Virtual engagement: A springboard for inclusive community planning

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Although “business as usual” is not an option today for most local governments, many continue to move forward with important projects, finding new and innovative ways to engage the public in planning for smarter growth. The Form-Based Codes Institute (FBCI) is partnering with the National Charrette Institute (NCI) to host a webinar series featuring the tools, techniques, and equity implications of virtual community engagement.

Community members are not all the same when it comes to their options and choices for how to express their opinions and preferences on new housing development, transit-line expansions, or road diet designs. Some engage through contentious late-night public meetings. Others are more comfortable writing letters to the editor, or expressing themselves anonymously through surveys and online feedback websites. Still others opt for small focus groups or advocacy groups that represent their views. 

That’s why it’s crucial for planning and community development professionals to use a variety of platforms when seeking community input, especially when it comes to reaching out to those who typically are excluded. People should be encouraged to engage in the ways they find work best for them.  

Some cities have spent decades making community engagement more responsive to their communities’ needs, with a focus on the most vulnerable populations. The first curb-cuts of the 1970s, for example, emerged after disabled advocates were given an important voice in the decision-making process for a new intersection on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, CA. Sidewalk indentations soon became commonplace to accommodate wheel-chair users—a simple, equity-driven initiative that ended up benefiting us all. The “Curb-Cut Effect” is something our engagement processes should embody, too. Since then, a wide assortment of innovative approaches have emerged, providing many more avenues for public input for communities committed to improving equity.

Online engagement: A tool for inclusivity

Well-documented research, recently cited by the Boston Globe, points to the shortsightedness of our current system of community engagement. After analyzing public meeting records in Eastern Massachusetts, Boston University researchers found that outspoken participants were overwhelmingly older, white, male homeowners, suggesting we are long overdue for community engagement strategies that attract—and value—equitable representation of stakeholders.

Rather than the familiar faces of whiter, wealthier, older homeowners that have heavily influenced community development decisions for decades, valuable input from families, people of color, young adults, business owners, service workers, and others is on the rise, as a result of  intentional, targeted outreach. Cities are engaging a wider array of stakeholders through online interactive platforms—like Charlotte, NC’s Growth Game—and tapping into social media, emails, and other virtual means to welcome feedback on design proposals. 

We’re also seeing online and in-person education led by entities like the Center for Urban Pedagogy emerge to lay the groundwork for more constructive public engagement. But there are limitations to virtual engagement. A shortage of technical resources—computers and broadband access—persists for some Americans and a digital divide in skills is painfully evident in some areas. Our leaders must therefore act carefully—using some of the strategies we’ll uncover in upcoming webinars—to ensure these people aren’t left behind.    

Virtual engagement can reach some citizens who don’t typically engage in more traditional community engagement platforms, a topic for discussion in our three part webinar series with NCI.  

Online engagement might not be the best platform for every community to engage every citizen on every topic. But necessity is often the mother of invention and the need to stay home has exposed inequities and fostered innovations that have started many community leaders thinking about new and better ways to achieve wider and more meaningful representation in public decision-making.