April 16, 2020

In the transportation and land use planning industries, the impact of the coronavirus pandemic is felt deeply. Transit ridership is down and our roads are empty. However, just because communities are currently quiet doesn’t mean our work as design professionals has halted. For some people, their “normal” daily engagement on our corridors may be changed permanently. Our work may be more important now than ever as we move forward with projects that will help our cities bounce back.

At Gresham Smith, we believe the public engagement process is the most important step in our projects and the best end products are a true reflection of the community’s vision. While limitations on public gatherings are good for public health and helping us flatten the curve, they pose a challenge for engaging on important community improvement projects.

Our colleague Amanda Sapala recently highlighted some keys to successful public engagement no matter the size, scope or location of a project. Building upon her tips—start early, engage often, be inclusive, paint a complete picture, keep it simple, stay consistent and be genuine—we’re sharing how our team is keeping communities connected to our projects during the coronavirus pandemic and how you can too. We have found that working remote has afforded us an opportunity to innovate.

Try new tools.

While the tried-and-true methods for virtual public engagement offer comfort and familiarity, new platforms allow us to keep the audience engaged while sharing more than just a PowerPoint presentation. Our team has been live streaming virtual workshops, using a software to actively flip between documents and map views while fielding questions and responding in real-time. While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for public engagement, we encourage you to think outside the box. Test new tools to see what works!


Consider accessibility.

When it comes to community engagement, we can’t forget less vocal, hard-to-reach groups who are often left out of important planning processes. Overcoming equity issues on projects is not a new challenge. Not everyone has access to a laptop or tablet, so it’s imperative that we cater to other devices such as cell phones. Accessibility is also important to consider when choosing a platform—would a Microsoft Teams meeting, a unique URL or YouTube Live be more effective for the audience you’re trying to reach? Most platforms now offer the ability to have live closed captioning as an option as well.


Open the floor for questions.

Make sure you’re willingly engaging in dialogue, actively listening and answering the tough questions. Let participants know their feedback won’t just end up in a report appendix—it should and will inform the planning or design process. Our team suggests using an online survey platform to gather live input from the audience and, if you’re able, addressing their concerns in real-time. We have utilized YouTube and Facebook Live’s online chat features, assigning a team member to watch for questions and then injecting them into the dialogue so everyone benefits from the conversation.


Engage the entire team.

Coordination is key for engaging with the public virtually. We include the entire team in our virtual workshops, assigning specific roles to each person. Someone is responsible for controlling the screens, at least one person is in charge of leading the discussion, and another person takes notes. This helps to spread the load and stress of running an online platform, but it also gives us the opportunity to showcase the talent we have across our team. Don’t be afraid to enlist a co-pilot or two!



Create a backup plan.

Always have a backup plan, as well as a backup to the backup. We know glitches happen, which is why we’re armed with a plan B and even a plan C. Additionally, if you’re reviewing documents, plans, etc., have them ready to send via email just in case.

Whether you’re a veteran of virtual meetings or you’re new to the meeting format, we hope our tips are helpful during these unprecedented times. From project workshops to permitting plan reviews, the opportunities for virtual engagement are endless. If we combine technology and teamwork, we’ll be able to stay social while social distancing and keep projects and initiatives moving forward.