Community Engagement Strategies for Diverse Populations

Avoid the sins of the past by getting meaningful input from marginalized people.

Planning, well-meaning or not so, has rarely produced equitable results for all stakeholders. Certainly for much of the 20th century, people of color and other marginalized people bore the brunt of elitist to bigoted planning, zoning and other regulations.

Upwards of 100 Black communities were bisected or destroyed by freeways. Eminent domain robbed generational wealth from many minority main streets. Sewage plants, factories and land uses with severely negative environmental impacts almost always wound up in areas where people were poor and not well connected to city hall.

The planning profession realizes that even the most well-educated, well-meaning planner has biases. No single human being can personally know the dozens of different lived experiences and expectations of the diverse community they are shaping through planning.

From toolkits to common sense ways of broadening input by embracing diversity and going to the street corners, kitchens and hang out places of diverse stakeholders — planners are aiming for more inclusivity with public engagement.

Charles Brown is founder and CEO at Equitable Cities and creator of the Arrested Mobility Podcast that explores why Black Americans and other people of color are disproportionately victims of overly aggressive police enforcement and brutality while walking, running, riding bicycles, taking public transit and driving.

“For me, it really boils down to planners understanding the importance of acknowledging other people’s feelings. This is key because it is important to demonstrate — as a planner but also any professional — empathy, respect and understanding,” he said of getting at the heart of meaningful input from diverse communities. “By acknowledging someone’s feelings, you validate their experiences. It builds trust and it promotes effective communication, which is at the heart of what we’re trying to do when we are engaged with the public as planners.”

“If that doesn’t happen, it leads to the distrust, perceived disrespect and the lack of empathy that exists between [the] community and planners who are in it just for the sake of the project — as opposed to centering the importance of people’s voices in these processes,” said Brown, who serves on the Advisory Committee on Transportation Equity to U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

Brown encourages planning firms to be reflective of the diverse communities they serve. “I don’t know what the percentage of black and brown planners is, but it’s certainly very low. So, part of the solution is hiring people of color and putting them in project management roles,” he said of fundamental changes for inclusion that go beyond techniques and toolkits.

“Part of the solution is more Black people, more people of color, owning their own planning firms. We do have people of color who are at management levels at firms or directors of government [planning] offices. The problem is that they’re still not in a position of power to change the culture of that place,” he said.

Brown said the American Planning Association could provide training, networking and resources to develop people of color on a path to upper management or creating their own firm.

“As a person of color, when I tried to enact change swiftly from within — it was always met with resistance. So, the solution for me wasn’t to stay within that system and fight against it on a day-to-day basis. It was to create my own firm, so I could be free. In the worlds of Jay-Z, ‘Til you own your own, you can’t be free.’”

Brown said the best reset button to refocus on inclusive community engagement is the power of collaboration and co-creation. “Stakeholders are actively involved in shaping decisions and solutions. And what this does is it involves valuing those diverse perspectives, building consensus, and working towards shared goals,” he said.

“When a community feels as if you have a goal that is misaligned with its goals, that you’re not working on behalf of them, you are not building consensus and working toward shared goals,” Brown said. “If you have collaboration and co-creation from the start, you can get to a point of trust because you’re working towards shared goals.”

Give a voice to people who never had a seat at the table.

Brown said giving a voice to people who never had a seat at the table produces strong results. When only the establishment runs the show — planning, rules and procedures can hurt marginalized people.

Anna Zivarts, program director, Disability Mobility Initiative at Disability Rights Washington, is author of the Island Press book “When Driving Is Not an Option: Steering Away from Car Dependency.”

Zivarts, a low-vision mom and nondriver who was born with the neurological condition nystagmus, cautions planners from using “check the box” disability inclusion — inviting one person with a disability and assuming that meets all needs. “If you know someone in a wheelchair, that doesn’t mean you know what a low-vision person needs or what a neurodiverse needs,” she said. “If a low-income blind person can’t afford Uber or Lyft, you are going to have a very different context than someone who is blind but works in tech and can afford Uber/Lyft to commute to work.”

Zivarts said public engagement aimed at people with various disabilities is not a courtesy, it is an essential. She cautions planners from undercounting people with disabilities, noting that a built environment might be so filled with barriers that it keeps people with disabilities off the streets and sidewalks. For instance, as a low-vision person, Zivarts cannot read street signs with tiny fonts. Having better signage for pedestrian routes for people with disabilities would benefit all people in a city, especially visitors.

She noted that public transit is great for people with disabilities — but not if the new light rail station requires them to cross multiple lanes of speeding traffic that don’t even have a red light to protect their journey. “Planning has to be proactive. Ask paratransit riders about their experience. Go to a bus or train stop to interview diverse people — and give them a free bus pass in return for their time,” she advised. “Ease of mobility without depending on driving impacts more than the person with a disability. Caregivers need to have access to transit to reach the people they are caring for.”

The Disability Mobility Initiative

Courtesy of Disability Rights Washington DC

“My advice for people working in the industry is to recognize this is expertise you do not have,” she said, encouraging planning agencies and firms to hire people with disabilities. Antiquated hiring requirements block millions of people with disabilities from planning jobs. Most jobs require a driver’s license, even if it is not an essential part of the work. Many require the ability to lift 30 or more pounds — excluding people with physical disabilities — even though performing the job never requires it. She also noted that universities with planning, urban design and transportation degree programs need to do a much better job of recruiting students with disabilities.

Sue Popkin, co-director of the Disability Equity Policy Initiative at The Urban Institute, has Sjogren’s syndrome and uses a cane for mobility.

“Our research revealed that more than 18 million people with disabilities face significant barriers to stable and quality housing that is affordable, accessible, and inclusive of people’s support needs,” Popkin said of a survey conducted with The Kelsey, a San Francisco–based nonprofit that co-develops affordable disability-forward multifamily housing for people with and without disabilities.

“The Kelsey is working with people with disabilities to design affordable housing — rather than working with an architect who thinks about what accessibility should be,” she said, noting that a tiny fraction of architecture firms truly understands accessible housing.

Popkin frames the paternalistic attitude that too many planners and designers have toward disability inclusion and implementation.

“Our work has a community advisory board with a diverse range of disabilities. It enriches what that data shows,” she said. “The planning community doesn’t realize that they must include people with disabilities. They don’t know that the census results in a huge undercount of people with disabilities because it doesn’t count incarcerated, institutionalized or homeless people. It leaves out people with psychiatric disabilities and many with intermittent conditions.”

Involve people with disabilities in the design and planning processes from the outset, including research design.

Popkin said top-down planning is a failure for people with disabilities — “Unfortunately, planners don’t do a charette until everything is designed and you basically are only asking ‘do you want to have a brown or blue cabinet in your accessible home?’”

“People may want onsite telehealth [connectivity]; they may want to be able to age in place more successfully. Take the time to get input before you design. And compensate people for their time — you get a much better outcome.”

Karin Korb is a public health consultant and a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion professional. She is also a two-time Paralympian tennis player who uses a wheelchair for mobility.

“Utilize virtual reality technology to provide immersive experiences of proposed community designs for individuals with mobility or sensory disabilities. Develop VR simulations that allow participants to navigate and interact with virtual environments, experiencing firsthand how the proposed changes may impact accessibility and usability,” she said. “Incorporate customizable features such as adjustable terrain, lighting and audio cues to accommodate various disabilities.

Encourage participants to provide feedback on accessibility barriers and suggest modifications to improve inclusivity in the final plans.

“Encourage participants to provide feedback on accessibility barriers and suggest modifications to improve inclusivity in the final plans.”

Korb said high tech, when calibrated to match the needs of various disabilities, not only enhances the participation of people with disabilities in community-planning efforts, but also promotes a more inclusive and equitable approach to decision-making processes.

“Create tactile maps of the community planning area to make the process more inclusive for individuals with visual impairments or cognitive disabilities. Use various textures, shapes, and raised symbols to represent different elements such as buildings, streets, parks and amenities,” she said. “Organize interactive mapping sessions where participants can explore and provide input on the proposed plans.”

Korb said minoritized communities — including people with disabilities — feel like they are invited to a workshop or online survey just so the planning team can check a box. “The planners heard from them but could care less about designing with them in mind.”

Cynicism from bad experiences can be addressed by involving people with disabilities in the design and planning processes from the outset, including research design.

“Collaboratively develop inclusive and accessible strategies that reflect the diverse needs and preferences of participants. Endorse community representatives to co-facilitate meetings, review materials, and shape decision-making processes,” Korb said. “By co-creating the engagement process, planners demonstrate a commitment to shared ownership and accountability.”

Mike Watson, director of Livable Communities at AARP, said the 38-million-member interest group champions bottom-up planning — working in more than 1,000 communities to support local efforts to create age-friendly communities.

Watson said planning for seniors could be as simple as creating a plan for wide, unobstructed, accessible sidewalks and safe crosswalks. AARP has developed a free online Walk Audit Toolkit to empower communities to “assess and report on the safety and walkability of a street, intersection or neighborhood — and inspire needed change.”

Download the Walk Audit Toolkit

Courtesy of AARP

“Walk audits are such an important way to increase pedestrian safety through neighborhood design that engages neighborhood residents, activists, elected officials and city staff,” he said. “AARP state offices have done thousands of them and it’s such an important learning tool to show pedestrian mobility issues through different perspectives. Bring the department of public works director, the city council member, or the mayor out to see barriers to moving about, pushing a stroller or rolling in a wheelchair.”

Communities that want to jump-start planning efforts, such as traffic-calming or zoning changes, can apply for AARP’s Community Challenge — a grant that funds about $12,000 in planning support. More than $16 million has been given to more than 1,370 initiatives.

“The advice I would give folks, to reach diverse stakeholders, is step out of your perspective and your comfort zone,” Watson said. “Surveys are helpful, but there is a difference between a survey on a website and going to where the people are and actively listening. Go to an inviting place, like a coffee shop, for authentic input. You may need to create a comfortable place by creating a pop-up demonstration.”

Watson said some cities don’t change to keep up with community needs out of fear of opposition — opposition that might not be there.

“In Lexington, Ky., the planning department combined with the elderly affairs commission to address the need for more types of housing options,” he said. “A goal was to amend city code to make it easier to permit and build accessory dwelling units (ADUs). The University of Kentucky College of Design used a Community Challenge grant to fund a competition to create models of different types of ADUs that were accessible [to people with disabilities].”

Watson said there was some opposition to adding housing, but the ADUs had intergenerational appeal. A series of community events showed why the ADUs were needed.

Amy Stelly — a planner, designer, teacher and artist — has studied the health and economic impacts of New Orleans’ Claiborne Expressway, which has been recognized as “an example of historic inequity” by the Biden administration.

Until the 1960s, Claiborne Avenue was filled with live oaks trees and azaleas along a grassy median. It was heart of the Tremé neighborhoods’ Black commerce and culture. By the end of the ‘60s, trees were gone and 18 blocks were dominated by endless concrete pilings holding up Interstate 10. It became the poster child for tearing down freeways that destroyed communities, yet it still stands.

Stelly has documented air and noise pollution, loss of property value and other ill effects of an era when planners routinely ignored, and major projects ran roughshod over, minority communities. Stelly said Black communities “have been rained on for most of their existence,” building mistrust.

As an artist, one of her strategies was to go out and take photographs of real people in the neighborhood — shunning the clip art virtual beings often dragged into 2-D renderings to portray people in a plan.

“The best way for us to speak to one another, especially in the Black community, was to see ourselves,” she said.

Stelly cautions against falsely mitigating the destruction of ugly infrastructure that rips though a community, saying painting hundreds of concrete supports or staging a market beneath freeway pollution does not resolve the problem.

“We can’t just put lipstick on the pig. Lipstick on the pig doesn’t remove the pig,” she said.

While she campaigns to remove the Claiborne Expressway — lamenting that local leaders fumbled an opportunity so badly that New Orleans received only a fraction of federal funds aimed at reconnecting communities by removing freeways that divided and partially destroyed them — she fears another project could cause damage.

Stelly said a viaduct to serve new port cargo storage could not only hurt the environment, but also impose more concrete and pollution on lower-income, not influential communities.

Redlining is illegal, but Stelly said it effectively exists because banks are leery of lending money to a business virtually underneath an ugly, noisy freeway. And grand homes near the viaduct still may only have a third of the value that they would enjoy if they were in a neighborhood without a destructive freeway.

Stelly said parachute planning, when outsiders produce quick fixes for complex problems, rarely helps a marginalized community. When Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, one of the first planning suggestions was to abandon the historically Black community rather than building stronger levees and rebuilding.

Then some well-meaning, but misguided foundations, — some backed by celebrities — built structures that were out of place, and despite a slew of technology in their design, did not weather well. Vacant lots still scar the neighborhood where Fats Domino and other music legends grew up or lived.

Andreanecia Morris, executive director of HousingNOLA, advocates for rigorous public engagement backstopped by data. She said data shows a planning and leadership failure in the Lower Ninth, where only 40 percent of pre-Katrina housing exists, despite nearly two decades of rebuilding schemes floated after the storm.

Morris said planners should view housing as an essential need, not a status symbol. She said lack of stable, affordable housing gets in the way of education, health care, job opportunities, criminal justice reform — everything that impacts all communities, but hits marginalized areas the hardest.

Morris said stats show a major disconnect between assets in New Orleans and a methodical plan to solve affordable housing. “New Orleans has a 23-percent rate of occupiable homes and apartments,” she said, emphasizing that nearly one-fourth of the city’s units could become an affordable dwelling unit with just some minor fixups before move in.

In mid-2023, the city of Philadelphia’s Office of Civic Engagement and Volunteer Service and the PHL Service Design Studio launched the Equitable Community Engagement Toolkit website. The site has more than two dozen guides covering “project planning, evaluation, accessibility, languages access, and how to center racial equity in engagement.”

“We’ve worked with over 160 colleagues and community members to inform the vision and guidance of the Engagement Toolkit. We’ve been transformed by this work and the care our collaborators have shown in sharing their lived expertise with us,” said Andrea Ngan, lead service design strategist.

The language access element of the toolkit uses a quote to drive home the isolation someone can feel, despite their having every right to full city services: “For someone like me, who doesn’t have good English, it’s very difficult to visit [city buildings]. I always have to bring someone who speaks English because it’s hard to find an interpreter through the phone or in-person. It’s very inconvenient.” — Community Member.

The language guide has sage advice for serving the nearly 22 percent of Americans who speak a language that is not English at home.

“When we don’t prioritize language access, some community members will plan their own accommodations or won’t participate at all. That causes linguistically diverse communities to take on inequitable burdens that fluent English speakers don’t experience. And that can lead to conflict, delays, and miscommunication in our engagements,” according to the toolkit. Artie Padilla, DRIVE Initiative Director for the Central Valley Community Foundation, said cities could benefit by duplicating Fresno, California’s strong presence of nonprofits doing place-based planning.

“The city of Fresno has learned if they don’t do things in an equitable, relatable way, they’re going to be called out,” Padilla said of planning for housing, mobility, parks, the environment and more. “The mayor even created a department of community engagement.”

Community development should be based on assets — and the assets always are the people who live in the impacted area.

Padilla said planning needs to start with nothing locked in stone. Community development should be based on assets — and the assets always are the people who live in the impacted area.

“In the past, city officials would say everybody likes parks, so they just built a park. Now, it has to be culturally responsible and super inclusive for people with disabilities,” he said.

A city cannot simply state it wants its planning to reflect the community; it must commit to making community engagement easy for diverse audiences. “Provide a meal, have childcare, have translation/native speakers — have it at times that are best for the community,” he said. “You have to have an informed community by providing on ramps to learning for our residents. You also should pay stipends to participants. We have a saying here — NFL — No Free Labor.”

Padilla said businesses used to get tax credits or other incentives simply because they promised to create jobs. Now people are asking during the planning/land-use entitlement process, “are they full-time with benefits, are they good jobs, and are they going to be sustainable?”

In South Fresno, large distribution centers are still being built, Padilla said, but now a community benefits agreement uses a portion of revenues to fund infrastructure improvements in surrounding, previously neglected neighborhoods.

Another important voice too often forgotten is our youth. The National Park Service’s (NPS) Youth Stewardship program wisely “works to involve youth in the planning of conservation and outdoor recreation projects as part of the community engagement process.”

The Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance program of the NPS has a more than 30-year record of supporting local conservation and outdoor recreation projects — including planning that includes youth input. The NPS realizes that while children are often the primary beneficiaries of parks and recreation, their thoughts and feelings are rarely taken into consideration in the planning and design process.

Community groups, nonprofit organizations, tribal governments, national parks, plus local, state and federal agencies can apply for technical assistance.

An NPS case study highlighted Backman Elementary School in Salt Lake City, Utah, “home to a vibrant and diverse community.” But many students’ only route to school was walking along a busy highway with no sidewalk. The NPS team involved the students in meetings to plan for a safe pedestrian bridge to connect to local neighborhoods and an outdoor education and nature area along the river corridor.

For truly reflective community input and planning, all voices must be heard and included.



The REALTOR® commitment to diversity and equality is perhaps the strongest in real estate, going even further than the federal Fair Housing Act.

Smart Growth

The healthier a community, the better the environment for REALTORS®. Keeping a community attractive, livable and functioning well is a complex task.

About On Common Ground

A free, semi-annual magazine published by NAR, On Common Ground presents a wide range of views on smart growth issues, with the goal of encouraging dialog among REALTORS®, elected officials, and other interested citizens.

Order Printed Copies of the Latest Issue