Good community engagement involves both online and in-person methods. Great community engagement, however, blends the two methods together–giving the community a seamless continuum of ways to participate. Goals of in-person events typically include allowing people to connect face-to-face and build relationships while learning about an issue and providing input. Adding online strategies to a community engagement plan allows larger numbers of residents to learn together, build awareness of one another’s positions and to share their own ideas, all in an environment that provides flexibility for individuals to work around their own schedules. The use of online tools increases access and provides additional voices to discussions and does not take away from valuable in-person events. Rather, online tools can add to the in-person experience by being referenced and encouraged as a means to get others involved. It is great when participants can attend while also having the option go online and add their say if they cannot attend.
The Town of Scarborough, Maine, partnered with the Town Planning and Urban Design Collaborative, from Tennessee, to create a Planapalooza™ strategy for their comprehensive plan update that saw multiple in-person events and listening sessions across their community. Before, during and after the Planapalooza™ events, information was shared through the town’s online engagement platform which has seen over 1,700 visits since the initial kick-off for Planapalooza™. In addition to information from the meeting, such as notes, videos, and presentations, engagement tools were deployed to gather feedback from the public online. Residents were provided the same sketches and discussions that were presented in-person through an online discussion forums tool. This tool allows residents to have a dialogue and gives them an opportunity to comment the same as in-person participants. In a community of fewer than 20,000 residents, 271 contributions have been made in the online forums–a big step toward inclusivity and greater equity across stakeholders. The site also hosts video segments of the in-person events and presentations are available for viewing so people are continuing to become informed about the process and pending plan. These resources make it easy for those new to the process to get involved and find their voice.
The Downtown Austin Alliance Community Table project is an inspiring example of using creativity and art to bring people together as a stand-alone effort. The organization’s use of the online space to connect people unable to attend the in-person event makes it a robust example of strategic community engagement. The Downtown Austin Alliance is made up of downtown property owners, individuals, and businesses working towards preserving the value and vitality of downtown Austin through the management of a public improvement district. The Alliance partnered with Public City (a consultant group) and was charged with finding a way to get people involved in visioning work for the city’s downtown core. This type of futuristic thinking can be challenging for garnering large community input. So, they teamed with local artists and came up with the concept of asking the community to write down their visions for downtown on individual blocks of wood. Participants were encouraged to be creative—write, draw, whatever they wanted to convey their vision for the area. Almost 200 blocks were collected and used to create two large tables, which now stand as a public art piece in a recently renovated Republic Square. Interestingly, the innovation of the square was also previously featured as an engagement project. The organization is using their resources to build trust by engaging in consistent ways, updating the public through a common location and connecting virtual experience to actual changes in the community.
The Community Table was brought to life online first through promotion. Residents were made aware of the opportunities to participate through the engagement site and other marketing materials. Online tools were provided so that all could have their say in the visioning process, even if they were unable to be there in person. Participants were encouraged to share ideas through a mapping tool that allows for comment and picture upload.
In an effort to close the feedback loop, stories and photos were again shared back to the public after the table was completed and installed in the park. This loop creates a mechanism for ongoing community interest and enjoyment of the table. Photos of the community interaction continue to be shared to bring virtual space to life and to hold the space for the next phase of the downtown visioning process.
These two examples show that regardless of the size of the project, resources, or organization, there are ways to blend online and in-person engagement so that community members are able to pick and choose the opportunities that work for them. In both cases, the inclusion of online tools not only expands the reach but also increases the breadth and depth of the project itself. For those that miss the chance to participate in a hands-on environment, there is still great benefit in gaining awareness of an issue or project, gathering additional information and providing input. All of these are foundational steps toward building community connectedness.
For more information about the Downtown Austin Alliance, the Community Table, and the organization’s partnership with Bang the Table, listen to Bang the Table’s Podcast Episode 4.