Make Online Engagement Work for Your Community

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Wendy Shabay Bonneau

Urban Planner

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Chance Sparks

Urban Planning + Design Group Manager

When communities went into coronavirus lockdowns and canceled public meetings starting in March 2020, some cities were determined not to let the disruption stall their planning momentum. They turned more ever to digital town halls, online surveys, social media and other mechanisms to drive their public engagement.Freese and Nichols’ planning team quickly expanded their skillset to help clients keep moving forward.

Urban Planning & Design Group Manager Wendy Shabay and Urban Planner Chance Sparks also teamed with Daniel McGinn, Director of Planning and Environmental Services for the City of Corpus Christi, and Clyde Melick, Assistant City Manager for the City of Midlothian, to provide tips and real-world examples for other community leaders in the November issue of Texas Town & City, the magazine of the Texas Municipal League.

“This year has taught us much about maximizing the benefits of technology — and where we need to close gaps,” they wrote. (Read Make Online Engagement Work for Your Community on pages 30-32)

“Our experience shows that acute challenges can prompt communities to think MORE CLEARLY about their future and their collective vision. Cities should be bold in continuing their planning efforts and engaging their communities, even during difficult times. … Cities that take the time to assess and plan are better poised for resiliency — and to bounce back from challenges, whether caused by a severe public health crisis, an economic recession or a natural disaster.”

Here are some tips they shared:

Employ a range of digital tools

  • Explore the options for services that enable you to effectively host engagement for large audiences as well as smaller stakeholder groups, and various intuitive and interactive tools built into the platforms.
  • Consider apps that allow you to collect feedback through polls and to collaborate using whiteboards during meetings.
  • Develop participation plans that provide alternatives to any in-person engagement; for every in-person engagement approach, there is a corresponding digital/social-distanced alternative with similar effectiveness.
  • Consider the “digital divide” in your community and develop approaches to bridge the gap with these often-marginalized populations; while digital is trendy, older analog approaches can be critical to inclusive, equitable engagement.

Create an informational, easy-to-navigate survey

  • Design your survey to collect the kinds of data elected officials need for decision making; think about how the data can be used beyond the project.
  • Ask people about things they care about and provide familiar examples to consider.
  • Use compelling visuals that reflect your community.
  • Include straightforward, familiar response mechanisms, such as star ratings and interactive maps that show landmarks and allow participants to drop pins.
  • Have open-ended questions to capture the widest range of responses.

Be creative about spreading the word

  • Share information on your city’s existing, well-followed social media tools (such as Facebook and Twitter), rather than setting up project-specific accounts.
  • Determine where your residents are gathering to exchange information, such as church and neighborhood groups, and enlist those networks to share alerts about meetings and surveys.
  • Have community leaders and influencers — unelected and elected —share information with their followers and friends.
  • Use imagery – images and videos have much higher viewership rates on social media compared to regular posts.
  • Send direct emails to residents who have signed up for alerts or city newsletters.

Mine your data to achieve best results

  • Examine early feedback to determine which populations are missing and might require contact through mailed surveys or phone calls.
  • Analyze open-ended survey responses for trends and patterns to help inform planning.
  • Conduct a follow-up survey later in the process to verify that the plan reflects what the community wanted.
  • Geography matters – designing surveys that involve tools like pin drops on an interactive map allows you to better understand comments and link to location.
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Wendy Shabay Bonneau, FAICP, leads a team of planners and landscape architects across multiple states. She is a Principal in our Fort Worth office.

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Chance Sparks, AICP, CNU-A, is Urban Planning + Design Group Manager, based in San Marcos. He was 2020-21 President of the American Planning Association Texas Chapter.