The Ultimate Guide to Better Public Engagement

Strong cities, towns and neighborhoods cannot happen without strong citizens, and local government must be a platform for those citizens to collaboratively build a prosperous place. But getting public input — whether it's about a new development proposed for your downtown or a safety issue in a specific neighborhood — is not easy. You schedule a community meeting but hardly anyone shows up. You ask for public comments but they only come from a handful of complainers.

How can cities and towns effectively reach and listen to all residents, and use their perspectives to shape the future of the community? The following guide will help you get started, communicate better and include everyone in the conversation.

How to Get Started

What's the most effective way to get input on the needs and goals of your community? What features make a public meeting successful? These three articles offer a foundation for public engagement in any city or town:

  • How to Do Real Public Engagement - From years of leading and participating in public meetings, program evaluator and researcher Dana DeMaster shares a wealth of knowledge about how to listen to your community’s concerns, conduct better meetings, and gain the kind of useful information that improves a project. 
  • 4 Tips for Better Community Engagement - 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 everyone? These tips, gleaned from a national conference hosted by America Walks, respond to those important questions.
  • The Public Hates Planners But it Doesn't Have to be This Way. - A graduate student in urban planning reflects on the steps that planners could take in order to better engage with residents and work collaboratively to build more successful communities.
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How to Communicate Better

One major challenge of public engagement is getting people informed. If they don't know about a meeting, it doesn't matter how great the discussion might have been — they won't be there. Here's how to let people know about public meetings and avoid some common communication pitfalls:

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How to Advocate for and Include...

One final note from Strong Towns president, Chuck Marohn, bears repeating: "In a strong and healthy city, there is no prerequisite for offering a substantive critique of a policy." In his essay, "Staying Strong," Chuck shares his experience leading neighborhood projects that took place completely outside the standard procedures for public engagement — and yet made a transformative impact on his city.

If a resident doesn't show up at a public meeting or run for school board, it does not mean she doesn't care. More likely, it means that she can't attend the meeting because she's working a full-time job and she can't run for school board because she has three young kids at home who occupy most of her time. Our cities need to make public engagement as easy as possible so that moms and business owners and nurses and firefighters can still make their voices heard, even when their schedules don't fit neatly around the existing public input process.

We hope the resources above will help your city create a more comprehensive and accessible public engagement process, so that all your residents can truly be part of determining the future of your community.

(Top image source: Coconino National Forest)