Community Engagement During A Time of Social Distancing

Public engagement has long been a critical part of the planning and design process. Often, it is through the dialogue facilitated at public meetings that the best ideas are generated, diverse perspectives are shared, clarification received, minds changed and project buy-in is achieved. For over a decade, planners have incorporated online communications and tools as technology has advanced – virtual meetings, online surveys, virtual tours, etc. – but most often these are done in conjunction with face-to-face engagement. What happens in today’s current COVID-19 climate when social distancing is a paradigm shift and face-to-face meetings are not possible for an indefinite amount of time? As planners, it is our job to re-define processes for plan development, achieving the goals for public input without losing the quality of public discourse and benefits of collaboration. The question is how do we overcome new hurdles to make this happen as smoothly as possible? Here are five suggestions for pivoting with this new reality.

The basic framework of the community engagement process still matters.
The fundamentals of the community engagement process – establish the target audience, determine how best to communicate with them, gather insight and analyze information received – hasn’t changed. The way we gather input may be evolving but the goals and decision-process remain intact. Our job is to continue to critically examine how we will gather the input of the full community, not just those who provided the most and emphatic comments. Simply put, online tools cannot replace this part of the engagement process – we still need to think critically about who, how, and why we are asking for participation.

Selecting the right online tools is paramount
With a large array of online platforms for communications available, it is critical to select tools that help you reach your engagement goals and matching this with your resources. While a robust set of online engagement methods enable engagement of diverse audiences, strategic selection and facilitation skillsets will ensure online platforms are effective and help achieve project objectives. There are four key considerations to keep in mind; audience, investment, level of engagement, and duration. Identifying your audience will help you decide if tools for a broad audience- such as webinar with live polling features, or smaller group online dialogues with collaboration tools are most effective. Audience interest and attention span, comfort with technology, and participation style are some of the other aspects to understand. Investment considerations include labor required to create online materials, staff time to host an event or evaluate input, software or subscription expenses, technical knowledge and abilities needed to create/host the platform. You also will want to start with the end in mind to determine what level of involvement or input on decisions you intend to receive. For example, there are certain stages that informing the general public is your objective and a podcast with an online Q&A form would better fit expectations for engagement rather than tools that would be used in stages that require consultation and collaboration. Finally, another critical consideration in selecting a tool is answering a question about how much time is needed to develop the online tool, execute it, and how long it will be used. Finding ways to utilize these tools in the public engagement process is critical to obtaining the feedback we need as planners and designers to help projects successfully move forward.

Engagement processes should use a suite of virtual tools. Social media can engage a broad audience, video conference focus groups allow for in-depth discussion that does more than just inform the stakeholders, and online surveys can be quick to complete. Ensuring you choose the right tool at the right time will lend itself to the best results and a better engagement process overall.
Source: Design Workshop, Inc.

Project websites have never been more important
Now is the time for us to provide the most comprehensive project website features as possible. It isn’t just about sharing information, it’s also about offering interactive opportunities for users. This may include encouraging exploration with a project website offering information as people click-on or roll-over features of a project. Utilizing 3D renderings, videos and virtual reality whenever possible also allows key stakeholders to get a better grasp of what the project will look like so they can provide accurate insight and feedback. Emphasis on electronic communications elevates the importance of project branding and graphic design to unify, build project recognition and make the plan accessible.

An alternative to open house exhibit boards, a mobile-friendly website provides concept plans with interactive pop-up features for additional information about the redesign of three parks.
Source: Design Workshop, Inc. and the City of Colorado Springs  

Don’t forget about social media
Social media is one way we connect while apart, especially in this time of social distancing. The value it offers goes beyond simply sharing a pretty picture. Utilize Instagram polls to gather input on features for street enhancements, do a live video on Facebook or Instagram featuring one of your designers answering questions about the new elements of a public space, host a Twitter meet up where participants can respond in real time to questions, or use Snapchat to target key demographics or areas through geocoding. Social media tools were designed for communication with a network of people, so it is our job to ensure they are garnering engagement and dialog, not just broadcasting our own messages and opinions.

Be aware of the digital divide
Unreliable broadband, limited technology access, differences in communication preferences and abilities, and differing levels of civic trust means that you may not reach all your target audiences via online engagement opportunities. You must address the digital divide to ensure key audiences do not get left behind by going back to the basics of public engagement. Phone surveys, mailings and print advertisements should be part of your strategy to ensure all have the opportunity to engage and share feedback. Reaching out to community leaders to activate grassroots techniques helps to ensure engagement opportunities are directed appropriately to target audiences.

While we are living in unprecedented times, this will pass and we will be able to resume in-person gatherings. Yet, this experience is showing us that it is time for us to continue to evolve the public engagement process. Let’s get the most out of high rates of online activity by improving the quality of interactions by incorporating a suite of old and new communication tools to address equity in public participation.

Authors |
Anna Laybourn,
 AICP, is a Principal with the firm Design Workshop, an international design and planning studio. Her diverse experiences in community, regional, and land planning are united by a focus on people and planet. She specializes in establishing innovative processes for public engagement and has a reputation for building equity for underserved populations through participatory design.

Hadley Peterson, AICP-C is an Urban Planner with Design Workshop whose passion is giving a voice to those who are not usually heard. Situating her work with a foundation in research, she aims to engage stakeholders in community-driven planning and design efforts that address their built environments through innovative, thoughtful, and sustainable solutions.

Jessica Garrow, AICP is a Community Planner with Design Workshop, specializing in policy planning, public participation, and land use development. She has over 15 years of experience helping communities translate community vision into plans and regulations, and believes in the power of broad community engagement to achieve implementable community goals.

Images | Design Workshop

About Damian Holmes 3292 Articles
Damian Holmes is the Founder and Editor of World Landscape Architecture (WLA). He is a registered landscape architect (AILA) working in international design practice in Australia. Damian founded WLA in 2007 to provide a website for landscape architects written by landscape architects. Connect on Linkedin at