Community engagement is a balancing act of careful preparation and an openness to listening to the ideas of others, of marshaling support while being willing to accept opposition.
When should you engage community members?
In addition to ongoing public awareness efforts, there are two primary opportunities to more directly engage community members in thinking and learning about housing – long-range planning efforts and specific initiative proposals.
- Long-range planning efforts are ideal to conduct an interactive public engagement process that results in a community master plan or housing plan.
- A specific initiative proposal, such as a housing development, zoning amendments, or use of local funds to create a new housing program, can also be used strategically to promote support and awareness.
Methods of engagement
It is ideal to utilize multiple methods for community engagement and to keep the public informed – for example, face-to-face forums of both small groups and large groups as well as online, including social media.
Face-to-face engagement techniques can include interviews, focus groups, as well as community-wide meetings, such as workshops or open houses. Community gatherings, such as Farmer’s Markets or community festivals, can provide opportunities engage community members through distribution of information, questionnaires, one-on-one interviews, and the like.
Many of the objections to new affordable housing initiatives follow similar patterns across communities. For a handy guide on how to respond to typical criticisms, check out this piece on Addressing Community Concerns.
Online engagement platforms, such as coUrbanize, allow development sponsors to explain proposals, add maps and answer questions in real time. Information can be organized in one location and misinformation can be countered swiftly. Such platforms can also be useful tools to enable broader participation for long-range planning initiatives. Online surveys and social media platforms can also be utilized to garner community feedback, however a few caveats. Online surveys should be carefully designed to avoid bias and social media platforms need to be carefully monitored to counter misinformation.
Changing the Conversation on Zoning for Housing
Williamstown, a small college town in Northern Berkshire County, wanted to address increasing housing affordability and availability needs through potential changes in zoning. They enlisted the help of MHP’s Community Assistance Team to design a thoughtful community process to engage the community early on in the conversation on zoning for denser housing. With the help of a consultant, and using the CoUrbanize online platform, the group designed a community process that involved two unique in person sessions and concentrated efforts to engage as many residents as possible. At the Housing Open House, held on a Saturday and offering food and kids’ activities, participants spoke with planning board members and staff about how zoning works in Williamstown, what the housing needs are, and gave feedback on allowing new housing types. The Planning Board now has suggestions backed by the community that could help allow for more diverse housing in their town center, and is working towards implementing those changes as zoning amendments.
This effort was part of MHP’s technical assistance specifically around updated zoning for housing production. For more information, contact MHP’s Community Assistance Team at 857-317-8517.