager for Montgomery Parks. “It’s very different from what we did previously,” she added. “Now with equitable engagement, we hire translators and provide resources to communicate with people with disabilities. We work with community organizations and go out to events where the community is. We have gone to food distribution sites, schools, churches. We try to spread very wide for the community we’re working within to ensure people have a voice.”

As the name suggests, Rosemary Hills-Lyttonsville serves two communities, with a total of about 68,000 residents. The area immediately around the park is made up primarily of stand-alone houses, but in other areas, it has many more renters and residents from other parts of the world. Historically, Lyttonsville is one of the county’s earliest and largest Black settlements, though the demographics have changed over the years, Chotiner said.

“We started with an online survey with 300 respondents, but realized they were mostly single-family homeowners,” said Christie Ciabotti, Montgomery’s acting division chief for park planning. “We realized we should reach out to the multifamily community on the other side of the park.”

Montgomery County community engagement in a park with people answering surveys

Courtesy of Montgomery County

The department hired a consultant to reach out to apartment building managers and reserve time in lobbies and common areas, she added. “We brought poster boards and had giveaways to get people to participate. We did verbal rather than written surveys and got a lot more nuanced information. We went to a National Night Out event to be able to mix it up more with the community. On a holiday weekend we did a pop-up event in the park.”

Ultimately, they added about 700, more disparate voices to the park conversation.

Planners learned they had missed the mark in early assumptions about what renting neighbors might want. “We had thought the renters would want a place to take dogs and a community garden, things you need when you don’t have your own patch of green space, but that wasn’t the case,” Ciabotti said. “They didn’t care about a dog park, but we learned they were very interested in soccer. We developed a new plan focused on a full field renovation, which we hadn’t planned, but also a soccer court and improvements to basketball and tennis. … We went in saying we’re going to give you all these amenities, isn’t this great? They said that’s nice but we’d rather you fix up what we have.”

The Speed of Trust

Of all the options now available in the expanding engagement toolbox, most critical are time, and to a certain extent, money, Denker said. “Whether online or in person and no matter the project, you have to build trust ahead of trying to get anyone to participate. As they say, engagement moves at the speed of trust.” And there are still new frontiers to conquer on the engagement front, she added. “One of my vision goals is that, rather than project by project picking community partners, create citywide ambassadors or liaisons. Even community-based groups aren’t always inclusive of all views. I’d like to see engagement hubs that are physical places for this work.” Having this engagement infrastructure in what Montgomery County would call equity focus areas would help alleviate the confusion and frustration of multiple planning efforts for different agencies, which leave communities feeling “over-engaged,” she added.

You have to build trust ahead of trying to get anyone to participate.

Good planning simply can’t happen without meaningful engagement, Broullire said. “Change is difficult for people — and that’s what planners are always talking about. Even when we are talking about good changes, there’s always suspicion when you’re talking about change. We owe it to our communities to respect that and meet them where they are.”


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