Building bridges at a distance

Now, more than ever, it is crucial for cities, city-builders and residents to stay engaged even when participants can’t meet in person. But how do we ensure remote conversations include everyone?

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The Happy City team hosts a Zoom meeting for our toughest critics — our parents.

July 23, 2020

By Mitchell Reardon and Emma Clayton Jones

It might have been the most awkward moment of our pandemic-roiled lives.

We had assembled a dozen participants for an online workshop about urban planning. We showed them how to play with our online whiteboard. (Double-click to make a sticky note!) We reviewed Zoom conference etiquette. (Don’t take your iPad to the bathroom with you!) Now they were staring at us through their screens, with expressions that ranged from bothered to bemused.

Finally, the oldest of the bunch, a 91-year-old woman, said what everyone was thinking: “This just isn’t working!”

This woman happened to be firm principal Charles Montgomery’s mother. In fact, most of the workshop participants were parents of various members of our team. And the looks on their faces told us that we were letting them down.

This moment mattered, and not just because we looked like fools in front of our parents. Our urban planning and design team focuses on building happier, healthier communities. We believe Jane Jacobs was right when she said that “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

But COVID-19, and social-distancing rules, had upended the conversations that need to happen between urban decisionmakers and residents. We had to find ways to hold workshops and other important conversations remotely. We knew our new systems worked well for people who were comfortable with online platforms. But we needed to test these tools out with folks who had different experiences and abilities.

That’s why we called up our parents. When we did, we quickly learned that we needed to do a much better job of making our online workshops inclusive. The parental units had trouble navigating multiple open tabs in their web browsers. Many couldn’t find the ‘digital whiteboard’ we had created to organize our thoughts. One parent had recently suffered a concussion. She found the whiteboard so visually stimulating she had to quit the workshop.

We learned what so many in our field are learning right now: If we want to welcome everyone into online discussions about the future of cities, we need to meet them where they’re at.

New tools are helping us facilitate dialogue that builds trust and maintains social connections, but these tools don’t work for everyone. Without careful planning, remote engagement can deepen equity divides for many groups, including people who do not have access to technology or Internet, people with disabilities, and seniors.

As Black Lives Matter actions have taken place around the world, the fields of urban planning and design have been called to rethink the racist foundations of their practices. Public engagement is one space where our profession has privileged the white, the wealthy, and the powerful for too long. Whether remote or in-person, equitable engagement that brings underrepresented voices is more important than ever before.

We are among a community of teams who are riding the remote engagement learning curve and sharing what they’re learning (here’s one example, from our friends at MODUS). As we do, we are committed to working collaboratively to create a new normal that puts equity at the forefront of civic dialogue. Here are three lessons we’ve learned about how to make remote engagement feel more human.

1. Meet people where they’re at

When hosting a remote interview, roundtable conversation, or activity-based workshop, choosing the right medium — and using the right messaging — can open networks or close doors. It’s important to select tools, methods, times and activities based on what people are already using or might be comfortable with trying. Where this isn’t possible, find ways to put in the leg work to lower those barriers to participation.

Pick the right platforms, activities and group sizes. For people who use technology all day, using multiple online tools to participate in a meeting might be simple and comfortable. But for those who don’t own a computer, or who don’t use one for work — like some of our parents — a combination of digital and analogue tools and activities can be more effective. For example, you might want to use Zoom video conferencing to bring participants together, but ask each person to bring a pen and paper to sketch out their ideas during the session.

If time allows, try shipping or delivering workshop materials, including clay, sticky notes, and worksheets, to participants in advance. And don’t forget about the power of a simple phone call. Some people, including those without Internet access, might be most comfortable sharing their perspectives in a one-on-one telephone format.

It’s also important to consider group size. People learn better in small groups. A guideline used by Zahra Ebhrahim and a team of design thinkers at Doblin is: “With 1–4 people you learn new things; at 5–8 you see patterns emerge; and beyond 9 the incremental value declines.”

Use the breakout room function for parts of the session if your group has more than five people. This offers participants more space for intimate discussions. Note that these small group settings come with their only pressures for participants and that a dedicated facilitator can help discussion flow in each virtual room.

Plan out what time of day works best for participants. A lunch session might be convenient for nine-to-fivers in the same time zone, but could place burdens on parents and caregivers who need to feed hungry children, and might exclude some shift workers entirely.

Don’t cram too much in. Planning and facilitating remote engagement often takes more time and capacity than it would in-person. You may need to schedule one-on-one pre-workshop sessions to help participants get familiarized with the digital tools they will be using. During the session, take your time with introductions, allowing each person to share their name, their pronouns and where they’re based and a story or experience. Plan extra time for unexpected latecomers, tech challenges and confusion in the workflow.

Limit remote sessions to two hours, including a five or ten minute break in the middle. This will help participants of diverse ages and abilities participate and enjoy the entire conversation. Shorter workshops can be augmented with individual activities that participants can do beforehand. This helps to ensure that everyone is comfortable with the topics and tools (and provides time for organizers to address individual questions), while also advancing the workshop before collaborative activities start.

Include live sign language or transcription. Hiring a sign language interpreter or recruiting a team member to transcribe the dialogue in real time will make sure the workshop is inclusive for those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

This resource from Disability:IN provides more tips for making online sessions during COVID-19 as inclusive as possible.

2. Be prepared, but embrace uncertainty

When practicing for your workshop, anticipate the perspectives of different users. What challenges will they face? What will make them feel most included? Inspired by user experience (UX) approaches used widely in the tech world, our team has developed a living troubleshooting document to anticipate challenges and identify solutions in advance of sessions. This helps us respond to questions quickly during engagements.

Iterate, on the spot! No matter how prepared you are, you will likely discover new challenges and opportunities during your online sessions. At the beginning of the session, ask participants if they have what they need to meet their access needs. Be emotionally prepared to hear what’s not working in real time, and try out fixes with participants. Close collaboration among the facilitation team is vital to enable changes mid-workshop. Everyone needs to be aware that such changes may take place, and if changes are in fact made, must be made aware of them quickly. Our team uses Slack as a backchannel to communicate while workshops are in progress.

When technological challenges inevitably come up, stay calm and take things slow. When facilitators behave this way, everyone else stays calmer, too. Another tip for a calmer session: When asking yes or no questions, ask for a show of hands — verbal confirmation can cause overlapping audio and result in confusion.

3. Unsure who to invite to the (virtual) room? Reach out through informal networks (but be sure to compensate community experts)

Planning remote engagement isn’t just about picking the right tools and tactics. The most important component of any community engagement plan is including the right stakeholders. This includes making space for equity-seeking groups, including racialized and Indigenous communities, disabled communities, and women, who have typically been excluded from municipal and community planning processes and plans. This is important for both in-person and remote engagement, but comes with specific implications during COVID-19.

Map out existing community networks. Consider mutual aid:Since COVID-19 hit, networks of neighbours, cultural groups and religious communities have stepped up to take care of each other. Through phone calls, WhatsApp and simple spreadsheets they are distributing money, coordinating grocery and prescription pickups, and offering emotional support to one another. Planning a remote engagement session in close collaboration with groups of residents like these is likely to create more meaningful dialogue that gets to the heart of what’s happening in communities than sessions that engage a random sampling of citizens.

Communities of care don’t emerge overnight. Trusting relationships, like those leveraged by neighbours during COVID-19, take time and labour to develop. This happened long before the pandemic hit. If we wish to collaborate with pre-existing communities, particularly communities made up of equity-seeking residents, we must honour that labour, by offering formal compensation or other genuine value. We must also acknowledge that in this time of crisis, participation in our work may not be everyone’s priority.

We’ve been inspired by the approaches used by the Centre for Connected Communities (C3), a community development organization based in Scarborough. This resource explains the C3 approach, which involves collaborating with residents, community leaders, grassroots groups, funders and social service organizations to collectively solve local problems. It recognizes that community leadership, the kind that is too often informal and uncompensated, is a core component of community resilience in times of crisis.

Above all, keep it human

In a time when conversations about shaping cities and communities can only happen from afar, it’s more important than ever to create spaces for meaningful connection, for people with diverse experiences, interests and abilities. The workshop with our parents prompted us to keep exploring tools and opportunities to make this happen.

And we want to keep learning. During this pandemic, we’ve been honoured to learn from experts in accessible, inclusive citymaking, including the parents who suffered through our workshop experiment. We want to continue to learn and adapt our approach, and share what we learn. How are you facilitating dialogue that bridges divides and deepens equity?

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