Community engagement is failing us. Here’s how to fix it

Four ways to include more diverse community members in planning processes.

Close up photo of Happy Cities' "engagement tree", where people can write on paper cards attached to a piece of string and hang their thoughts on the tree branches
Community engagement can be more than just a boring public meeting. (Emma Avery / Happy Cities)

Feb. 1, 2023

By Mitchell Reardon, Emma Avery, and Houssam Elokda

Picture a typical public hearing or open house: The air is stale, discussions run in circles, the coffee is bad, participants are bored—or even angry. 

For anyone who has experienced a dull public meeting, it’s not hard to understand why people choose to stay away. In Vancouver, controversial hearings can last for days at a time, draining energy, resources, and interest. These so-called “traditional” engagement approaches expect people to come to the city to share their thoughts. As a result, participation skews towards those who have the time, resources, and ability—language, technology, or otherwise—to navigate bureaucratic processes: One study of over 100 hearings in the greater Boston area found that attendees tended to be wealthier, older, white, male—and more opposed to development than the general community.

Who’s not in the room?

As planners and engagement consultants, we must ensure that everyone has an opportunity to share their input on planning decisions that will affect their daily lives. But the way we reach people and ask for their input matters. 

Data repeatedly show that people from equity-seeking groups are underrepresented in traditional public participation processes. Additionally, those who are supportive, or even indifferent, rarely show up to public meetings. This disparity can skew perceptions of support for a particular project, and make it harder for cities to approve projects that don’t align with the status quo. It can also make engagement dangerous. Harmful rhetoric, stereotyping, and even physical threats can dominate the conversation. And when planners fail to hear valuable voices and perspectives, they can perpetuate further harm to marginalized community members. 

The first step to consulting any community is to ask, “Who is going to be impacted by this project?” There are several ways to approach this question. One method our team learned from Dr. Destiny Deguzman at the Dignity Institute is called “power mapping.” This exercise uses a social justice lens to assess who is most likely to be impacted by a project, how much power they have, and how engagement activities can help rebalance that power. It prompts us to consider how welcome people may feel to participate, and whether they may already mistrust institutions. We also work closely with existing community organizations and champions to ask them who they think we should talk to, slowly building our local networks through trust and invitations to participate.

Only after we identify the missing voices can we think about how, when, and where we might reach them. Here are some things we’ve learned:

  1. Make it easy for people to participate
  2. Use a range of creative tools to reach people
  3. Create value for people and the community
  4. Listen to the experts

Editor’s note: This is by no means an exhaustive “how-to” on public engagement. Every project and every community is unique, and each requires unique approaches. These practices represent a first step in building a better foundation for public consultation.

1. Make it easy for people to participate

The best place to meet people is where they already are. More conceptually, we must also meet people at their own ability, comfort, and interest levels. 

In 2021, we were tasked with enticing local residents to use a new greenway in New Westminster, BC. The new route enabled kids to safely bike, skate, or scoot to school, simultaneously connecting a new network of small-scale green spaces and improving road safety. 

We knew that getting kids in the area excited about and involved in the project was essential (kids, after all, have a lot of sway over their parents), but we also wanted to understand their mobility habits. Knowing that five to nine year-olds wouldn’t be interested in talking “transportation,” we reached out to the local Kids Korner after school program, visiting the kids and caregivers in-person to provide information about the project and ask them questions. While doing so, we helped them paint active transportation art—skateboarders, people, bikes, and other stencil figures—and installed it along the greenway.

In this way, we reached young children with an activity tailored to their interests, while making ourselves available to listen in a place that kids, caregivers, and parents already frequented.

Ease of participation also applies to reaching people by phone or over the internet—two methods that became particularly important in the face of COVID-19 and physical distancing rules. In early 2020, like many organizations, we scrambled to quickly find ways to hold workshops and other important conversations remotely—but we needed to be sure that our online tools worked for people with all kinds of technological ability. So we called up our parents. 

In one chaotic Zoom call, we learned that some of our parents had trouble navigating multiple open tabs in their web browsers. Many couldn’t find the “digital whiteboard” we had created, and one found the experience so overwhelming she had to quit the workshop. That didn’t mean we could never use this digital whiteboard tool again—but it meant we had to adjust our expectations and approach, such as by reducing workshop length, talking things through over the phone, sharing instructions in advance, and working through tech challenges in small groups.

2. Use a range of creative tools to reach people

Just as the goals of engagement are wide-ranging, so too are the ways that we can reach people to hear their perspectives.

People have a range of abilities, interests, and desires to participate. Some people may be passionate about public spaces and urban design. They might have the energy—and desire—to take on a deeper commitment to a given planning process, sitting through a focus group session, or even contributing to a co-design process where they’re invited to help shape a space alongside other community members. 

Photo of four people at a table working together to co-design a public plaza space. There are paper cut-outs on the table showing different design elements, including seating, tables, string lighting, and more. People are using the paper cut outs to create and visualize a plan for space
Participants work together at a co-design workshop to create a vision for a new public space. (Emma Avery / Happy Cities)

Other people may have limited time—and interest. That doesn’t mean their voices aren’t important. It just means that we need to find different ways to reach them. This might be through a short online survey and social media. It might also be by stationing ourselves near places people already visit—transit stops, community centres, farmers markets—to say hello, and to ask passersby for two minutes of their time. These “intercept” surveys are a core component of our Public Life Studies, allowing us to reach people who might not otherwise show up to a formal meeting.

3. Create value for people and the community

When we ask people to share their thoughts with us or attend an event, we’re taking time out of their day. Many public meetings don’t work because they are extractive in nature, expecting people to volunteer time, insights, personal experiences, and information, while offering little—if any—value in return. 

In Port Moody, BC, we were asked to gather community input on a proposed missing middle housing development that included plans for new local shops, enhanced public spaces, and heritage conservation. So, in addition to a public meeting and one-on-one outreach to key stakeholders in the neighbourhood, we hosted a pop-up event to gather feedback from the wider community. 

To attract the community, we provided a range of activities that intrigued people of all ages to pause and ask questions about what was happening in the space. At the same time, we sought to create value for the community through this event, by offering free games and activities for families on the weekend, free drinks and snacks, tables for local artists to share their crafts, and a chance for the public to help shape a community space—all while meeting people in a place they already frequented. 

These types of activities not only help draw people into a space—who doesn’t want to play a game of ping pong?—but more importantly, they help us reach people who might not otherwise participate. For example, most parents of small children can only provide input if their kids are occupied.

4. Listen to the experts

The people who use city spaces on a regular basis are the ones who know them best. It’s our job to reach these people, and listen to them.

Over the past three years, our team worked with Lu’ma Native Housing Society, an Indigenous housing provider, and other collaborators to conduct research on temporary modular housing, an innovative type of supportive housing for people transitioning out of homelessness. Our challenge was to identify strategies to support people’s health and wellbeing in this temporary housing community. But first, we had to understand what wellbeing meant to this community. 

We began this project with our evidence-based wellbeing framework, which is the foundation for much of our work at Happy Cities. But we quickly ran into a problem: Through discussions with housing operators and people with lived experience, we realized that this framework failed to capture two of the most essential wellbeing principles for people transitioning out of homelessness—dignity, and trust. 
So, we went back to the drawing board. Through collaborative workshops with the experts—people with lived experience and the staff deeply embedded in supportive housing communities—we co-created a new wellbeing framework that better reflected people’s needs. Only after this deep listening exercise were we able to start thinking about effective solutions to promote things like health, happiness, and a sense of belonging.

More than just fun and games

In a time of increasing social disconnection—and polarization, on issues including housing, allocating more road space to people, and the role of government in shaping our cities—it’s essential to make space for more meaningful conversations around city planning. When we confine these discussions to divisive social media platforms or town halls, it becomes difficult to identify the most important community needs over the dominant (often angry) voices. In effect, this makes the planner’s job harder: Once suspicion and mistrust have poisoned an engagement process, it’s nearly impossible to change people’s minds. 

In contrast, while reaching out and meeting people where they are may feel like more effort, it creates greater value and better outcomes in the long run. When we ensure that engagement activities are worthwhile for people to participate in, it becomes easier to nurture conversations among diverse community members and decision makers, and identify common values. From this foundation, we can implement more impactful solutions to urban challenges, while helping to build bridges and trust within communities. 

Sometimes, this process requires deep listening and serious conversations. Other times, it also requires a healthy dose of fun, creativity, and co-creation. Whatever approach we choose, we must ensure that everyone has the opportunity to help shape their city, neighbourhood, and community.

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