Planners are among the earliest adopters of online tools to increase community engagement. The wisest planners have already worked out that the bad old days of being held hostage by small vocal minorities in the community are gone as soon as you can bring more voices into the conversation.
We’ve seen some great practice in online engagement by planners in the 10 years we’ve been around. Here, our team shares its top 10 tips for Planners engaging the community online:
- No jargon ever. Instead be visual. Don’t describe concepts in words, rather, use images and video and people will know what you mean. When Planners refer to dwelling densities and floor area ratios the community often gets alarmed, a picture illustrating the same thing might set minds at rest.
- Just as planning jargon can be difficult for the community to understand, it’s also hard for the community to express their views in planning terminology. Let the community give visual feedback – photos of things that they like and dislike are a great way to establish what your community would like to see.
- Respect the history of the place you are changing by allowing people to tell their stories about the place, share old pictures, etc. This can help you to establish what’s important to preserve.
- Use a mix of qualitative and quantitative feedback tools so you meet your needs for quantitative reporting but can also respect the community’s need to express and debate their views. Quantitative feedback might include surveys and polls, qualitative might be images, stories, debates, ideas, and pins in maps.
- For spatially based issues, use mapping tools. These are very engaging and allow the community to clearly express what they want and where. Here’s a current example in New York City.
- For policy related issues, use discussion forums, surveys, and ideas tools – it’s just plain awkward when you try to engage nonspatial issues using a map (and we’ve seen plenty of people try!).
- Many of your planning projects may be long and complex. The community will be invited to make contributions at different stages of the project but may not easily understand what happened with the last round of feedback. Use project timelines to illustrate clearly where you are in the project lifecycle, what is to come, and what has already been decided.
- Your current project is most likely the most pressing need. But if you’re smart about it, you can get feedback on this project and also recruit a panel to talk with you about your next projects. Require participants to fill out a simple sign-up form with some basic demographic details. This allows you to check the representativeness of your sample and build a diverse community panel, making your life much easier in the future.
- Use social media, traditional media, mailing lists, and other methods to get the word out about your planning project. If you don’t work hard at this then you’ll end up talking to the same small group who might attend your face to face meeting.
- Always close the feedback loop. All good online engagement platforms will enable you to target emails to those who have contributed to your consultation. This means there is no good reason not to tell them what you did with their feedback and what the next stages are. Even if we don’t get the outcome we want, getting feedback on our contributions makes us feel respected and listened to.
For any planners interested in learning more about online community engagement we’ve created a resource center for planners here.