The Evolution of Community Input

Toolkits, techniques, high-tech and non-traditional/diverse community engagement help to make planning about people.

Planning and placemaking must evolve as much as the way we get to work, get our supplies and connect with our community. As America becomes more diverse, there is no single strategy to reach all people who will be impacted — positively or negatively — from a new project, land use or zoning.

From low-tech to hi-tech strategies used in settings as varied as pocket parks and transit routes, a range of cultures and their thoughts of place and mobility are being captured by the expanding tool chest of community engagement strategies.

Whether it is as high tech as virtual reality (VR) goggles to show a 3-D vision of what could be, or good old-fashioned shoe leather invested in going to the people rather than waiting for them to come to a weeknight workshop at a library — the planning toolkit is constantly being revised.

People, not the project, must come first.

No matter what the approach, experts agree that people, not the project, must come first.

“Evidence suggests that the current system of public engagement is broken,” said Jason Jordan, director of Policy & Government Affairs at the American Planning Association (APA). “The process is based on getting to ‘no’ as opposed to getting to ‘yes,’” he said of NIMBYism that has contributed to a low housing supply which has created an affordability crisis.

“Whether the tools are VR, AI or going to places where real people hang out to get real input — the more we front load [planning] with people’s participation, the better off we will be,” he said. “We need to go to the people, find out what is the problem to be solved, then create the project to address it.”

Planning, even by very well-intentioned professionals, tends to design the solution then sell it to those impacted by it.

“We have to be much more intentional. For instance, we need to do a better job of engaging the renter community vs. homeowners,” Jordan said. “I saw a case study from Arlington County, Va. They helped create missing middle housing by context setting and storytelling that led to land-use and zoning reforms. They shared data showing the need, but they engaged people from the ground up — instead of designing a project and asking, ‘do you like this [rendering] or not?’”

While good old-fashioned human buy-in is key, Jordan said technology can help.

“In California, the state sets standards and says ‘your town needs to build X number of new units.’ VR headsets can help people ‘walk’ through a simulation,” he said, explaining that a visualization may show that increased density doesn’t disrupt the fabric of the neighborhood. “People can see the big picture, then learn how it translates into code and regulations.”

Jordan said the move from the traditional town-hall meeting toward virtual meetings and online surveys has pluses and minuses. For people who cannot make a weeknight meeting, or those afraid of speaking in person, virtual can be helpful.

“Digital tools are great, but we must be aware that some technology can exacerbate underlying inequity,” he said, noting that not all people are online and not all trust online surveys.

“High tech is great, but we also need high touch. That means going to where the people are and finding people who speak the neighborhood language,” Jordan said, meaning local nuances, not just languages other than English. “We need to understand all the layers that factor into the neighborhood’s identity — the housing market, job accessibility, impacts.”

“Great public engagement means people are working with officials to solve a problem, as opposed to organizing to oppose a project,” he said. “People have every right to oppose something — but they might not if the process weren’t front loaded.”

Camille Manning-Broome, president & CEO of the Center for Planning Excellence (CPEX) in Louisiana, endorses a seeing-is-believing approach.

“We don’t see how you can get meaningful input by just holding workshops and having discussions and that’s your only way to understand community needs,” she said. “You need various tools. We are big on funding demonstrations. We work in a number of communities with stakeholders, community groups, elected officials — to create temporary installations addressing issues such as traffic design and floodwater management design.”

“When you put something on the ground, then you really get input. Everybody has an opinion good and bad — which is great,” she said. “It’s a better way to ignite voices and understand perceptions for a diverse audience.”

Manning-Broome said the best renderings in the world, pinned up on a wall at a typical community workshop, cannot begin to help design a community to meet its vision and goals — like a demonstration project can.

“Our mission is to unlock the power of planning in our communities that don’t have the resources. We help co-design plans in communities that have implementation in mind,” she said, noting that CPEX drives physical change, not reports for the files. “We work with partners to help understand funding to get plans implemented.”

Manning-Broome said great planning results from a transparent process aimed at improving quality of life. “We don’t achieve the mission of our nonprofit until the built environment has shifted and policies are in place to support the people, environment and economy.”

In Abbeville, La., a city of about 12,000 located in the heart of Cajun Country, CPEX did a demonstration project to show the community what the concepts of a complete street, road diet and protected bike lane are.

A demonstration project increased pedestrian safety by extending the curbs at eight intersections. The crosswalk distance shrunk from 25 feet to about 12, meaning people only crossed one lane of traffic instead of two. The project also enhanced the visibility of crosswalks with high visibility striping and extra signage.

“Big flashy tactical urbanism in New York City and Dallas grabs the headlines, but this works even in small towns of 10,000 or 2,500 people. These don’t have to be million- or several hundred-thousand-dollar initiatives,” Manning- Broome said. “A temporary, 30-day demonstration can be done with donated asphalt paint and loaned-out traffic cones and steel barriers.”

Manning-Broome and Alex Hobdy, a design associate at CPEX, said demonstration projects can bring 100 people to a meeting, while giving them an understanding of why design matters.

“In one place, we had a community-wide survey with over 300 respondents. One of the recurring themes was people were using bike lanes as a route for assistive mobility devices — the wheelchair route,” Hobdy said. “It reminded the mayor that ADA accessible improvements needed on the sidewalks and every intersection had to have curb ramps.”

Jessica Garrow, principal at Design Workshop, is a big believer in face-to-face meetings with stakeholders outside of town-hall-type meetings.

“During a recent project, we wanted to hear from parents with young kids, so we brought ice cream to a busy park by the main childcare facility in town and talked to parents as their kids were playing. By meeting our audience where they naturally spent time, we were able to gain important feedback,” she said. “On transportation-based plans, I often like to hold a pop-up event at the transit station. People are often rushing to their bus or light rail, but you can give them a business card with a QR code to complete a survey on their commute to or from work.”

Garrow said online surveys are great for people who cannot attend a physical meeting, but noted not everyone is signed up for a city’s website or newsletter, so they may not know about the survey.

“Using yard signs, social media channels, flyers at a busy coffee shop, newspaper ads or radio ads helps increase engagement,” she said. “I also like to pair surveys with in-person engagement so you can get the folks who might be rushing through their day. It is also important to always provide hard copy options. There are some people who do not have access to a smart phone so having surveys available at the library, community center, senior center or other high-traffic locations is important.”

Garrow underscored the importance of nuance, within various marginalized groups. She recalled an online meeting specifically for individuals and organizations who represent people with disabilities.

“One participant was visually impaired, and we were using a lot of visuals for the discussion. We had to slow down and explain each concept to them because they were not able to see the screen. This was a good reminder that it’s important to provide opportunities for community input that are accessible to people from all walks of life.”

Garrow also reminds planners to connect with everyday people by avoiding “planner-speak.” She recalled a time when a member of the community had received a public notice and was flummoxed by its mention of “FAR in a PUD to be heard by the PC.” The point is not so much to spell out Floor Area Ratio, Planned Unit Development and Planning Commission — but to break down jargon into wording everyday people can understand.

Samantha Dekoven, director of Public Service Initiatives at The Counselors of Real Estate (CRE), helps communities with planning expertise from industry leaders, such as developers, appraisers, economists, asset managers and advisors to pension funds, that invest in real estate.

Through its affiliation with the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® (NAR), CRE’s Consulting Corps (Corps) is able to give an outside opinion from experts and is funded by NAR’s Transforming Neighborhoods program. The Corps does several projects per year, focusing on communities with a problem complex enough to need a team of experts, but narrow enough that the team can create solutions from about a week onsite.

A verbal presentation is given at the end of the week’s work and it is followed up with a longer, written version of expert advice. Along with intense engagement with a broad base of stakeholders, the value of the Corps’ work is it can create strategies based more in economic realities. Sometimes cities get stuck on an unrealistic redevelopment plan.

“City staff might say ‘we want this land to be industrial and we want to have this company develop it.’ When the market reality might be that the land doesn’t have the infrastructure for industry or the market realities preclude a firm from locating to the site,” Dekoven said.

The Paradise Association of REALTORS® brought in the Corps in 2021, when it was alarmed at the slow pace of rebuilding from the 2018 California wildfire that burned down nearly 20,000 structures in the area.

The Paradise CRE planning team

Photo by Jason Weinrich of Watershed Media LLC. Courtesy of CRE.

One recommendation was to bring in a dealmaker from the private sector, someone who could cut through red tape and get things done with streamlined permitting.

Another issue was to focus on affordable housing. Homeowners tended to have insurance settlements that allowed them to rebuild. Renters were uninsured or underinsured, plus very little affordable housing was being rebuilt in an area that was fairly affordable compared to many areas in the Golden State.

“In the wake of the devastating 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif., our association brought in the CRE Consulting Corps, which proved to be a necessary and invaluable component as our community began the recovery and rebuilding process,” said Aubrey Pruis, association executive of the Paradise Association of REALTORS®.

Download the The Consulting Corps rebuild report for Paradise, California

“The Corps team came in and performed a thorough assessment of the needs, hurts and challenges that our community was facing. The final report provided by the Corps team gave a clear vision moving forward and served as a ‘road map’ to recovery for our local government. The report has also served as a blueprint to the many communities that, tragically, have also experienced natural and man-made disasters and provides great insights on how we can redevelop smarter and safer and better serve our community in the immediate future and beyond.”

In Spokane, where housing prices were spiraling, the Corps helped lead the community to zoning changes that allowed two-, three-, four- and six-plexes within single-family zones. That created affordable housing without disrupting the urban fabric.

“In four years, we went from one of the most affordable housing cities, to one where only about 60 percent of the population could afford housing,” said Darin Watkins, government affairs director at Spokane Association of REALTORS®. “One of the CRE Corps’ first recommendations was to get a planning director, and we found a progressive planning director who implemented CRE recommendations immediately. The highest impact one was you could now build up to a six-plex anywhere in the city.”

Watkins said the Corps’ expertise was easily worth a half-million dollars but cost only a minimal amount of funding through NAR and local grants plus some local partnerships.

“It was funny to finally see support on both ends of the political spectrum,” he said. “For those who wanted to build more affordable housing as a social issue, the streamlined permitting; getting code aligned with housing goals; and removal of single-family-only zoning was great. For people concerned about property rights, they saw they could do more with their land, so that was a great idea.”

In addition to the Transforming Neighborhoods program, NAR has funded placemaking, smart growth and housing opportunity grants in hundreds of communities. The association also publishes Placemaking, Smart Growth and Housing Opportunity Toolkits, along with the Better Block Guide “to promote the growth of healthy and vibrant neighborhoods.

“The Placemaking Toolkit offers REALTORS® and state and local association staff details of placemaking, the kinds of projects placemaking entails, how to organize them, and where to go for assistance and resources.”

Dr. Tiffany Manuel, president & founder of TheCaseMade, specializes in social justice and authored a book about how to build public support for initiatives. “Casemaking, from my vantage point, is building that sense of ‘we,’ before you get to the planning table,” she said. “[Government agencies] must think about who will have access; whose priorities will inform our planning process. Planning is inclusive when we are thinking about the needs of everybody, not just some. Casemaking establishes the feeling that all people are rockin’ in the same boat.”

Manuel said too many planning workshops or hearings are focused on a specific zoning change or neighborhood project. She said plans get buy-in when there is a sense of legacy — that the city wants to create something “that will outlive us in the community.”

“What stymies being able to get broad public support is not doing the work before you tell the public you want to build something at Broad and 50th streets,” she said. “That creates a sense of ‘you want my tax dollars, but what does this have to do with me?’ Engage all members of the community so they are respected, so they feel a stake in what you are trying to do and that they will have some benefit — even if they are not the primary beneficiaries.”

To reach diverse audiences, planners need to get outside their comfort zone

To reach diverse audiences, planners need to get outside their comfort zone. Manuel said that means going to where people meet, getting invited to the kitchen table, meeting people at times beyond nine to five. “We live in a pluralistic society. Americans, no matter where they are, are saying they don’t trust the people who [should] be there to help them — their decisionmakers,” she said.

“I lead an organization that helps everyday people across the country to make a strong and powerful case for the highest and best aspirations for the community they like,” Manuel said. “[A city official] has to deliver what you promised would happen. Trust is a currency that can do a great many things.”

Sara Schooley, a project planner at Toole Design Group, has refined public engagement techniques working for city, county and regional government and now for a female-founded firm that serves them.

She said too often, Toole sees a planning scope of work that only asks for three public meetings, all on weeknights after work. That approach will not generate diverse input.

“Those types of meetings serve the sorts of residents who are going to get heard no matter what,” Schooley said. “Thankfully, I work for a firm that works with clients to be creative in reaching all voices.”

Schooley said sometimes a simple Google search can give insights into underlying issues. She said searching the name of the city and “controversy” or “racism” could generate news stories and online posts about unresolved issues in marginalized communities.

“I want to be aware of those underlying stories. It helps me figure out if a community has gatekeepers you need to win over and build trust with,” she said, noting that trust is built when planners sincerely want to listen and put that input into the plan.

Schooley said technology is great, but it has pitfalls. She noted that some online survey platforms have auto generated translations. But those translations are nowhere near as accurate and inclusive as having a native speaker create a survey in Spanish, or whatever language other than English is spoken in an impacted community.

“We also do not enter a project expecting everyone to come to us. In Bloomington, Ind., we went to 15 different sites to gather inclusive input,” she said. “And it’s not just dividing by geographic areas, it is going where people are: pickleball courts for active seniors, the University of Indiana main parking lot for students, the main bus station for transit riders — including people with disabilities.”



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