“There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about.”
— Margaret J. Wheatley

As communities’ Allies in Place, we strive to help our clients and their constituents discover those things they care about most, and develop plans that make them come to fruition. We continually look to add to our toolbox and improve the way we reach and interact with residents and stakeholders.

Community engagement is more than just “checking a box” for us or the agencies we work with. We’ve seen community input reveal otherwise unseen circumstances, provide public officials with the credibility and courage to implement plans, and strengthen the community’s trust in government. We’ve also seen it build a foundation of support for a planning process, increasing the likelihood that the plan’s goals and objectives will be realized. As a valuable piece of the planning process, we continue to look for ways to increase involvement in all the communities with work in. Here are some of our tips, tricks, and tools that we’ve discovered along the way.

Go Beyond the Open House
Seek out your community members, don’t expect them to come to you. Consider hosting a pop up event at your local library, coffee shop, or even at the train station. As you plan your community engagement strategy, focus on where people already are rather than where you want them to be. The easier you make it for them to participate, the more likely they will. Does your community have a weekly farmer’s market? Or holiday/special event? Consider piggy-backing onto existing community events to increase your reach and capture an already engaged and interested audience. We’ve seen agencies even organize a project-related, festival-like special event with food, live music, kids’ activities, and prizes for attendance and participation.

For site-specific master planning projects, we’ve hosted our public meetings on-site, so visitors can explore the existing site and envision what the proposed design might look like while they’re there. Little touches, like balloons, signage, and snacks can make a gathering like this seem more like a “special event” rather than a “boring” public meeting. Hosting the event on-site also captures drop-in users who are already there and even attract those who may just be driving by to stop in and check it out.

Site visits are a requirement for any place-based project, so why not invite the community to join you on them? During the Peoria Avenue BRT project in Tulsa, Oklahoma, we facilitated walkshops along the proposed BRT line to where we talked to residents about the existing conditions and their vision for the corridor. The degree of valuable input we received from these walkshops would have been nearly impossible to achieve in a conference room across town, so if weather permits, these types of events are highly-recommended.

Combine Traditional and High-Tech Approaches
Eighty-nine percent of all US adults use the internet, yet a mere 22% claim to have attended a political meeting on town, local, or school affairs (Pew Research Center). Internet usage isn’t just done at home anymore either – nearly 2/3 of adults own smartphones, so the internet is literally at the tip of their fingers 24/7. The low rate of public meeting attendance has many agencies seeking out alternative, online ways to connect with their communities. One way is to use social media, but use it better.

Nearly eight-in-ten internet users are on Facebook, which makes the platform a great opportunity for gathering quantitative information from your constituents (Pew Research Center). You can now use a variety of apps to post quick, easy polls to your organizations Facebook page. One we’ve seen used successfully is Polls for Facebook. With this app, you can easily create a one-question poll that you post via a simple status update. Through this link, your followers can quickly provide input without having to navigate to a separate website or create new a new login or password. If navigating to another site isn’t an issue or if you need more than one question SurveyMonkey, PollDaddy, or SurveyGizmo are great options, too. A plus with these tools is you can embed them into your project website or homepage, design them with custom branding, and integrate them with third-party email programs like MailChimp or Constant Contact.

Many agencies successfully use their social media accounts to regularly communicate with their constituents, but we are also seeing a growing demand for web-based engagement platforms that are stand-alone, project-specific, and interactive. These platforms provide users with the ability to map their concerns and ideas, simulate budget and land use implications, take surveys and polls, and brainstorm ideas. With the ever-increasing amount of online engagement platform vendors, you can be sure to find one that fits your project’s needs. Some are pre-fabricated and all-inclusive, making it easy for quick setup and implementation while others are individual plugin or widget-like tools that can be used together and customized as needed.

One of my favorites is PlaceSpeak. This pre-fabricated, yet customizable, platform integrates polls, surveys, open-ended discussion forums, and place-based mapping into a simple, easy to use platform. The project-specific page provides space and pages for project information, event notifications, and resources such as photos, presentations, and other documents. Users do need to create logins, but can also sign up by connecting their social media accounts. One of my favorite features of the site is the ability to see where your responses are coming from. Users enter their zipcode or full address and that information is linked to a GIS shapefile you’ve uploaded to the site. This information can help planners and agencies focus campaigns and outreach to ensure their reaching a geographically-distributed audience. We used this for both site master planning and regional planning projects at my previous firm.

Other online platforms and surveys in Lakota’s toolbox include:
MetroQuest: five-page surveys with a plethora of question options. Surveys can be customized and branded as needed and users aren’t required to create a login.
CoUrbanize: interactive place-based mapping platform where users can place categorical markers on a specific area / location of the study area and add comments and opinions. The project-specific site also provides pages for project information and updates. Login required.
Community Planit: a game where users complete missions specific to the planning process. As users complete the challenges and missions, they earn rewards that allow them to prioritize community causes they care about. Also, provides space for users to contribute comments, ideas, and stories in addition to completing missions. Login required.
Community Remarks: like CoUrbanize, this is an interactive place-based mapping platform where users can place categorical markers on a specific area / location an add comments and opinions. Unlike CoUrbanize, this platform can be both a standalone page or embedded onto another website (e.g. project website, agency website, etc.).

Digital tools aren’t just for outside the public meeting, either. Using technology in public meetings can make it more interesting and exciting for meeting attendees. You no longer need to rent or buy expensive polling equipment because now you can simply use a cell phone and WIFI! With apps like PollEverywhere or Textizen your meeting attendees can participate in polls, surveys, and visioning from the comfort of their phone screen and see results in real-time. We’ve used PollEverywhere for visual preference surveys or free response polls, but there are plenty of question options to fit the app to your project’s needs. One of my favorite features is the PowerPoint integration, so you don’t need to switch back and forth between platforms, your engagement can be directly integrated with your existing presentation.

Textizen is not only great for getting input during meetings in a similar fashion as PollEverywhere, but with the tool you can continue to connect with constituents long after the meeting is over. By cross-marketing on social media, your website, and even printed posters or flyers agencies can attract ongoing feedback and engage larger numbers of people. Rather than rely on mobile-responsive online surveys that require smartphones, Textizen allows anyone with a mobile phone and a few seconds of time to participate in the planning process.
Get Creative

Community engagement is not only important for gathering quantitative feedback to help with action plans and implementation strategies, but it’s an important tool for building a foundation of support for your plan. Engagement isn’t just about what the planners and experts can get from the community, but what they can provide to the community as well. Coloring contests for elementary school students or walking tours with middle and high school students. This information can help provide otherwise unknown insight into various aspects of the community.
With the rise of Instagram and the boom of the hashtag, now supported on nearly every social media platform, photo contests encourage your community to contribute to the planning process in a more creative way.

Each year for World Landscape Architecture Month, the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) engages landscape architects, students, and the public with their annual photo campaign. Using the hashtag #WLAM, and a small blue card with the words “This is Landscape Architecture” on it, users take a photo of their favorite designed space and share it on social media. The purpose is to bring awareness to the vast array of work landscape architects do and to share some of the great landscape architectural projects from around the world. Something like this could be easily translated into a public planning process using location- or project-specific hashtags. These types of campaigns encourage social content creation about the things in your community they care about and can also help your agency compile photos for future project marketing efforts.

Whether you use an online, technology-based tool or your standard public meetings, just make sure you get in front of as many people as possible to truly engage a wide range of community members. Learning what the community really cares about, and reflecting that in their plan, is the best way to ensure the plan is significant and secures community ownership and support. When it comes to making our communities better, we all need Allies in Place.

We’re always looking for new community engagement tools… what tools have you used successfully in your community?