5 ways that planners should use online community engagement


Most planners understand the need to engage the community and the benefits of doing so but many have limited their adoption of online community engagement tools to one off forays into the space when they have a major project.

Here are 5 examples of planners using community engagement software, EngagementHQ, to better effect to build community understanding and participation.

1. Vision and Masterplanning

Communities are rarely more opinionated than when faced with the opportunity to redevelop a major site. These are projects that can attract serious opposition if not managed well from the outset and for which community support is pretty much essential if you want to avoid getting into a political tangle at the decision making stage of the project.

I’ve chosen an example from Niagara on the Lake in Canada where the city has purchased a former hospital site and is now going through a process of working out what to do with it.

There’s so much I like about this engagement project. It is simple. They have taken the time to provide all the relevant context (including setting out the purpose of the project) and a plan of the site as part of the introduction, they have mapped the process in a timeline, told the community how to get involved, who is listening, and encouraged them to leave an email for updates.

The City is seeking ideas on what to do with the site from the community. This open process allows the community to express its views freely without necessarily compelling the City to pursue any one of the options. Sometimes these processes bring up new, innovative and interesting ideas, sometimes not. Either way, the community knows its contributions have been welcomed and valued.

The site also invites questions on the project. This is a really smart way of ensuring that those who are not sure about the process or possibilities can ask the City directly rather than heading off to social media to ask anyone who cares to answer. This is sensible risk mitigation and can head off untruths and rumors before they take hold.

2. Comprehensive plans

I’ve chosen two case studies to illustrate the use of online engagement in developing city plans. The first is the Village of Frankfort Illinois. This project is a 20-year plan for the Village, a process being managed by consultancy Teska. It’s a major and long term project and in this case has a site of its own, allowing the community to see the process evolve from start to finish and to participate. It also heavily promotes face to face events, acknowledging that it is beneficial to get people in the room with the planners where possible.

The site is attractive, informative and engaging. It is very clear how you can get involved at different stages of the project and, as the process evolves, this site will be bursting with content letting everyone see that the evolution of the plan has been heavily influenced by the community at each stage.

The next case study, which has similarities to the Frankfort plan, is for Port Chester NY (this site is being run by planning consultancy TPUDC who have used this approach for numerous comprehensive planning processes). This site is also extremely engaging, informative, and focuses on bringing people to face to face events. This site is also noteworthy because it delivers all these opportunities in English and Spanish.

Both of these sites are run by planning consultancies on behalf of the City/Village but they are examples of how a unique online presence may be justified for major projects. When cities who have an existing online engagement portal take on a project of this type, they may want to keep building their central participant database, in which case they would use a special ‘hub’ for the Comprehensive Plan which to the user can feel like it has a unique identity while accessing the same community database.

3. Transportation plans

The City of Greenwood Village CO is in the early stages of developing a transportation masterplan. The first phase of the online engagement component allowed users to map what and where they felt the major issues were – something that drew a strong response. The City is now in between engagement phases but the site provides a place people can go to review the prior engagement and learn about the project and sign up for updates.

4. Zoning Ordnances

Staying in Colorado (which is the home of some really strong engagement practice in city government), the City of Lakewood have been undertaking a review of their zoning ordnancesin their ‘Lakewood Development Dialogue’.

This site gives all the relevant information about the process to the community and then invites them to drill down into one of 5 more detailed subject areas: Parking and related infrastructure, Architectural Design and Green Buildings, Mixed Use Neighborhoods, Site design and Community Context and Housing Options.

Each of the detailed subject areas takes people through a process of learning and then invites them to complete a survey and, should they wish, pin an issue on a map.

The strong online presence here means that the community has all the information it needs about the zoning process, a process that at times can cause controversy and even outrage.

5. Development Applications

No article about using online engagement tools in planning would be complete without the good old Development Application. Many planners I speak to assume that these are too commonplace to need any online engagement, but actually online tools can be used to keep the community well informed. Because the community is more likely to get involved in a tangible local project than a broader strategy, engaging on development applications can give you a great database of information to extrapolate for use in your more strategic planning activities.

I have two examples here. The first is for a major development application. I’m going back to our friends at Niagara on the Lake here – this project is part of a resort development. Now granted, this is not a typical DA as it does require changes to the zoning but this project shows how a major proposal can be dealt with.

As before, all the relevant information is provided. The community has been invited to register for updates and an online discussion has been held about the proposal. Something I’d like to point out is the clear statement on the forum that ‘Providing comments on this forum does not constitute a written submission under the Planning Act….’ and going on to explain how to make such a submission. It’s very important to make clear the status of different ways of getting engaged. I usually suggest making online forum contributions similar to comments made at a public meeting and differentiating these from formal submissions.

I’ve done enough planning work to know that it is completely impractical to run discussion forums for all the development applications that a city has to deal with. The alternative is to provide all the relevant details on a page and to simply allow people to make a submission via a survey form. This allows you to gather submissions in one place from people who have easy access to the facts about a project. It also means that you are able to measure awareness and understand how many people have come and learned about a project and chosen not to make a submission, an important measure of community sentiment given that submissions are often dominated by those who are against what is being proposed. This approach also allows you to use the qualitative analysis tools available in your online engagement platform to help you assess submissions.

This site from Park City UT is a great example of creating a solid community engagement plan and in this use case, a survey tool has been utilized to create an opportunity for formal submissions of public opinion.

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