Want better communities? Engage them better

  • Walkability workshop

    Walkability workshop

    Kelly Morphy, standing with her hands on the table, leads a workshop in Helena, Montana. Photo courtesy of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute.

Kelly Morphy, Better! Cities & Towns

Note: This article is published in the October-November 2012 issue of Better! Cities & Towns (subscribe).

It’s very likely that most people reading this piece already drank the urbanist Kool-Aid: We believe in placemaking, walkability, and better urban design.

Some among us understood its implications and embraced the livability movement earlier than others, but here we are, all together now in the “new” economy—the one in which most Americans prefer walkable communities, in which Millennials are delaying getting their driver’s licenses and would prefer Internet access over owning a car, and in which a home’s Zestimate is now packaged with its Walk Score. We have arrived, right? Well, not quite.

Throughout the country, examples are still found where efforts to make towns better have been stymied by community members, civic leaders, or transportation officials who just don’t “get it.”

Since I don’t have to sell you on the value of mixed uses, green space, compact urban form, or pedestrian scale, let me try to sell you on this: We need to get better at community outreach and engagement because we still have a lot of traction to gain at the local level.

Here are a few strategies that will help us get there.

First, we need to understand why to commit to community engagement. Aside from what hopefully is obvious—that community members should be co-authors of their future—there are many good reasons to strive for successful engagement, including, for starters:

• It improves chances of a project or program succeeding.

• In and of itself, strong community engagement leads to better community health. (Imagine that—even if our project isn’t approved, we’ve already made a positive impact just by engaging community members.)

• Community engagement builds social capital—those web-like connections between us that engender trust, improve our ability to tackle tough problems and even increase the likelihood we will support financial investments in public projects.

Reach people where they are

As much as we dislike it when some traffic engineers* ignore our crazy ideas that streets should support all users and not just people in cars, community members who haven’t yet come to understand the value (or meaning) of New Urbanism shouldn’t be ignored, either. And they certainly shouldn’t be ridiculed, either publicly or behind closed doors. We need those who haven’t seen the light yet to join Team Livability if we are going to succeed. So we need to start reaching people where they are.

That starts with a commitment to understand—REALLY understand—that place attachment makes us human. And sometimes scared and reactive. People who initially oppose a placemaking project may simply be fearful. In fact, we should actually appreciate a person’s emotional connection to their community because that connection has real economic value. For a great discussion of this, see the Knight Foundation’s Soul of the Community report.

But okay, so there’s economic value in emotional connections to place, but that doesn’t make a naysayer any easier to deal with. So we have to do the hard work to get them to the table, and that begins with building relationships. This takes time and effort, and there don’t seem to be any shortcuts. So:

• Show up. Don’t wait for a meeting, or an invitation, or for someone else who was going to arrange a conversation. Call them now, meet them now — even though this isn’t the typical advice to engage the opposition. Walk up to them, shake their hands, look them in the eye and listen. Ask questions. And then listen some more. You need to actually hear what’s being said and understand it (which, of course, isn’t the same as agreeing with it). This should be followed up with a sincere response focused on acknowledgement and validation: This is what I hear you saying.  And voila, we have conversation. This initial conversation contributes to the person feeling they are an important part of the process. And they are.

•Be comfortable with the goal of the effort. If it is to put the community’s future in the community’s hands, then one should be okay with actually doing this. There is certainly a need for leadership, education and helping the community craft its vision, but facilitators often forget that their job is … facilitation. Showing up simply with a PowerPoint full of “to do’s” is presumptuous. Rather, a worthy goal might be to build informed consent, in which case tools from the Bleikers’ Systematic Development of Informed Consent program or from the National Charrette Institute might be appropriate.

And then there is this: Some people are against virtually everything. Thankfully, there are only a few of them in the entire country, so be very, very careful before you label someone as such. But if you have designed and executed a legitimate community-engagement effort, if you’ve taken the time (months and years, not weeks) to build relationships and be responsive to the polity, then it’s unfair for anyone to try to hijack the process. You’ve got to protect the rights of the community to have meaningful engagement.

Desired outcomes should drive the process

Identify desired outcomes and then create the plan for getting there. I know—“create a plan” sounds obvious, but an authentic community-engagement program, not a contrived one in which we back into a predetermined result, means that our first real step in a successful effort is to identify the desired outcomes for community engagement. This is followed by building a plan for achieving the desired outcomes. Every component of the plan should be able to answer the question, “Why are we doing this,” and “How does this help achieve the goal?”

This is probably hammered into our heads by now, but the plan also should ensure meetings or events are held at times and locations that allow people to attend. Some folks can only attend during the day, while their kids are in school. Some folks can only attend at night, when they’re not at work. And a neighborhood meeting should probably be held … in the neighborhood.

Overall, we can stand to be a bit more creative about the way we engage our communities. For example, churches “build and sustain more social capital — and social capital of more varied forms — than any other type of institution in the US,” according to a 2011 Harvard Kennedy School of Government report. In rural communities and small towns, churches often serve an even greater role than in urban settings to build community and build capacity for change. Thus, project leaders should seek innovative ways to work with church leaders to engage their membership in public projects.

Shortcuts? Not so much

There are great community engagement tools (social and “new” media, alone, warrant an entire seminar), and the best of them should be used when they can enhance the process and improve engagement. But true community engagement takes time, takes relationship-building, and requires you to build trust with the community. Each of us needs to be making the phone calls, meeting people, sending emails, writing  educational pieces, doing the research, having the conversations. When that is done, you’ll see fear and suspicion fade, which means you built trust with the community and are on the way to successful engagement.

*Engineers aren’t the enemy. For more on that, and how to successfully engage them, see A Citizen’s Guide to Better Streets: How to Engage Your Transportation Agency, written by engineer Gary Toth of Project for Public Spaces.

Kelly Morphy is Director of Community Outreach at the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute. www.walklive.org