Hord Coplan Macht (HCM) has always recognized the importance of stakeholder engagement during the design process. However, community engagement takes on an additional level of importance when planning a public space – whether a park, school or publicly-funded housing project. We have interviewed several of our lead Planning and Landscape Architecture experts to learn how they are leading engagement efforts during the age of social distancing, the tools they are utilizing, and the changes they think are here to stay.
Take a look at part two of “Planning Public Spaces” to hear our experts’ strategies for targeting and engaging a broad audience when gathering feedback.
How much of your projects’ community engagement since COVID-19 has been virtual? How do you take an interactive and engaging in-person community meeting and apply that to a virtual platform?
Most of our community engagement has been virtual since COVID-19. We have tried many tools over the last few months, and have found that the best process really depends on the project and audience. Similar to in-person meetings, it is critical to tailor our engagement process for our venue – which is now a variety of online platforms. Trying to encourage interaction can be challenging online, but is not really any different than in person. Some people will engage in interactive sessions, whether virtual or in-person, while others feel uncomfortable participating and want to be more engaged through watching and listening.
One of the biggest challenges of hosting an interactive session online is the size of the audience. It is difficult to be an active listener, conductor and IT support during an online workshop with a large audience. It is helpful to have a team member who is responsible for gathering chat comments, identifying raised hands, etc. Small group sessions, or moderated breakout rooms, allow people to speak more freely, similar to an in-person meeting, and even annotate, draw or interact directly with the presentation material. Programs like Miro or the annotation tools available through Zoom enable the screen to operate as if we had posters or information hanging from an easel in the room. People can post a comment or question on the presentation material and indicate elements that they prefer.
What are some of the virtual communication tools and programs that have been successfully used? How has your team managed to solicit active feedback and allow for an interactive session?
We are still perfecting our process but have successfully utilized a variety of tools to communicate with user groups. We are primarily using Zoom to host engagement meetings, which allows us to record the meetings and utilize the polling and chat functions. We have also used Google Meet, as we have found that some users are more accustomed to the Google platform; however, this platform does not offer all of the same functions as Zoom. Our team is also utilizing Miro and ConceptBoard for interactive engagement sessions. These tools allow participants to engage with precedent imagery and share thoughts and ideas in a visual way. They also require users to be more technologically savvy.
Miro is an online, interactive tool to aid in real-time visual collaboration. HCM utilizes tools such as Miro for hands-on engagement techniques, such as the “Greatest Hopes – Greatest Concerns” example above, where community members share what they are most excited about for a new project, as well as what they may be nervous about.
Another tool that can be used is the client’s website. Although hosting information and surveys on these platforms is not new, more communities are utilizing this platform to increase interactive engagement and open a forum for community questions and concerns. A recent example is a project with the Town of Parker in Colorado. HCM was hired to renovate a beloved, but outdated, local “destination playground”. The Town especially wanted to create an adventurous and inclusive space that would appeal to, and serve, people of all ages and abilities. Because of this focus on intergenerational appeal and inclusivity, community engagement served an even greater role in the design than is typical. The Town’s civic website has a community engagement platform called “Let’s Talk Parker”; utilizing this platform, our team was able to post information about the project, community members could provide feedback, and the municipality could respond to that feedback, leading to an interactive discussion outside of a set meeting.
We have encouraged interactive discussion in several ways. Our main method of gathering feedback is through live polling in Zoom meetings. Online surveys can also be useful, although they are less interactive.
What do you see the future of in-person community engagement meetings will be?
We believe that the future of community engagement will rely much more on virtual tools than it did in the past. Online tools have become more familiar and easier to use for both facilitators and participants. These tools have opened up new ways to gain convenient and quantifiable feedback from stakeholders, while allowing for more flexibility than traditional in-person meetings. This flexibility allows for greater community participation among those with difficult schedules, varying accessibility needs, age differences, and other needs which in the past have not been accommodated adequately. Passive tools, such as online surveys, allow people to respond when it is convenient for them. Recorded meetings can be distributed to those who were unable to attend a live session. We do not believe in-person sessions will be completely replaced by virtual sessions, as there is no replacement for face-to-face interaction; rather, future in-person sessions will likely incorporate virtual tools, or be supplemented by them, to help expand the reach of participants.
Read part two of “Planning Public Spaces” to hear our experts’ strategies for targeting and engaging a broad audience when gathering feedback.