Engagement Before Action

Community Feedback Isn’t Valuable Unless It’s Informed Input

With any proposal aimed at improving a community, who best to provide input than those who will be most affected?

But when what’s on the table involves concepts beyond the layperson’s knowledge, the response can be unhelpful — even damaging to a great plan. Ditto for lawmakers faced with complicated ideas who haven’t been provided with the expertise they need to conduct a fair evaluation.

Cities and REALTOR® organizations are stepping up to breach that information gap. They are creating academies, courses and campaigns to walk residents and decisionmakers through urban planning and design, and other cities are taking notice.

Garbage In, Garbage Out

Pardon the harshness of phraseology, but you have certainly heard that gem in the world of computer programming — computers can only be as good as the information fed into them. The same is true for people asked to weigh in on urban planning. Unless they know at least something about what makes cities well designed, they will just work with the knowledge they have — and it may not be factual, relevant or in the best interest of the residents.

“The traditional approach — what planners are taught about going to the public and running plans by them — is getting input from the beginning and having that built into the planning process,” says Nathan McNeil, a research associate at the Portland State University (PSU) Transportation Research and Education Center in Oregon.

“But one of the challenges agencies and planners experience is that people don’t know about the planning process,” he says. “They don’t know where and when to get engaged. And if they show up at a meeting, they often don’t know what happened before the agency has come to them for input.”

“Also, where there’s not just planning but engineering and other subjects involved, those have a language that can be important to understanding what an agency is recommending,” says McNeil. “The idea is that, if you can proactively educate community members around how transportation works, how the planning process works, and when and where in the process their voice can be most meaningful, you can have better engagement and a better relationship with the community.”

On the flip side, community members who don’t understand the technicalities and language can get a bad rap among the experts. Those experts may also need to open their minds, in this case, to people who aren’t steeped in their profession.

“That’s especially true in planning and transportation,” says McNeil. “The way to think about it is that everybody is an expert on their own street and their own neighborhood. They know where the potholes are, where drivers drive too fast and where children play in the street.

“Professionals can look at whatever data source they have — we might have counters on some streets and crash reports — but we don’t know what’s happening on people’s local corner and the close calls that have happened,” he notes. “I think it will help planners if they do listen to the community and do a good job of gathering input. They find out where the community has concerns.”

Early Program Remains Strong

Portland was a pioneer and is now in its third decade of educating community members and leaders on urban planning and transportation. Back in the early 1990s, Earl Blumenauer served on the Portland City Council (he’s now in the U.S. House of Representatives) and was instrumental in the creation of a course to educate residents on how transportation works.

Today, the course lives on through a partnership between the city of Portland and PSU. The university provides classroom meeting space, a teaching assistant, and an instructor, and the city funds the instructor’s compensation. It’s an 8-week course offered once a year for 25-30 students; in recent years, there has been a waiting list.

“Different weeks are based on different levels of government or types of transportation,” explains McNeil. “One week, a representative from the metropolitan planning office might talk about regional planning. Another week, a representative from a transit agency might talk about transit in the region. There’s a week dedicated to walking and biking, and bicycle and pedestrian coordinators from the city talk about their roles and projects.

“It’s a communication between community members and the people making the decisions,” he notes. “It’s not just, ‘Here’s how it’s done.’ Residents can talk to and interact with these decisionmakers.”

Each course also features a class project. Students come up with an idea they’d like to explore. Perhaps it’s a safety issue on their street or a traffic project they believe would increase safety. “Throughout the course, you get assignments, and one might be to reach out to a planner at an agency to talk about your idea,” says McNeil. “At the end, special guests come in — maybe it’s the director at a transportation bureau, but it’s someone who makes decisions and evaluates ideas — and you present your idea and explain how it might work.”

PSU also offers Better Block PSU, which allows members of a local community group, Better Block PDX, to propose how urban space could be better used. PSU students then run with some of the ideas by creating real-world designs that sometimes result in temporary installations to see if the changes are feasible and beneficial — and should be made permanent.

Better Block Ahead sign next to a sign that reads popcorn plaza

Courtesy of PBOT

One test run that turned permanent is Better Naito. “That was a demonstration project where one lane from a boulevard that runs along the Willamette River, Naito Boulevard, became a two-way bike lane,” reports McNeil. “It created a really nice north-south bike lane through the downtown area and along the waterfront.

“A lot of people walk in the riverfront park, and this change also moved some of the bike traffic and eased the congestion of people walking and interacting with bikes. At first it was a summer trial, and it was extended to a year. Then the city announced it was going to make this permanent.”

Citizen Planners Emerge in Other States

The Sunshine State also offers residents the chance to learn about community development and planning. There’s even a guide to help Florida municipalities — and those in other states — launch their own local program.

The Orlando Citizen Planner Academy is one of many across the state, according to Jason Reynolds, AICP, manager of the neighborhood services division of Orange County. “It’s meant to educate community residents about the development review process in our county,” he explains. “The result is that you have a more-informed resident attending community meetings and public hearings or contacting the county.”

When Reynolds joined the county in 2009, the county-funded program was on hiatus — as were many things during The Great Recession. It was rebooted in 2013 and has been “graduating” up to 15 students annually.

“The speakers are donating their time — whether they’re county employees or external experts,” he explains. “We have some marketing costs, and we buy snacks. This is a low-cost, high-impact program.”

Many sessions are workshops, and they include events like a walking tour of a new urbanist community during which a planning expert explains urban design concepts. “It’s free for students, and the typical attendee is the involved neighborhood leader who sees the value of learning why certain things are happening in their community and is wondering how they can get involved,” says Reynolds. “It’s one thing to have a planning basis, but we also have topics like sustainability, community placemaking, safer roads, and crime prevention through environmental design.”

Though it’s hard to scientifically measure the results of such a program, Reynolds says anecdotal examples are easy to find. “Something you’re not going to be able to quantify is people going through the classes and then asking the right questions during public sessions,” he explains.

And then there’s the graduate who started as an everyday resident but, after going through the program, became a county commissioner and regularly talks up the program.

Reynolds has been contacted by community leaders in other states about how they can launch similar programs. “The takeaway is that this isn’t a difficult program to implement, and the benefits are there,” he says. “The initial investment, which is finding the speakers, is minimal and won’t be difficult. You start to market it, and then you’re on your path to educating residents.”

REALTORS® Lead as Educators

The Transit Citizen Leadership Academy (TCLA) also provides area residents and future leaders with opportunities to learn, in this case, about transit. Launched in 2011, this weekly course that spans several months features transportation experts who explain why transit is important, how it’s typically funded, and why it’s so difficult to build, according to Jarron B. Springer, CAE, RCE, C2EX, AHWD, CEO of the Greater Nashville REALTORS®.

From the start, the TCLA’s work has been funded in part by an NAR® smart growth grant. “Transit and housing are interrelated in terms of how you handle density and how people get around,” says Springer. “It’s about housing and work opportunities for people who can’t afford a car and having a great place to live, work and play.

“The academy started in Nashville because the city has been talking about transit since the 1990s, but we’ve never really had a good system. There have been two significant attempts, and we expect the city to soon take on a third, to change the landscape of transit in Nashville. About five years ago, there was a referendum to devote a half-cent sales-tax increase in Davidson County to dedicated funding for mass transit. That ballot measure came up short.”

TCLA is free for participants, and more than 600 people have attended in classes of 20-25 people. “We’ve had a REALTOR® in almost every class, and I believe we had five in the most recent class,” says Springer. “A lot of the county’s CEOs, mayors, and city council people have also gone through the program. We appreciate when they’re open to learning more.”

Making “Missing Middle” Housing Real

As REALTORS® push to expand “missing middle” housing, education has also become critical to building support for local initiatives and concepts that support the growth of affordable housing.

In 2023, the Austin Board of REALTORS® (ABoR) used NAR grants to fund a two-part campaign supporting proposed land-use changes. It first focused on educating Austinites on changes the city council was considering.

“Those included allowing three residential units by right on all single-family zoned properties in Austin,” says Taylor G. Smith, ABoR’s deputy director of government affairs. “There was a lot of misinformation, and we showed what missing middle housing looks like and its benefits. Part of our campaign was launching the Attainable Austin website to make sure we connected the average Austinite with factual information.”

It then sought to mobilize Austinites to act. “We encouraged ABoR and community members to contact their councilmember and mayor to voice their support for these changes so we could get that ordinance over the finish line,” says Smith. “That included converting the Attainable Austin website to an action landing page. We sent mailers that residents could tear off and drop in the mail to their council officer. We did targeted ads on Facebook and Instagram and podcasts. And we did a text-message campaign to 57,000 voters.”

The Dec. 7 vote in the Austin City Council was 9-2 in favor. “Austin has been grappling for years with how to address housing and its outdated land-development code,” says Smith. “Our code is turning 40 this year, and it has been piecemealed and amended over the decades.

“If you look at the most desirable areas in Austin to live, there’s a diverse set of housing, with large homes next to duplexes and complexes with 10-16 units, and it all works together.

“The city has tried twice to do a comprehensive rewrite of the code and failed because of community fear and misinformation. Our goal was not only that this be approved but that it be approved by at least nine votes of council. In Texas, if you’re a home-rule city and a supermajority of your council approves a zoning or land-use change, that would override any ballot petitions. That ninth vote helps protect the approved changes and make it more difficult to challenge them in court.”

Schooling the Deciders

Even when legislative changes are successful, decisionmakers may still not know best practices for achieving missing middle housing. That’s why in March 2023, the Seattle King County Association of REALTORS® (SKCAR) used an NAR grant to load 60 elected officials and government planners onto a bus and take them on a tour of Kirkland, Wash. It’s a city rich with neighborhoods successfully blending various forms of housing, such as townhomes, condos and accessory dwelling units.

“We have a lot of state-mandated zoning changes across Washington, and cities are being asked to accommodate more growth,” reports Taylor Shanaman, SKCAR’s director of governmental and public affairs. “But a lot of cities are apprehensive about growth, what that would look like, and how it would fit into the community.

“We thought: Let’s get them on a bus and show them Kirkland, which is accepting growth and density and allowing for more housing options. We’ll show them this isn’t scary and can be incorporated while keeping the character of the neighborhood.”

The bus hit roughly 10 sites, allowing participants to hop off and tour each. Between stops, speakers like Kirkland city planners and REALTORS® gave presentations. “The tour really highlighted REALTORS®’ knowledge and ability to help on this issue,” notes Shanaman.

Participants also heard a speaker from Opticos, an urbanist planning firm that wrote the book on missing middle housing, explain best practices for density and diverse housing options.

“We sent a survey to participants after,” she explains. “We got an absolute 10 of 10 stars. I can’t believe we asked these people to give up the better part of their day, and they loved seeing how diverse housing options and density are practically applied.

“Those are big, scary concepts. But once you see with your own eyes how private-property owners are incorporating them, it’s a totally different thing.”


Grants and Funding

RPAC, Legal Action Program, Smart Growth Grants, Commercial Innovation Grants, and the REALTORS® Relief Foundation provide needed funding.


Zoning laws affect land use, lot size, building heights, density, and more.


NAR provides leadership and strategies for sustainability that benefit members, associations, and communities.

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