Planners and developers frequently turn to big data and numbers crunching to gain a 10,000-foot perspective of an issue and a community. There’s a definite value in using big data as a tool in long-range comprehensive planning. But it’s important to remember that a community’s residents are rarely found at 10,000 feet, but live and work at ground level. And that ground-level approach is where qualitative research benefits community planning.
In simple terms, big data is quantitative and all about numbers. Conversely, qualitative data is about words. Or more precisely, as defined by Dr. John Gaber as “words, images and sounds that capture empirical data.” Dr. Gaber chairs the City Planning and Real Estate Development Department at Clemson University and is a professor of City and Regional Planning. His book “Qualitative Analysis for Planning & Policy: Beyond the Numbers” is a how-to guide to the successful use of qualitative data collection and analysis in city planning. Dr. Gaber lists three main reasons why qualitative data is essential to the planning process: it purposefully seeks out a variety of community perspectives; it collects essential non-technical observations or slices of life from stakeholders; and it gives power to the community.
The community’s lived experiences have a direct contribution to the decision-making process that impacts their future.
“It is the redistribution of research power that enables the community to have an active presence in planning and public policy research conclusions where the community’s lived experiences have a direct contribution to the decision-making process that impacts their future,” explains Gaber in his book.
The Human Connection
Creating connections is at the heart of qualitative research. “It’s about going back to the community in place,” says Dr. Gaber. “City research is human research. It needs the connection to the community and grounding to the people. Planners need to get the lived experiences in the area. It brings life to the planning process.”
But effective qualitative research is much more than a commitment to collecting public opinion, it is a systematic and scientific approach. Dr. Gaber explains that in most cases, a town hall meeting wouldn’t constitute meaningful qualitative research because inviting people to speak their minds without a concerted effort to collect speakers’ information along with their comments creates a “disconnect between words and people. Words have meaning because of their connectiveness with people and places.” He adds that while collecting public comments has long been a part of comprehensive planning, the difference now is that a qualitative research approach is clearly defined at the beginning of the process. As Dr. Gaber puts it, “20 years ago it was the sprinkles on the doughnut, now we start with qualitative questions.”
David Rouse, who has more than 40 years of experience as an urban planner and landscape architect, agrees that “Input and engagement truly capture what people think of their community.” Rouse and Rocky Piro co-authored the book “The Comprehensive Plan: Sustainable, Resilient & Equitable Communities for the 21st Century.” They utilize standards developed by the American Planning Association to provide benchmarks and closely examine the entire planning process from initial phase to development to implementation.
Rouse says there are three basic questions that should be asked at the onset of the qualitative process in comprehensive planning — where are we now, where do we want to go and how do we get there. The first question may involve analyzing statistical trends. It could also include conducting a statistically valid, random survey to collect a representative sampling of community priorities. Rouse explains that a survey is not only a tool to help convert qualitative data into quantitative data, but can also serve as a check against other data sources.
Input from the community is especially important.
The second question is where input from the community is especially important. It’s not only essential to understand what stakeholders feel about their community but to understand their vision for the future. And that leads to the third question which will help define the ultimate goals of the process. At the end there should be policies and actions that will help take the community from where it currently is to where it wants to be.
Once those initial questions have been addressed, it’s time to move forward with the process. Rouse says the initial step in a qualitative approach is setting the stage and identifying the groups that need to be reached. It’s more than just talking with as many people as possible. It’s all about talking with the right people, and that includes people whose voices have historically been ignored or participation has been under represented.
“Planners need to make sure input comes from across the board and that can be tough,” Rouse says. “They need to find ways to connect with groups that have been overlooked in the past such as the poor and minorities. Traditional processes often don’t involve the people who really need to have a voice.”
Rouse remembers a unique approach used in Albany, N.Y., a number of years ago. Planners were using a survey to collect opinions, but were having trouble gathering comments from certain neighborhoods. So, on one of the hottest days of the year, workers took the survey to the neighborhoods knowing that most people were likely sitting on their front steps to avoid the stifling heat of their non-air-conditioned homes.
He adds that a community advisory committee can help guide the process and ensure that all stakeholders have a voice. An effective committee would include a mix of experts, officials and community members. The committee’s roles and objectives should be clearly defined.
In addition to traditionally under-represented voices, it may be necessary to gather more objective observations as well. Dr. Gaber defines these two types of citizen expression as ‘emic’ and ‘etic’. Emic opinions are provided by community insiders. These are the people living in the community and understand what is happening there. Etic observations come from objective outsiders who may have expertise in a particular area and are able to provide a bigger-picture overview of the issue.
Walking interviews and photovoice empower community members to share their opinions and observations from right where they live.
Dr. Gaber explains there are a number of research tools that successfully collect empirical, qualitative data. These techniques are walking interviews, photovoice and stakeholder/key informant meetings. Walking interviews and photovoice empower community members to share their opinions and observations from right where they live. They are an excellent source of emic data. Stakeholder and key informant meetings can provide both emic and etic data. All of the techniques require thoughtful and detailed planning at the front end.
Walking interviews are where a planner talks with a community member during a tour of the neighborhood.
Photovoice quite literally provides snapshots of the community by providing residents with cameras to document what they experience in their day-to-day lives. Both techniques are powerful tools that give traditionally marginalized residents a voice.
Stakeholder and key informant meetings gather input from specific groups. Stakeholder input uses a cross-sectional approach to collect data from a variety of groups impacted by the plan. While key informant investigations seek out specific groups or individuals with technical expertise or specialized knowledge of the issue or area.
REALTORS® Are an Important Factor in the Planning Process
REALTORS® can be extremely useful in providing both emic and etic data. They’re not only intimately connected to their communities, but they are also subject-matter experts. More and more, they have become important partners with local officials and community planners.
REALTORS® are closely connected to their communities.
In Topeka, Kansas, The Sunflower Association of REALTORS® participated in and helped fund a “Citywide Housing Market Study & Strategy.” A 12-member steering committee comprised of housing partner organizations and 95 key housing and neighborhood stakeholders participated in the study — the first of its kind in approximately 30 years. Bringing together a variety of stakeholders helped everyone better identify issues and create a both realistic and visionary strategy.
“Working in silos has never worked. You need to bring in others,” explains Sunflower Association of REALTORS® CEO Linda Briden. “The marketing study results provided solid evidence to the city of the need in all areas. In the long run, this is a study that didn’t end up on the shelf with an inch of dust. The city is using it as a map to get to a better place.”
Fauquier County, VA
Fauquier County in Northern Virginia, situated in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area, worked with the Greater Piedmont REALTORS® to create a growth poll that identified what issues mattered to residents.
“Greater Piedmont REALTORS® initiated discussions with Fauquier County about what a polling grant could do to assist them in their planning,” explained Greater Piedmont REALTORS® Executive Director Debbie Werling. “We partnered with the county administrator and chief of planning from the start to ascertain what type of data and questions would be helpful to them in their planning efforts.”
It was a very aggressive timeline, but the results helped clarify local sentiment and identify key areas of concern, including a need for more affordable housing.
“The information will be very valuable to us as we undertake future planning efforts and also allow us to see how the community’s opinions may change over time,” wrote the county’s chief of planning, Adam Shellenberger, in follow-up correspondence with the REALTORS®.
Slightly southeast of Fauquier County, the city of Fredericksburg, VA, wanted to gain an understanding of its current and future housing needs. A housing density study conducted in 2017 and funded by a major NAR Smart Growth Grant concluded that there was a strong need for affordable housing for the community’s essential workers.
“We wanted a benchmark to see where we were,” says Fredericksburg Area Association of REALTORS® (FAAR) Public Policy Director Kim McClellan. She adds that wage data from the study also dispelled housing misconceptions and helped officials better understand the true housing picture.
Then in 2020, FAAR again partnered with Fredericksburg leaders to conduct a growth poll, that could be easily integrated with the 2017 study. Before the poll, the most frequent resident complaints were usually about schools, infrastructure and traffic. But the poll results didn’t confirm those comments.
“Transportation didn’t even crack the top five issues of concern. That was a surprise,” says McClellan. But half of survey respondents said more entry-level affordable housing was needed.
FAAR is now working with local officials, organizations and other stakeholders to devise potential solutions to create more housing that will meet the needs of a variety of owners and renters. Among the solutions being discussed are ordinances that would allow for Accessory Dwelling Units and possibly the development of Cottage Courts where groups of small, detached houses are built around a common courtyard.
“REALTORS® see ourselves as a strong voice for action,” says McClellan.
Greensboro, NC’s Planning Director Sue Schwartz describes her city as a “straight-talking, activist community where it’s part of the city’s DNA for people to speak their minds. People want to be heard and understood.”
So, when the city’s outdated comprehensive plan needed to be replaced, planners knew community engagement would be essential. The first step was a statistically valid survey stratified across income, demographic and age groups. The Greensboro Regional REALTORS® Association utilized resources from NAR’s State and Local Growth Polling Program to make the survey possible. Schwartz says, in addition to the data, the survey served as a common point of discussion and helped inform community engagement.
Input from specific groups was sought. “We learned that pizza at lunch will bring millennials and Gen Z to a focus group.” Conversations were also held with seniors, and planners discovered that “their answers mirrored the answers from millennials. There wasn’t a duality.”
In addition to conversations with targeted stakeholders, there was broader public engagement. Schwartz says they “went to where the people were,” including collecting resident opinions and observations at the city’s Christmas Parade, Festival of Lights and Farmer’s Market.
“Within 90 minutes at the National Folk Festival, we collected 119 pieces of feedback from people who wouldn’t have attended a city meeting,” Schwartz says.
In total, more than 8,000 distinct pieces of feedback were collected. That community feedback was an integral part of the development of GSO2040, which was adopted in 2020. Since its adoption, the city shares quarterly updates with the community so residents are kept updated on progress.
Schwartz says one of the most impressive aspects of the plan is that “We hear people use it and reference it, even if their opinions differ. It truly is Greensboro’s plan by the Greensboro community. In every sense of the word.”And therein lies the real strength of qualitative data — creating connections and community buy in to enhance community living.