At Gresham Smith, we believe that the best plans for a community’s future and the best designs for our transportation networks are those that include the people in the process. All healthy relationships are built on a foundation of trust, and transparent, shared conversation serves as the bedrock for that formation. Our planners believe that targeted public outreach and intentional community engagement are ways to facilitate this dialogue during the planning and design process. Well-planned community engagement builds trust between members of the public and the implementing agencies, and it ultimately develops an end product that is a true reflection of the community’s vision.
No matter the size, scope or location of a project, we think there are three keys to success for every planner and engineer to keep in mind.
Know your audience. Very often, members of the community participating in the planning or design process are not planners or engineers, and the technical things we discuss in transportation may be new or different for them. This can breed distrust or fear, especially if concepts are not well explained and people are left confused. An easy way to avoid this is to translate industry jargon into plain language. Words like corridor, facility, trail and right-of-way used in a transportation context may have a different connotation for your listeners. Something as simple as changing your vocabulary and tailoring it to your audience can make a huge difference.
Make it convenient and engaging. People are busier than ever. Think outside of the box and take your show on the road to where the people are. This gives people an opportunity to participate while they’re already somewhere they would have been anyway, like the grocery store or a community festival.
Be genuine. Community engagement only works if it feels authentic to the participants. All of us as planners and engineers chose our profession because we believe in making a positive impact in our communities. Channel that passion to willingly engage in dialogue, actively listen and answer the tough questions. Demonstrate how you value what each person has to say. Clearly explain that their feedback won’t just end up in a report appendix and show how it will actually inform the planning or design process.
Community Engagement that Works
When we think about community engagement, we break it down into seven principles.
- Early: People don’t like surprises, and they don’t like to feel left out. If you wait too long to invite people into the process, they may suspect that there was something to hide or that their participation is just for show.
- Often: Communication has to happen throughout the project. Don’t assume everyone was reached on first pass, understood the message the first time they heard it or that they follow along at every phase.
- Inclusive: There will always be a concentrated group of highly engaged citizens that actively participate in every project. However, you can’t forget less vocal, hard-to-reach groups who are often left out of important planning processes.
- Complete: Give the audience the complete picture. You don’t want to leave them with more questions than answers.
- Coherent: Put yourself in the average listener’s shoes and tailor your message to your audience. Taking the time to develop a shared vocabulary empowers anyone and everyone to participate.
- Consistent: You have to stay on message and be consistent. This creates a sense of stability and grounding, which helps to build trust in the process.
- Genuine: Most importantly, and it’s worth repeating, be genuine. Our company’s tagline is “Genuine Ingenuity,” and we take that idea into everything we do, including our interactions with the community. You can do all of these other things, but community engagement only works if it feels authentic to the participants.
From Principle to Practice: Our Work in Action
So how do we apply these principles to our actual work in the community? Here are a few examples.
Cobb County Greenways & Trails Master Plan (Cobb County, GA). For this planning exercise, we went to where the people are, setting up tables with information at four community festivals. Too often planners expect the people to come to them. At these events, we were able to hear from all different kinds of people who may not normally participate in a planning or design exercise, including families and kids.
Knox County Greenway Corridor Study (Knoxville, TN). Not everyone has the time or the resources to attend a public meeting. That’s why we’re increasingly using online interactive engagement tools as a complementary strategy to in-person engagement. Right now, we’re in the middle of the community engagement phase of our work on the Knox County Greenway Corridor Study. If you visit the project’s website, you can see our list of recent public meetings, along with an interactive Wikimap. With this tool, anyone can visit the site and leave comments about the proposed plans.
North-South Parkway Sub-Area Study (Multiple counties outside Charlotte, NC). In our work to collect feedback about transportation needs in the Greater Charlotte area, we used another interactive tool called MetroQuest. It allows us to give participants a quick explanation of the project and allows them to select preferences, road alternatives and weigh in on issues like safety and mobility.
Moving Forward Together
No matter which method or format you choose, robust community engagement is key to any transportation project, big or small. Remember: Start early, engage often, be inclusive, give a complete picture, keep it simple to be coherent, stay consistent, and, most importantly, be genuine. We have a lot to learn from our neighbors, and together we’ll create thriving, healthy communities.