Community Engagement That is Actually Engaging-The 5 C’s of Effective Community Engagement

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Much like the world of art, frameworks for good architecture and viable planning can be highly subjective. The standards by which something will be judged successful may vary in different contexts, and are largely determined by the individuals who occupy a physical space at a specific time. Social housing organizations have varied audiences to please. Community members served by these organizations may have prospective clients who find themselves desperate for a dry place to sleep, or long-term tenants who feel a sense of place in the surroundings of public housing and, thus, may react against proposed design alterations.

Other members of the public housing community may be neighbors of housing complexes who are bothered by issues to do with parking or density. Design professionals are also part of this community and often understand development financing in different ways, similar to politicians who look for attractive uses for public funds, and bureaucrats who try to satisfy program requirements. That planners and decision-makers in the public housing sector have many opinions to consider is not surprising, given the number of community players.

To this end, planners, policy practitioners, and public housing authorities are encouraged to listen to the people who will be affected by new developments and public policies. Such encouragement is very often justified; positive outcomes often occur when organizations listen to, and act on, what the public contributes. However, simply listening is not sufficient when voices are missing or when those voices are not adequately prepared to respond to the information being requested.

Social housing organizations should set a high design standard for developments, as well as their policy planning processes. Doing so is important for a variety of reasons, including (but not limited to):

  1. The ability to battle stigmas concerning affordable housing. Some concern how the built environment is designed, while others purport an archaic institutional bureaucracy that is out of touch with the people it serves.
  2. The notion that beautiful places must be built and activated to improve the quality of life for PHA residents, and the wider public.
  3. The idea that beautiful and meaningful projects are more appealing for funders. When politicians and donors are investing their resources and reputations into a new development, the process through which it is planned and constructed is significant for long-term funding viability.
  4. The fact that well-designed projects often engender respect from tenants and are better cared for (and, thus, require less maintenance resulting from neglect). Well-planned developments and policies can reap the same rewards. Too often, murmurs questioning the decisions and motives around policy and design choices taint public housing projects.
  5. That good design and great planning can influence private developers and city regulations to avoid settling for mediocre buildings. These can also push design standards to accommodate and encourage buildings that adhere to a high design standard.
  6. A commitment to my “5 C’s of Messaging for Good Planning” can help to minimize nay-sayer’s complaints and reduce unanswered questions in peoples’ minds.

The “5 C’s of Messaging for Good Planning” are:

  1. Compassion: The planning topic may not be high on community members’ lists of priorities. Engaging with what they are going through, or interested in, may lead to relatable common ground
  2. Consistency: Recurring messaging using consistent information is important during the participatory process. People often need to hear (and see) communications concerning planning changes a few times to optimally engage with them
  3. Clarity: Confirming that people understand the information that is being presented is important so that everyone is on the same page
  4. Creativity: Once one knows who their audience is, one can identify salient, meaningful ‘hooks’ that will keep them interested. An example that has been used effectively by the Tacoma Housing Authority through the idea of using arts based content and events to attract participation from underrepresented groups in the Hilltop neighborhood.
  5. Closure: Wrap-up the community engagement process in a similar way to how it was conducted. Avoid leaving people hanging without a summary or answers to their questions, and give them something ‘real’ to hold on to and look forward to. Handouts, or a regularly updated website page to offer highlights of what has been communicated are good ideas. A tangible “community artifact,” is another ideas as well. Because momentum and transparency is important in long-term planning activities, planners should ensure that community members understand the value of their participation by summarizing all responses offered at community events and letting people know that voices have been heard and how ideas have been implemented and why some have not.

There are numerous reasons for including the public in a planning process. However, doing so in a meaningful way is more challenging if the public is tired of participating. For cities and Social Housing organizations that have long planning timelines for real estate developments and policy considerations the importance of maximizing the value in participatory planning and community engagement is paramount. The planning process should be inviting, steady, clear creative and composed.  Participants should feel like their voice was not just heard but also that what they said was properly informed. These participants also need to feel like their time was well spent even if the development isn’t built or the policy in question isn’t implemented. In order for the public to maximize their ownership of a planning process’ end result they must contribute and feel like their contributions were valued and valuable.

Author: Josh Jorgensen

Joshua Jorgensen is an American housing authority professional focused on real estate development in the South Puget Sound. He has studied in the southwest United States, South Africa and Tacoma, Washington. Joshua has worked with the planning department of a city municipal government, a transportation management Association, a real estate broker and most recently a housing authority. He also taught a variety of ages and subjects in different school settings on 3 continents. These varied experiences allow Joshua to bring a unique perspective to the intersection of housing, planning and development. He currently sits on the Sustainable Tacoma Commission, is chair of Cr:t, an urban design lecture series, and participates in a variety of committees attempting to revitalize neighborhoods while counteracting the forces of displacement.

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