The Importance of Community Engagement in Zoning Reform

Zoning policies are usually decades old, often out-of-date and frequently revised only through patches and exemptions. And when they are revised, too often community participation in the process is minimal.

Community engagement isn’t a new concept. In fact, what is now a ubiquitous feature of sidewalks — the curb-cut, which allows easy access to cross walks — is the result of members of the Berkeley, Calif., disabled community making their voices heard during a 1970s planning process. The outcome of listening to those community voices was a simple, equity-driven solution to a previously unaddressed need.

Community members meeting on the street holding papers and having a discussion

Courtesy of Smart Growth America

However, impactful community engagement involves much more than listening to the loudest voices at a public meeting. Researchers at Boston University analyzed public meeting records in Eastern Massachusetts and found that outspoken participants tended to be older, white, male homeowners. So, honest engagement isn’t about how loud participants are speaking, but who is actually speaking and participating in the process.

Basically, it starts with conversations, connections and understanding.

Key to successful community engagement is committing to it at the front end, creating a plan, engaging all stakeholders and staying transparent throughout the process.

What’s key to successful community engagement is committing to it at the front end, creating a plan, engaging all stakeholders and staying transparent throughout the process. Toccarra Nicole Thomas, AICP, Smart Growth America’s director of land use and development and executive director of the Form-Based Codes Institute, says it boils down to focusing on three things — be very open, be accountable and have metrics.

Illustration: community zoning featuring residential and commercial buildings along with infrastructure improvements.

Courtesy of Smart Growth America

“Planners stand behind the desk and sometimes act like the Wizard. But we serve the community and we need to understand what the community needs, wants and already has,” Thomas explained.

Purposeful, intentional community engagement may initially seem a bit exasperating and time consuming, but it can actually make the process easier. It results in stronger, more equitable policies. It builds trust between communities and government. And it provides a better understanding and sense of ownership with the community which can lessen push back and make implementation more successful.

The importance of community engagement is pretty clear. What can get a bit murkier is how to do it. Experts suggest keeping a number of strategies and priorities in mind throughout the process. These include: understand that community input will help identify and clarify issues and recommendations; involve the most affected members of the community from the very beginning; listen and don’t just tell; be transparent about expectations and how input will be used; recognize that there may be unequal power dynamics when interacting with historically marginalized communities; level the playing fields; and invest in the process.

Arlington County, VA Passed a Middle Zoning Ordinance

Arlington County, Va., earlier this year, unanimously passed a missing middle zoning ordinance that will allow for the development and construction of smaller two-, four- and up to six-unit multifamily housing in areas that were previously only zoned for single-family housing. The significant zoning shift makes Arlington County the first jurisdiction in the Washington, D.C. area, and one of only a few in the country, to zone for missing middle housing.

Community meeting in Arlington, VA

Photo courtesy of Arlington County, VA

A significant zoning change like that doesn’t happen quickly. Christian Dorsey, Arlington County Board Chair, said this wasn’t a traditional political issue, but a long-term sustaining policy that required a thoughtful, methodical engagement strategy. It all began several years earlier. That’s when the county developed an affordable housing strategy called Housing Arlington. Then in 2019, it began considering how a shift in zoning policy could increase needed housing. The public was informed and engaged from the onset. And Dorsey said planners and officials didn’t avoid potential controversy.

“Many communities look at the expected intense level of opposition and don’t want to go there. They feel the heat before they put their hand over the stove. So, they shy away and that fear of opposition can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We learned there were opponents, but we learned there were even more folks who were hopeful for the possibilities.

“For a long time, Arlington County has been known for civic engagement. But, we haven’t done it as well when it comes to equity. From the beginning, we looked to engage partners of all stripes,” Dorsey said. To do that, planners and officials let historically marginalized communities know that “their feedback would be solicited, valued and was very important.”

Community discussions in Arlington, VA

Photo courtesy of Arlington County, VA

From the start, the public was involved and there were multiple ways for community members to engage in conversations, share comments and receive updates. Dorsey explained that local organizations were partners during the research process. All research was shared via the web. There were also a series of online products such as webinars and televised panel events that helped educate the public about the county’s historical journey and path forward. The county hosted dozens of public meetings, forums and other gatherings in multiple languages and at various locations and times of the day. There were also pop-up events to educate, inform and gather input. They were opportunities to not only learn about the issue and possible recommendations, but for community members to talk with each other. That built trust.

Community conversations helped further frame policies.

“Those community conversations helped further frame those policies being brought forward and created several options for people to comment,” Dorsey said.

The new zoning may be in place, but Dorsey says it will likely be 18 months before the first projects are finished. So, communication with the community continues.

“We’re currently tracking permits and developing a dashboard so the public will understand what this will look like in their neighborhood,” Dorsey said.

He adds that Arlington County’s planners are required to have core competencies in community engagement since they are usually the principle, initial points of contact with the community. Seeing the broad community spectrum can lead to sustainable, generational impact.

Building and Maintaining Zoning Reform Community Engagement in Atlanta, GA

Successful community engagement means planners and officials need to go to the community rather than waiting for stakeholders to come to them. It involves intentionally seeking out comments and opinions from all demographics. For planners, it can mean stepping outside their comfort zone.

Successful community engagement means planners and officials need to go to into the community.

“Community engagement is a required part of the planning process. The legal requirements might require two public meetings and a public hearing. But too often we just stick to the boxes that need to be checked. We become entrenched in decades of plans. We wonder why the plans haven’t happened and we then default to updating the plan,” explained Kevin Bacon, AIA, AICP, director of urban design, southern U.S. with Toole Design. “True community engagement is not always about a mission-critical project. It’s about building and maintaining relationships and getting embedded in the community.”

Bacon, who previously served as director of design and interim deputy commissioner for strategy with the city of Atlanta, describes an approach Atlanta has used to get into neighborhoods and connect with the community. The city created a pop-up design studio that resembles a retail space and locates it in different neighborhoods for a minimum of six months. Residents are invited to come in and find out about future city plans.

Bacon said taking the process out of city hall might be labor intensive, but the results are even greater. He explained that the actual results of the pop-up design studio “weren’t the projects themselves, but answering questions and becoming part of the community. People came to realize we weren’t just an abstract government agency. We saw a lot of people who valued that space, changed their attitude and realized they can work with the city.”

Understanding the Community in Zoning Reform

“Planners can be proactive and get as many people to the table as possible, representing all people in the community. Cast a wide net. And there needs to be multiple feedback loops throughout the process,” Thomas said.

As an example of successful community engagement in the planning process, Thomas cites Washington, D.C.’s 11th St. Bridge Park. A 1960s-era bridge across the Anacostia River is being repurposed into a park thanks, in part, to in-depth community engagement. A steering committee was formed to guide the process and more than 11,000 pieces of public comments were collected during more than 200 meetings, which included diverse and historically marginalized communities. Engagement has also included door-to-door outreach, surveys and online opportunities.

“They used every different type of modality, then came back to the community and said ‘did we get it right?’” said Thomas.

Understanding who the various stakeholder and demographic groups are and how best to communicate and connect with them is essential. Making sure your message is understood is just as important. Bacon says zoning parlance can often be wonky and mired down in technical aspects. He says one way to avoid that is to remember the intent. In other words, don’t lose the forest for the trees. Thomas agrees that language about zoning must be understandable and free from jargon. Meaningful conversations are impossible without understanding.

That can be tricky when striving to engage multilingual communities. Inviting one person to join a committee or discussion doesn’t provide true representation and can smack of tokenism. In addition, there might not only be a language barrier, but a trust barrier. Carefully research the community in order to understand who lives there and why. Respect their culture and concerns. When developing informational and educational materials, translate with care. It isn’t enough to simply translate from English into the native language of the community. Consider cultural nuances and use easily understandable words and phrases. Be sure that conversations happen where communities feel safe and empowered to engage. It’s more than inviting them to the table, it is making sure the table is in the right place.

Going to where people are might mean going online. Share plans and updates via a dedicated, easily navigated website and provide space for feedback. And don’t forget other popular social media platforms such as YouTube and TikTok. Social media must be part of the engagement mix in order to reach millennials and members of Generation Z.

REALTORS® Engaged in Rewriting the Zoning Code in Charleston, SC

The city of Charleston, S.C., is in the process of rewriting its zoning code that dates back in the 1930s. It’s expected that the process will take approximately two years. So far, the city has hired a consultant and created a technical advisory committee. One member of that committee is Josh Dix, government affairs director for the Charleston Trident Association of REALTORS® (CTAR). When connecting with the community, Dix says that REALTORS® possess a unique knowledge and can serve as links throughout the process.

“We have the best access to the everyday citizen. We know what the community has and what the quality-of-life amenities are that make the community stronger. We get that feedback from the end users,” Dix explained.

Community meeting in Charleston, SC

Courtesy of CTAR

Helping community members understand the importance of zoning reform is a necessity.

Equally important as being a conduit for community input is helping community members understand the importance of zoning reform.

“Zoning must match future use and not past use. It must be reflective,” Dix explained. “People tend to see the community as the place they moved to or what they want it to be and not necessarily the direction it’s actually moving. Zoning and land use must match the land value. Without appropriate zoning, future plans can’t be fulfilled.”

Bacon agrees that understanding is essential and often requires education.

“There will be times when you’re not even talking about the process. It’s about education. Don’t be afraid to pump the brakes, back up and make sure everyone understands.”

Newport, RI Invites Smart Growth America To Provide Assistance With Community Engagement

Thomas explains that sometimes outside help is needed in order to facilitate productive engagement. That’s where consultants might be beneficial. Smart Growth America provides technical assistance, thought leadership and advocacy.

Newport, R.I., is an example where technical assistance became a game changer.

The North End neighborhood of Newport had seen a downturn due to an urban renewal bridge that cut the neighborhood off from the rest of the city. Neighborhood residents feared their voices weren’t being heard as the city tackled long-term plans and zoning reform.

In response, neighborhood leaders formed a Local Advocacy Group (LAG) and began collecting opinions and comments from neighborhood residents. The LAG partnered with the Newport Health Equity Zone and sought the guidance of Smart Growth America. Priorities were developed and a set of zoning amendments were drafted and presented to city officials. The amendments addressed affordable housing, green space and ensuring future participation in the process and were unanimously adopted by the Newport City Council earlier this year. The LAG’s work was also recognized with the GrowSmartRI Smart Policy Award.

“The city passed a Comprehensive Plan update. But it was created in a vacuum and finished without any engagement. The community pushed back and Smart Growth America was invited to provide assistance with community engagement. The community made recommendations and those recommendations included an equitable development strategy that became part of the comprehensive plan,” Thomas said. “It changed the relationship with the city.”

And that is the real bottom line to successful community engagement — creating sustainable, meaningful relationships. When everyone feels that they are a partner in the process and that their opinions are valued and their voices are being heard; it’s possible for a community to not only meet its current needs, but create a visionary plan for the future.


Related Content


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

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