Last week, I had the privilege of attending the National Walking Summit, hosted by our friends at America Walks. It was three days of inspiring speakers and important conversations on the future of the walking movement, especially as it relates to health, poverty and equity. One thread that ran throughout the event—or at least the one that caught my attention in the sessions I attended—was how to do meaningful community engagement. As government officials, developers and nonprofit leaders, how do you truly listen to residents of a neighborhood to find out what they need? How do you ensure that new developments are helpful and not harmful for them? How do you move your city forward in a way that benefits everyone?
With those questions in mind, here are four big takeaways on community engagement that I learned at the Walking Summit:
1. Meet people where they are.
To begin with, if you’re hoping to change or improve something in a neighborhood, you need to meet residents where they are, in a way that works for them, in order to get their input.
Esther Postiglione, MPH, CHES, serves as Program Manager at Cultiva la Salud, an organization dedicated to creating health equity in the San Joaquin Valley. In a workshop at the Summit, she spoke about her organization’s efforts to help residents fully participate in local decision making by hosting pre-meeting workshops to prep residents on common planning terminology and processes before city meetings. This allowed them to enter a meeting with the necessary background information to fully participate and not feel confused or sidelined because they weren't professional planners, developers or engineers.
She also shared some other big factors that enabled residents to participate in workshops and meetings which included providing childcare and food when possible, ensuring that materials and presentations were offered in the language(s) of the residents, and locating meetings directly in spaces that were familiar and accessible to residents (like churches, community centers, schools and restaurants).
A presentation hosted by representatives from the North Minneapolis Greenway Project, which built a demonstration bike path in North Minneapolis, also stressed the value of meeting people where they are. As they began to plan their greenway, this group offered residents a small stipend to host neighborhood events where input and feedback was gathered for the project. Residents were able to use the stipend to host any event they wanted that would get neighbors to show up. These included church suppers, basketball tournaments, and more. Meeting residents in spaces where they feel comfortable and giving them the tools to fully participate ensures that their input will be fully accounted for in any city of neighborhood project.
2. Ask all the questions.
You won’t find out what a community needs if you don’t ask. Esther Postiglione stressed the need to consider all possible angles and issues when confronting an issue like walkability. It’s not just narrow streets and connected sidewalk networks that make a neighborhood walkable. For example, in Cultiva la Salud’s work with neighborhoods in the San Joaquin Valley, they learned that dangerous stray dogs are a big concern for many residents and one that led them to choose not to walk. That needed to be addressed before residents would truly have a walkable neighborhood.
Good systems for collecting the answers to your questions are also vital. The North Minneapolis Greenway Project employed a variety of methods to gain feedback on their demonstration before, during, and after its implementation. These included phone calls, door knocking, online surveys and on-site comment cards. This thorough feedback created not just a better final product but also a neighborhood that felt more ownership over the project.
3. Create incentives.
Kayla Gilbert, Active Living Program Manager for Denver’s Department of Environmental Health, presented about a concerted effort to improve walkability in some low income neighborhoods of Denver. As part of the project, her team wanted to collect data on walkability issues in these neighborhoods but they couldn’t do it alone, so they created an incentive for residents to collect this data themselves in a crowdsourced fashion. They offered small-scale grants to fund neighborhood projects (similar to our Neighborhoods First initiative) that were awarded to the groups that collected the most complete data. These grants were then used to improve walkability with intersection murals and other projects. Not only did they collect the necessary data and see neighborhoods incrementally improved, neighbors also got to know one another and work together in the process.
4. Center residents in the conversation.
The first three points should make this very obvious but just to bring it home: Center the residents of the neighborhood you’re studying, changing or developing in the conversation. Today we are shocked by the manner in which cities bulldozed entire poor neighborhoods so they could build highways through them. At the time, of course, those residents were told, “This is for the good of the city,” if they were told at all. But today the same thing is happening, whether it’s a developer coming in to build a new apartment complex or a city coming in to build bike lanes. Neither the apartment, nor the bike lanes, nor even the highway, are bad things in themselves. But if they are built without any input from the people who live around them and are their intended users, they will fail.
With that in mind, Charles Brown, senior researcher with the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center (VTC) and adjunct professor at Rutgers University, had some helpful advice in one of his sessions at the Walking Summit. One of the questions that kept coming up throughout the Summit was, How do we alleviate fears that new sidewalks and other walkability improvements will lead to gentrification, and how do we ensure that those improvements don’t cause displacement? At Strong Towns, we’ve written a fair amount on this issue, but whatever your opinions about it, there are some very basic things local leaders can do to quell concerns.
One simple thing that Brown mentioned is making sure that renderings of new developments and street improvements include people in the images who look like the people who currently live in that place. If your illustration of a new mixed-use building in a predominantly Asian neighborhood doesn’t include any Asians or the Asian grocery store that currently sits on that corner, you’re sending a message that this development isn’t for the current residents. Another very basic tip Brown shared was to simply listen to resident concerns. Let those specific concerns be named—whatever they are—and address them, rather than living with a nebulous worry about gentrification and leaving residents in the dark.
If you have other tips for community engagement, please share them in the comments.
(Top photo source: Women of Color in Tech stock image)