Published on March 13, 2023
City building should reflect the needs, desires and aspirations of all individuals and communities. We asked the experts to share a few community engagement strategies.
To create the very best public spaces, we need to involve the public.
Community engagement is an essential part of city building and helps make our communities better places to live, work, and play for everyone.
“Engaging communities is really essential to ensure greater equity and representation,” says Anjuli Solanki, Program Director at STEPS Public Art, a charitable organization that transforms urban spaces through cultural planning, community arts and artist capacity building programs.
“To do placemaking well, we have to integrate placekeeping,” Solanki says. “That’s where community engagement is so critical, so you’re reflecting and meeting the needs and desires of the community that is currently there.”
The community engagement process can take on different levels of participation, ranging from simply consulting communities for public feedback, to partnering with the public in decision-making, to empowering communities and giving them ultimate decision-making power.
Improving engagement as part of project planning leads to improved outcomes, both for community spaces and at the individual level. That includes helping people build skills, encouraging them to use services that are available and ensuring that they connect with, and take care of, their community.
“When people feel like they’ve had a say in shaping the space, they may have an extra attachment to the transformed space,” says Heidi Campbell, Senior Program Manager at Evergreen. “Then there’ll be repeat visits to that place. And within those repeat visits are a lot of social benefits.”
To ensure public spaces meet the needs and preferences of those who use them, it’s important to implement effective community engagement strategies. Here are five best practices:
When community members feel that their voices are heard and their concerns are addressed, they are more likely to participate in the engagement process and contribute to its success.
The process often begins with identifying and involving key community partners. These partners not only offer unique perspectives, but have established relationships and networks.
“When we’re planning projects in a community we haven’t worked with before, it’s really integral that we take the approach of collaboration,” Solanki says. “How can we support their work and goals with what we’re doing? Even if we’ve been working in a place for a long time, we’re continuously looking to build more relationships, letting more people know about the work we’re doing and ensuring we have a better understanding of what’s important to that community.”
Using a variety of engagement methods helps ensure that different groups of people in the community have a chance to participate. These methods can include community meetings, workshops, surveys, virtual engagement, site visits and more.
As part of Evergreen’s Climate Ready Schools pilot — a project that transformed a school ground into a climate-adpative space for outdoor learning and community use — Campbell says the community engagement plan included design workshops and site visioning sessions with students, surveys with school staff and conversations with the entire school community.
The team also needed to emphasize virtual engagement tools when the pandemic limited in-person engagement. These tools included a dedicated project website, a podcast series led by the school and digital platforms like Google Meet for hosting virtual meetings.
I think it is really important to use multiple strategies, because not everybody can come to you in the same way.
“I think it is really important to use multiple strategies, because not everybody can come to you in the same way,” adds Solanki, pointing out that community engagement can even include fun activities.
“We did a series of park animations in Toronto called Woven that celebrated the city’s textile history,” she says. “At each engagement, we also learned more about what people thought were missing in public spaces.”
By involving individuals from diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives, community engagement efforts can be more responsive to the needs of the entire community.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to involving diverse groups. But organizations might take a targeted approach by identifying community groups that involve diverse members. The next step is deeply integrating diverse community members into the planning and outreach process.
That can even involve an advisory committee. For example, STEPS has an Indigenous advisory committee that helps inform how the organization works with Indigenous artists and communities.
“Particularly with equity deserving communities, they’re so often consulted but never compensated,” Solanki says. “That needs to be part of the process and budgeted for, especially if you’re engaging members from diverse groups to lead that outreach.”
Community engagement means listening to the community. Solanki stresses the importance of being adaptable in your response.
“You may have an idea of the right way to do community engagement, and then meet a community that says, ‘this is how we value community engagement’. It’s really important to be able listen and shift when necessary,” she says.
For Evergreen’s Climate Ready Schools pilot, Campbell says it was important to incorporate engagement strategies that led to two-way conversations.
“We had opportunities for people to participate in fireside chats,” she says. “It was a chance for anybody in the school community to call in and hear about the project, ask questions and give their perspectives. But it was a dialogue. People called in and said what they loved about the space or where it could be improved.”
Many aspects of the project were based on dialogues with the community. Campbell says that people across all age groups — from early years to seniors — expressed the desire for more shade from trees. This need was a key design driver in the transformation of the pilot school ground.
What was the impact of all this engagement?
Following up is crucial because it ensures that input and feedback are taken into account throughout the process. This practice might involve regular communication with community members to keep them informed or to collaborate on changes.
Reporting can help identify issues that may arise during a project, but it’s also an opportunity to celebrate the successes and milestones directly with the community.
Campbell says Phase 1 of the Climate Ready Schools design plan was shared widely to the community through the various engagement channels they had established. The team also conducted a number of evaluations on how students and teachers were engaging with the new landscape. That evaluation — and the communication with the school community — continues this year.
Evergreen’s Climate Ready Schools builds on a 30-year legacy of transforming school grounds across Canada. Read the case study to learn more about the transformation of the school ground into a climate adaptive landscape for outdoor learning and community use, and Evergreen’s approach to community engagement.
Want to learn more about digital placemaking and engagement? Tune into the Future Fix podcast episode featuring Farhaan Ladhani, Co-founder, Digital Public Square. “The way in which these tools can be used to foster engagement in the community can be really useful for all sorts of things, from consultation, through to participation on decision making,” he says.