We will be hosting a series of virtual interactive communal conversations. Community members are not all the same when it comes to their options and choices for how to express their opinions and preferences on new housing development, transit-line expansions, or road diet designs. Some engage through contentious late-night public meetings. Others are more comfortable writing letters to the editor or expressing themselves anonymously through surveys and online feedback websites. Still, others opt for small focus groups or advocacy groups that represent their views.
That’s why it’s crucial for planning and community development professionals to use a variety of platforms when seeking community input, especially when it comes to reaching out to those who typically are excluded. People should be encouraged to engage in the ways they find work best for them.
Digital Engagement: A Tool for Inclusivity
Well-documented research, recently cited by the Boston Globe, points to the shortsightedness of our current system of community engagement. After analyzing public meeting records in Eastern Massachusetts, Boston University researchers found that outspoken participants were overwhelmingly older, white, male homeowners, suggesting we are long overdue for community engagement strategies that attract—and value—equitable representation of stakeholders.
Our method reaches out to the valuable input from families, people of color, young adults, business owners, service workers, recently incarcerated, homeless, and others is on the rise, as a result of intentional, targeted outreach. Cities are engaging a wider array of stakeholders through online interactive platforms—like Charlotte, NC’s Growth Game—and tapping into social media, emails, and other virtual means to welcome feedback on design proposals.
We’re also seeing online and in-person education led by entities like the Center for Urban Pedagogy emerge to lay the groundwork for more constructive public engagement. But there are limitations to virtual engagement. A shortage of technical resources—computers and broadband access—persists for some Americans and a digital divide in skills is painfully evident in some areas. Our leaders must therefore act carefully—using some of the strategies we’ll uncover in upcoming webinars—to ensure these people aren’t left behind.
Virtual engagement can reach some citizens who don’t typically engage in more traditional community engagement platforms, a topic for discussion in a recently published three part webinar series by NCI.
- Webinar #1, Charrettes go virtual: Missoula, Montana hosts an online charrette to advance a community vision (recorded): Charrette organizers, Dover, Kohl and Partners, and local planners from Missoula, Montana described how they pivoted a long-planned community visioning effort for the Mullan Area Master Plan to a fully virtual format. Webinar speakers covered how the virtual charrette was structured, how the city prepared, the outcomes, and the pros and cons of using this virtual format.
- Webinar #2, Tools & Techniques for Virtual Community Engagement (recorded): Speakers explained how to develop a framework for thinking about how people engage online and shared specific approaches to virtual community engagement in Kalamazoo, MI and Cambridge, MA.
- Webinar #3, Equitable Inclusion in Virtual Community Engagement (recorded): A discussion among top equity experts to understand the considerations that must be addressed when conducting virtual community engagement.
Online engagement might not be the best platform for every community to engage every citizen on every topic. But necessity is often the mother of invention and the need to stay home has exposed inequities and fostered innovations that have started many community leaders thinking about new and better ways to achieve wider and more meaningful representation in public decision-making.