It is easy for developers and local authorities to pay lip service to the principles of community engagement, but this approach can build resistance to development and support community negativity towards change.
Following genuine ‘engagement’ principles - rather than ‘consultation’ where local people often feel that they are just being told what will happen – can create a more inclusive approach in which communities are made aware of and can potentially contribute to new proposals during design or early planning processes.
Although the intended outcomes can differ between a developer-led project (aspirations: planning permission and development) and a local authority or neighbourhood forum (aspirations: community support for more strategic aims and developments), the principles of engagement should be the same, although specific techniques may differ. The following approach to best practice aims to create stronger win-win situations for developments, communities and local authorities.
Good Practice Principles of Community Engagement:
A good understanding of local issues is essential input to future problem solving or problem avoidance. Do your homework in terms of establishing community contacts: collecting a comprehensive database of local community, resident and civic groups will make engagement easier and more credible, and will build connections with the community.
This can be an obvious point but ‘self-selection’ can easily happen with engagement processes, potentially leading to future problems with overlooked sections of the community. For instance, retired people often have time, energy and local links so may dominate some engagement processes. Therefore, a good consultant/advisor will suggest techniques for engaging with local youth, families, ethnic minorities groups etc. Depending on the context, these could include ‘pop-up’ activities at local markets or railway stations, at school events, faith centres or other gathering places.
Listen to the Locals
Understanding local issues can direct development positively and garner community support by solving existing problems which need to be clearly identified – for example a lack of amenities or a specific traffic problem. Community meetings, ‘walk-shops’ (which combine a walkabout of the site with a workshop discussion) and design workshops are good ways of engaging directly with residents and stakeholders and another useful principle we try to apply at these events is ‘no moaning’ – all participants need to attend in a spirit of co-operation and openness.
Demonstrate the Benefits
This follows from the previous point and while all development brings change, identifying potential benefits to the local community can bring support and ongoing engagement in the process. Benefits can include improved public realm, increased business activity, high quality housing, better traffic controls and improved public transport access.
Explore the Options
There is always more than one way to approach development of any site and working with the community on options or demonstrating consideration of all approaches builds trust in the design process and potential outcome. This will develop confidence in the quality of the final outcome.
A lack of information breeds ‘fake news’ and rumours and the best way to counter this is to provide real feedback and updated information at frequent intervals. Use websites, emails and old fashioned newsletters to ensure that the local community is well-informed, particularly of milestone events and changes to proposals.
Celebrate the Outcome
Have a party! While even the best development proposals may not satisfy everyone in the local community, it is worth celebrating positive results – planning permission, the first sod turned or a Neighbourhood Plan approved – supporting engaged communities and positive planning processes.
Amanda Reynolds is director of urban design consultancy AR Urbanism, which has a specialism in community engagement