On the evening of Wednesday June 22nd, a crowd of 50-plus attendees convened to hear from a panel of public engagement process veterans about how to most effectively engage in community outreach for private and public development and infrastructure projects . As many of us in the urban planning and development world are aware, public feedback is too often seen as merely a required box to check, or worse as an oppositional force in a project’s design and approval process. However, if orchestrated thoughtfully, meaningful public engagement can yield “win-win” outcomes, with an overall positive impact on a project. By listening carefully to the needs and wants of those who live, work or play near a proposed project, a developer or city agency can gain not only community buy-in but also valuable design ideas that may help the project succeed in its neighborhood context. The panelists soundly confirmed that this latter approach to civic engagement results in better outcomes.
Moderated by Brooke Ray Rivera, Executive Director of nonprofit Build Public, the panel lineup included: Neil Hrushowy, Manager of the San Francisco Planning Department’s City Design Group; Lou Vasquez, Managing Director of real estate development group BUILD; Sarah Syed, Managing Principal of public engagement consulting group Sage Vista and Project Manager at visualization technology company Owlized; and Dan Parham, CEO of civic engagement platform Neighborland. With such a breadth of disciplines and perspectives represented – a public agency, real estate developer, civic engagement technology consultants, and nonprofit – the conversation was lively, holding the audience’s attention well beyond the allotted presentation and Q&A time.
After each presenter provided a brief overview of their work in relation to public engagement, the discussion kicked off with a few questions from Brooke Ray, followed by questions and comments from the audience. One common fear from developers and city officials about engaging the public was that a few voices might dominate or disrupt a community meeting with negative or unrelated feedback, preventing other perspectives from being vocalized. For example, Sarah shared a community meeting experience where an audience member brought his own bullhorn and used it repeatedly to make sure his voice was heard! When asked how they handle these kinds of situations, all of the panelists advised that listening is a valuable dissipater of unbridled negativity, and also helps in understanding the person’s motivations. Once a community member feels that their perspective is being heard and respected, they are often more willing to help problem-solve rather than simply critiquing. Lou added that he often takes a more direct approach, challenging erroneous assumptions and correcting facts as needed in front of the entire group. Most often, he noted, this leads to quite an interesting discussion; and the results seem clear: BUILD’s projects have received unanimous approvals and supportive public comments at all of their Planning Commission hearings.
The panelists also spoke about creative ways to engage the community “in place” rather than via the standard “weeknight town hall” format, which does not always draw a representative audience. Dan and Sarah noted that when members of the public are encouraged to provide feedback on site or online, in settings that are part of their everyday routine, the rate and diversity of response is higher and the percentage of positive feedback significantly increases. For example, Sarah has found through her work with Owlized on the Geary Bus Rapid Transit project that when the project visualization and interactive survey tools were placed on Geary, 75% of respondents were supportive of the project. Dan concurred based on his experience with Neighborland: across Neighborland’s 200 projects in the US, he has seen 10-100x the number of participants online compared to in-person meetings. For example, Dan noted that over 1,000 residents have actively participated in San Francisco’s Central Waterfront and Dogpatch Public Realm project online, spending an average of 10 minutes on the site, equating to 166 hours of in-person meeting time. Importantly, this broad-based engagement is not a replacement for the in-depth discussions created during in-person workshops, but leveraging technologies such as Owlized and Neighborland can provide accessibility for residents who aren’t able to attend in person.
1) truly listening, responding to and engaging public voices in discussion can lead to improved project design and facilitated approvals backed by community support.
2) new “engagement in place” practices and technologies that meet people where they are can break open the public engagement space, allowing for a greater and more diverse representation in feedback received, often yielding a more positive and constructive response from the community. Ultimately, this “21st-century public engagement” approach can bolster a project’s acceptance, support and overall success in a neighborhood for the long term, overall benefitting the developer, the city, and the public.
By Brooke Ray Rivera
Neil Hrushowy, Manager, San Francisco Planning Department’s City Design Group
Lou Vasquez, Managing Director, BUILD
Sarah Syed, Managing Principal, Sage Vista; Project Manager, Owlized
Dan Parham, CEO, Neighborland
 75% of survey respondents “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that the project would be an improvement for the community