Participation Is Key, No Matter the Project Size

Planning at various scales involves appropriate community input strategies for each.

It’s no secret that not many residents take part in the community decision-making process, and those who do are often not representative of their communities in terms of race, age and income level. The result has meant that local institutions have traditionally made decisions that ended up reflecting the values and needs of older, more affluent and mostly white residents rather than the overall population.

“That’s sadly been the case,” said Kate Slevin, the executive vice president at the Regional Plan Association (RPA), which oversees the agency’s programs in the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. She joined the agency in 2016 to manage and expand outreach.

Community meeting at a park

Courtesy of Hester Street

The mission of the RPA, which serves a whopping 23 million people and has been around since 1922, is to improve mobility, equitable economic growth and environmental resiliency. It also aims to increase civic engagement at the local level and make planning and development more inclusive, predictable and efficient.

“Government agencies have a long history of putting highways through communities of color and where lower- income whites lived as well, and locating waste facilities and power plants there, with those folks having little or no say,” she said.

“There is a whole legacy of policies that segregated and disenfranchised large populations of people. We are now looking at the next generation of investment and how we plan, so that those poor decisions aren’t repeated and we can create a better future for everyone.”

Addressing Growth in Large Metropolitan Area

In the past, the decision-making process was much more top down, said Slevin, who was a key player in coordinating the RPA’s “Fourth Regional Plan,” which has been done roughly every generation for the past century, focusing on growth and development and offering policy recommendations.

One of those recommendations now being enacted is congestion pricing, which the Metropolitan Transportation Authority hopes will contribute millions of dollars for the city’s aging transit system — and cut down on traffic — by charging drivers to enter a large swath of Manhattan during high-volume times.

“Across the country that top-down approach absolutely was the way things were done. And it still is, frankly, how some planning happens,” she said. But it’s also changed in a lot of places, where increased community engagement has become a key element, she said.

In the case of the RPA Fourth Regional Plan, she said the main thing that set it aside from previous plans was the effort made to reach deep into communities, particularly those that have been excluded for so long from the planning process. The RPA worked with organizations that were in direct contact with 50,000 people. They included Make the Road New York, Make the Road Connecticut, Community Voices Heard, Housing & Community Development Network of New Jersey, Partnership for Strong Communities, Right to the City Alliance and others.

She said the RPA staff was able to hear a wide range of perspectives on affordability, jobs, transportation and environmental justice and tailor its research accordingly. These groups have helped the agency stay connected at the grassroots level and their contributions helped shape the plan’s recommendations to benefit everyone.

“Traditionally, it’s been people who had the time and resources who were civically engaged,” she said. “It’s certainly true on community boards in NYC, and it’s well-documented that people on those boards tend to be older and more affluent than people in the general population.

“You might have a pretty diverse population of people in a community, but then you look at the town council and the town board and they often overrepresent older white folks. But this is something that we are actively working to change. The urban planning profession, I think, has really done a shift in its best practices for engaging people. We’ve altered the expectations for good community engagement, the time it requires and how you approach people. That has dramatically changed in the past two decades for the better.”

Slevin said community engagement isn’t a one-and-done effort. “You need to do public outreach over a longer period of time. That means trying to reach people who actually live in the community from a bunch of different backgrounds. We’ve partnered with existing community-based organizations in places that have the contacts locally to get a deeper level of engagement.”

While toiling on the Fourth Plan, she said the RPA staff worked not only with hundreds of experts in housing, transportation, land use and environmental issues, but it also received regular feedback over the years at nearly 200 meetings and forums, where it hosted discussions with some 4,000 people.

“We also brought in Hester Street, which is a group that does a lot of public participation and translation of materials for different audiences,” she said of Hester, which is celebrating 20 years of advancing racial and economic justice through community-based planning and design.

“We partnered with them to develop materials in easy-to-understand language with no jargon. We went to lots of meetings with many of those groups, so they didn’t have to travel, because if you are really trying to reach folks, you often need to go to them and not make them come to you.”

They also converted RPA materials into a variety of languages, she said, and had Spanish, Chinese or other translators at meetings, depending on the communities they were trying to reach.

“One of the women who worked with me on this, Pierena Ana Sanchez, was directly engaged in the outreach process and is now a city council member in the Bronx,” Slevin said. “She is a real champion for good public participation and pro-equity policies.”

Slevin said the RPA wants communities to be planned for everyone in them. “It’s far time that we actually create communities that feel more inclusive, where more people can afford to live and that meet the needs of a variety of residents.

“From my perspective, diversity is a wonderful asset not only to the New York City metro area, but to my family. I think it’s wonderful to be able to live in a place where there are people from all over the world, sharing their perspectives.

“We want to welcome them, make them feel at home, hear what they have to say and provide them places to live and roles in the community. It’s part of a civil society and being a good, welcoming place and neighbor. We’ve also seen that if you don’t provide a more inclusive and open community for people, you tend to push some out and that isn’t good for the long-term vitality of your local economy. I strongly believe it is a moral imperative that the planning profession looks at greater public participation as an asset and continues to look at it that way.”

Engagement on the Local Level

In California, the Sacramento-based Institute for Local Government (ILG) also emphasizes community engagement. The ILG was started 70 years ago.

Its mission is to promote good government at the local level and help local leaders with the breadth of issues that they are facing in their communities. It provides training, resources, technical assistance and capacity building to cities, counties and special districts in California, ranging from Los Angeles, population nearly 4 million, down to Woodland in Yolo County, population 61,000, and smaller towns, such as Amador City in the Sierra foothills, with 200 residents.

Karalee Brown, assistant executive director for the agency, said her agency has developed a whole section on engaging communities in its Planning Commissioners Handbook. (

“In addition, we host trainings such as our Meeting Mastery and TIERS Public Engagement trainings, which aim to help California local governments master the public engagement process and build trust in their communities,” she said.

And through its BOOST Program, a partnership with the state’s Strategic Growth Council, it helps limited-capacity and under-resourced agencies address a variety of needs.

Brown said increasing public engagement and doing it early in the decision-making process can help local public agencies avoid costly pitfalls and mistakes. Involving residents and others in the process also can generate more support for the final decisions reached by city or county decisionmakers.

“From our start, we’ve always helped new and existing leaders govern properly and effectively,” Brown said. “We’ve since added other pillars, one of which is public engagement.”

Infographic: Additional Benefits of Engaging the Public

 Additional benefits of engaging the public:

  • Better identification of the public’s values, ideas and recommendations
  • Improved local agency decision-making and actions
  • More community buy-in and support, with less contentiousness
  • More trust in each other and local government
  • More civil discussions and decision-making
  • Higher rates of community participation and leadership development
  • Faster project implementation with less need to revisit
  • More informed residents about issues and local agencies
Download the Planning Commissioner Handbook

Courtesy of the Institute for Local Government

“It’s really just trying to aid local leaders reach their communities more effectively, not just checking off a box. That’s been an evolution because local governments recognize that they do want their plans to reflect their entire community, not just those who have the time and availability to come to council meetings.”

Melissa Kuehne, a senior ILG program manager, said it starts with identifying who lives in your community. “That’s all important. So, you do things in different languages and meet folks where they are, whether it is at community festivals or other events.

“Some agencies have gone even further and provide stipends or some sort of funding to get the input from people who are dedicating their very valuable time and consultation for some of these land-use plans.

“A number of jurisdictions are starting to work with nonprofits and community-based organizations to do a lot of outreach, using them as trusted messengers to get information into the hands of under-represented communities, offsetting the costs they might incur for their outreach to encourage residents to show up at workshops and meetings.”

Brown said the city of Arcata, Calif., which has a population of around 20,000 and is on the Pacific coast near the Oregon border, was one of the first partners in its Boost Program to put sustainability and combatting climate change in their growth plans.

Boost Program logo

“Arcata was specifically looking to update its general plan and really think differently about how they use land in their community. But even after a year into the process and 100 meetings, they found that they were missing a lot of voices.

“So, they began working with a local consultant there who was affiliated with the NAACP and some of the other marginalized communities. They were able to work with them and offer stipends to get more comments.

“As a result, their city manager and planning director said their plans are centered on equity and are much better than would have been. Not just for those populations, but for the entire community. They had more innovative thoughts and there was a huge education piece that went with it to last well beyond this planning initiative that will benefit future planning efforts as well.”

Overhead shot of the city of Arcata, CA

Courtesy of City of Arcata, CA

David Loya, Arcata’s director of Community Development, said the ILG was a big help in engaging more of the public for its updated general plan. “They gave us a skill set of initial noticing to developing networks to having meetings and effective communication,” he said.

“We had 100 meetings, but while public hearings are legally mandated, they aren’t the best way to engage your community. We went out and had special topic gatherings. That still wasn’t enough, so we did ‘we’ll come to you’ where we put out invitations to community groups, neighborhoods and business groups. We offered to bring the meetings to them.”

But Loya said even that was inadequate because few BIPOC (Black, indigenous and people of color) community members were coming forward. “There was a big demographic we were missing, Ultimately, we ended up hiring a company formed specifically for this purpose to do engagement with marginalized groups.

“We consistently heard from them that we are lower income and socio-economic status. ‘We don’t have the same resources to come to the meetings.’ They said, ‘If you want to learn from our lived experience, there are a couple of things we need to make sure will happen:

1) We need to be compensated for our time.

2) We need to be sure there is accountability and that you’re not just extracting information from us, going through a process and never coming back and telling us what you did with it in the end with the information.

3) We need to know you are truly reflecting what we are saying in your documents.’

“Those three core principles were front and center in the contract we worked on with Equity Partners, a firm that helped us pull together a diverse group that really represented all demographic slices of the city of Arcata.

“We had stipends to provide them to do this engagement. Many of them would not have been able to participate otherwise. After a little under a year’s work, we were able to come back and share with them in a closing session what we had heard from them and what we did with that information. We also talked about the accountability structure and how we would report back to them.”

Loya said that is some of the work his team did that he’s most proud of. “We were able to really respond to what we were hearing from the community and provide the kind of an encounter they wanted to have instead of using a ‘one-size-fits-all’ kind of engagement.”

A draft of that plan, in the works for two years, is now complete and will go before the Arcata city council in late May or early June.

Kuehne agreed with Loya and said governments large and small have found that it’s vitally important to build trust, not to just get a plan done or pass certain policies, but for equity and for better understanding of projects in diverse communities, ranging from economic development to land-use planning to big infrastructure efforts. You may need to build in extra resources and time to be successful with community engagement efforts, but it’s worth the effort.

“The key is doing it authentically to build the trust. Then it’s also the follow-up. These things can’t be done in a six-month span. You have to tell people this is what we did with your feedback, this is how we incorporated it, and show people that we respected their time and thoughts and that they’ll be included.

“Or sometimes, why they can’t be included.”

Kuehne said she strongly encourages government agencies and planners to think about their messaging and avoid jargon when they talk about land-use decisions. “I know we are guilty ourselves of using lots of acronyms and ‘inside baseball’ terms that members of the public don’t understand. You want to engage the community with words they can grasp when talking about a general plan update or a land-use decision.

“I have a whole slide of terms that I put up and say, you guys all know what these mean, but nearly all of the public doesn’t. Like DOT (Department of Transportation) and things like that. Jargon can be very off-putting.”

Engagement for a Neighborhood

In Detroit, a review of the 27.5-mile Joe Louis Greenway, a planned biking and walking trail extending from the Detroit Riverfront to Highland Park and Dearborn, spawned a study of the Midwest-Tireman neighborhood.

When completed, the trail should provide a place for people of all abilities to safely walk, bike and run while connecting neighborhoods, parks, schools, jobs, historic sites, commercial corridors and public transit.

The Midwest-Tireman planning effort included 20 small-group focus groups, community surveys, five large meetings, community events and activities, one-on-one conversations, and other techniques to engage residents, said John Sivills, a lead urban designer for the city of Detroit in its Central Planning District.

Members of the Midwest-Tireman neighborhood in Detroit

Courtesy of the city of Detroit

The neighborhood was once home to the sprawling Lincoln auto plant, employing nearly 6,000 workers after it was built in 1922. Once primarily Jewish, it had become a thriving Black middle-class and blue-collar enclave. Men walked to work from their homes carrying lunch pails, similar to other parts of Detroit.

At its peak, the neighborhood had 60,000 residents and more than 300 family-owned businesses on Tireman Avenue, including restaurants, beauty and barber shops, dry cleaners, gas stations, appliance stores, drug stores, and several distributing companies, as well as many churches. Jazz greats played at the Blue Bird Inn on Tireman.

In the 1950s, the Lincoln plant moved out and the neighborhood began to decline. Today, it has only 11,000 residents, many empty lots, abandoned homes and several empty schools. But the Joe Louis Trail, named for former Detroit resident and heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, may help revitalize the neighborhood and bring economic development.

To get a wide range of input, Sivills said early engagement efforts included establishing contacts with key players in the community. “We asked what is held in high esteem in the community, whether it’s a church, a business or a specific person.

“Some of them were already members of citywide committees dealing with the Joe Louis Greenway. And some were part of established community services, so it was getting to know those folks and try to understand who they are representing. We began to filter out from there. All that was done at least a year before going into the framework of formally starting.”

Rashedul H. Deepon, a Detroit planner instrumental in the community engagement process, said “we wanted more nuanced voices that reflected the rich fabric of the neighborhood, so we’d have a better picture of who lives there. That was the main thing.”

Deepon said his department reached out to churches and their members, block clubs and other neighborhood assets. The United Block Club Council was a major asset. He also worked with Equity Alliance Management, which he said has taken a leadership role in helping small enterprises and aiding others to start businesses. “A lot of these groups were part of a steering committee that we had for the framework study.

Having partnerships with people in the neighborhood means we can have open and honest conversations.

“Some of the community suggestions they received, include more parks for all age groups; vibrant businesses other than liquor stores; replace the market destroyed by fire; more home repairs and better housing; clean alleys; and repair sidewalks so walking and biking isn’t hazardous. We definitely were very happy with the hundreds of responses.

“I told people in the community that the day that you stop sharing how you feel about the project is when we have a problem. Our goal is to really know how they feel about what we are working on. And then share that in a way that they truly feel comfortable so they can trust us with that information. In multiple occasions, we’ve had that happen.

“We said if there is any reason we are straying off the path, we want feedback to get us back on task. I don’t think we have strayed too much, but having that partnership with people in the neighborhood meant that we could have open and honest conversations. That was one of the great key things that made me proud of this community.”

Sivills said one of the hardest parts of the study was telling residents that some of its schools could not be saved and need to be torn down. “There is great affinity for the schools, even if they are vacant. It was a really difficult conversation to have with them.

“Ultimately, it was the high cost of rehabilitating them that didn’t make sense. However, the sites themselves provide an opportunity for some of the things the community has asked for, like a grocery store in their neighborhood to get fresh produce for their families’ meals, or a park that could be developed on another school site next to an active school.

“There are unlimited possibilities for the neighborhood and we’ve had great community input. The biggest challenge now is finding the resources for what we’ve identified. That’s a longer haul.”


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