Equitable community engagement drives WithersRavenel planning process – WithersRavenel

Equitable community engagement drives WithersRavenel planning process

Equitable community engagement drives WithersRavenel planning process

Planning is more than just determining and designing a roadmap of future needs of a place, area, or municipality. It is about people, and those who will most feel the effects of changes as part of any planning process.

WithersRavenel Planner Liza Monroe believes a community comes first in the planning process. She believes the best way to put the community first is by engaging residents to ensure the planning process meets their needs.

“If they’re not engaged in the development process or in the conversation about things happening around them, it doesn’t add to that sense of place,” Liza said. She recognizes the importance of making members of the community a part of the conversation through her previous experience working for the Town of Apex, City of Durham, and her efforts to include residents in the development process.

‘Greater sense of community’

“Sometimes, you can have neighbors who had been lifelong residents, but they were not engaged to participate in the planning process. It was like they were missing out on having a voice and advocating for themselves.” According to Liza, you can be a resident and still not have a voice because there’s no place or easily accessible avenue for you to speak your truth or to advocate for yourself. But when planners create a specific opportunity for those living in an area or a neighborhood, “then you create a greater sense of community, and that’s kind of my philosophy on that,” Liza said.

But giving a voice, to those who have previously and unintentionally been left out of the conversation, is considered a best practice for the success of a project. The best way to let a community take ownership and pride in a project or any changes within their community is to make them part of the journey.

Awareness of inequities in society has come through the increasing number of studies, books, and events, such as the George Floyd protests. A greater understanding of historical disparity in the development process in communities across the U.S. is helping make equitable community engagement a standard part of the planning process conversation.

“There’s a book called ‘The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America,’ which is pretty popular amongst planners,” Liza said.

“Books like this and other studies are creating this framework and showing the history of how certain communities were systemically disadvantaged over decades. Overall, there’s been this push toward a more equitable society, and planning is a part of that, and so I do think the way that we’ve engaged in recent planning practices is completely different than the way it was done during red-lining or prior to the adoption of the Fair Housing Act,” she said.

What equitable engagement looks like

The growing consciousness among planners, planning firms, and local and state governments has meant efforts toward equitable community engagement and the planning process itself are more intentional than they were 10 or 20 years ago.

So, what does such an approach look like?  Previously, community engagement meant calling a meeting at a location, from maybe 5 to 8 p.m., and that was it.

“I think that success lies in planners meeting your community where they are. The City of Durham has what’s called an “Equitable Engagement Blueprint”. So, when I was working there, a lot of our planning that we did for our comprehensive plan was spent asking questions such as, ‘How can we remove barriers for people accessing these meetings or reviewing these plans?” Liza asked. “So that meant not just having meetings on Mondays or Fridays or Thursdays from 5 to 8 pm. That meant having a meeting during the daytime, weekend meetings, night meetings, providing day care and food at every single meeting. That way people don’t have to choose between someone watching their child and participating in the comprehensive plan process.”

According to Liza, these meeting locations intentionally varied, so there was one in the underserved area, perhaps in a library or place of worship.

“Durham also hired outreach ambassadors who could be someone like my grandparents, living in the same home for 10 or 15 years, who know their neighbors more than I, as a planner, do and who, for a small stipend, would host meetings in their home to get more in-depth and personal community feedback,” she said.

“Successful equitable engagement is how close you’re getting to the community instead of saying, ‘Hey, you have to come to us.’ It’s sometimes difficult and expensive to do door-to-door engagement and outreach. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be at a church close by or a community center, or a YMCA in that neighborhood, as opposed to being in one place and telling people to come to you.”

Many changes ushering in more equitable communication have taken hold, and most are more than just an image-building exercise. “There are practices being done that are sincere and becoming more of a standard. We’re engaging and talking to people that we haven’t in the past. For instance, something like offering translation services or having all forms and information be transcribed or translated to Spanish so we can reach out to a big segment of the population here in North Carolina. That is a standard now and should have been a long time ago.” Liza said.

Pandemic-driven changes

The pandemic, too, has led to new practices that are proving to be a benefit and an important tool in reaching people who otherwise couldn’t be reached. “Virtual meetings help immune-comprised individuals who would have the difficult choice of attending a meeting in person,” according to Liza.

WithersRavenel’s Planning Team works proactively when it comes to communication on projects in various disciplines, but especially so in planning projects. “Even when it’s just an opportunity before the project gets underway, we start off by asking, ‘How do we engage the community here?’ Our team sets the tone that we are not just bringing you civil engineering. We are not just bringing you parks and recreation planning. We are bringing a community engagement plan that will aim to reach all populations, and we’ve got the staff to do it,” she said.

Each community is unique

Part of that community engagement process centers on recognizing that each community is different. “For instance, (community engagement) in Manteo, or any coastal city, how I would engage persons there about hurricane resiliency and flood resiliency is completely different than how I would engage someone in Raleigh, who may not have ever experienced massive flooding and massive property damage from a hurricane,” Liza explained. “We have to get into that community to learn more about it and then adjust how the way we engage it would be.”

For Liza, small things like holding a community meeting in an ADA-accessible building is part of equity that’s a step toward removing a barrier, not just for someone who might be in a wheelchair, but also helpful to a mom with a stroller.

“By removing barriers, we’re not just benefiting one group. It’s benefiting the community as a whole.”

Do you want to put WithersRavenel’s Planning Team to work for you? Contact Director of Planning Brendie Vega, AICP, at (919) 535-5212 or bvega@withersravenel.com.