‘We Want Them to Have a Voice’: Engaging Diverse Communities

‘We Want Them to Have a Voice’: Engaging Diverse Communities

The planning and design of public spaces, projects in the public realm and in diverse communities are filled with challenges.  One of the most important challenges for the project team is connecting with the local community in an honest, meaningful and productive way. Building a trust during the planning and design process is critical to project success. That trust and the creation of a shared vision can only be reached by blending technical knowledge and community experience or local knowledge.  To ensure that the blend has equal measures of both, the project team must elevate their commitment to identifying and engaging the community, thereby turning up the volume.

WithersRavenel’s Senior Director of Design + Planning Gary Warner and Parks and Recreation Director Brian Starkey have decades of experience working with numerous communities on a variety of projects.  Based on their successes and failures, they have developed some insight on how to reach diverse audiences and have meaningful community conversations.  The project team needs to spend time in the community, the process needs to offer multiple opportunities for engagement, community champions need to be involved, and our clients need to support a robust strategy.

The biggest key, Starkey said, is meeting people where they are. Spending time in the community, providing appropriate virtual platforms, and participating in community events can all be part of the overall strategy.  But first who is the community?  It can be the immediate neighborhood, the city, the state, a particular cultural group, or a special interest group.  Frequently, it is a combination and methods of communication need to be specific to each.

Warner said an effective way to understand the community early in the project process is to do your research and walk its streets. “Walking through the community, you can get a truer sense of it,” he said. Businesses can be visited, conversations with owners and residents can be an early chance to gather thoughts and opinions. Additional discussions with the client and research can yield details on a community’s makeup, so a true representative audience is reached.

Location, location, location

The location of meeting sites is another factor that can influence engagement. How accessible is a meeting site? Is the site on a public bus line, particularly if the community involves more pedestrian travel? Would a centralized or more familiar location, such as a church, community center or even outside a grocery store, make it more likely that a larger, representative audience would attend? Can we set up shop at a larger community event to reach a large number and cross-section of people? Are there language barriers that need to be addressed?

Giving community members a variety of options to engage is central to a successful strategy. Ultimately, most of those interested in a project will be encountered through public or virtual meetings, or share their views through surveys and interviews.

“We often adapt our process to be as inclusive as possible,” Warner said. “6 p.m. on a weeknight isn’t going to work for everyone. Sometimes we will go from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at one place, so people can come by and meet us and share their thoughts when it works for them.” Multiple meetings on different days and times are another option to allow people who work nontraditional hours the chance to attend.

And while virtual meetings in the time of COVID have become the norm, not all people have access to technology, the skill set or the interest in online gathering. Nowadays, we are doing all of the above: virtual meetings and online surveys plus a live-and-in-person public option with safety and social distancing.

“Reaching out to community leaders and involving them as project champions can strengthen the lines of communication and is also an effective strategy to building engagement,” Starkey said.

“Having community leaders involved in the process that have the same passion for outreach and collaboration that we do, is extremely helpful in getting residents involved,” he said. Starkey understands that building relationships with local leaders, who are not elected officials, goes a long way toward ensuring that all corners of a community are represented.

At the end of the day, effective public engagement comes down to creating trust. To create that trust requires time and the support of our clients to invest that time and follow through with implementation. Project team members need to be aware of their own biases and recognize that community members might not be quick or willing to share their concerns and ideas and aspirations, especially if they feel they have been misled in the past. Our design and planning teams work hard to create trust and overcome that challenge by tailoring the process to the community and trusting it.

“Ultimately, it’s the community’s project,” Warner said. “We want them to have a voice. We need them to have a voice and we feel it is our responsibility as planners, landscape architects and engineers to help turn up the volume of their voice.”

In honor of Black History Month, we’re spotlighting work taking place in North Carolina’s historically black communities. Currently, WithersRavenel is engaged with public space projects in under-resourced communities and we are increasingly aware of the absolutely critical importance of a process designed with equity and inclusivity at its core.  These projects and working with the effected communities have inspired us and we are honored to help tell their stories and establish community places through our work.