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5 key steps to put community at the center of transit and development

June 20, 2023

By Craig Sklenar

Transit-oriented community plans require people-driven public engagement. The result is a better project, which is more equitable and livable.

For several decades now, transit and development plans have largely focused on delivering walkable, mixed-use projects built around high-quality transit. This trend is growing. According to a 2020 report from Ernst and Young, these projects are set to increase by 30 percent over 5 years in the top 10 Canadian cities. We’re also seeing that kind of growth in the US. That makes this a transformative opportunity in dozens of North American cities.

Generally referred to as transit-oriented development, these projects have been somewhat successful. But they sometimes lack the balance between meeting the needs of the existing area and future development. Often, they’ve centered on constructing buildings and not on creating long-term benefits for the community. 

Rendering of the New Bern Avenue Station Area Planning, which provides sustainable and equitable transit in Raleigh, North Carolina.

We’ve learned time and again that we can’t build sustainable long-term development with a deep impact without working with the existing community. That is why we’re moving towards transit-oriented community (TOC) plans. These put the community at the center of the process from day one. Opening that dialogue and building trust early will yield better results when it comes to lasting benefits. That applies to affordable housing options, employment prospects, park and public space, and making the transit investment work to maximize ridership adoption.

For a successful TOC plan, we must engage the community to inform the process, clear any ambiguity, and build consensus. To achieve this, we must design a collaborative community engagement approach. Our team has found five key points that can help increase trust, transparency, and gather important input.

1. Make a plan for engagement and set specific goals

Making a plan and setting goals for engagement at the project start is essential. The plan should identify who to engage, which elements of the project are open for input and which are not (and why). That includes engagement approaches that will be used and benchmarks of success.

We began work on the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority’s (GCRTA) 25Connects Transit-Oriented Development Plan mere weeks before the pandemic. Due to COVID-19, we quickly had to adapt to changing regulations. We organized online sessions for the community and smaller, socially distanced interactions with specific groups.

Throughout the project, we set goals for how many people should be engaged. And we carefully checked whether participation reflected the local demographics. That includes age, race, gender, and ethnicity. If not, we took additional, targeted steps to invite input.

We checked progress toward our goals frequently. And we measured the demographics of participants through surveys, allowing us to see if additional efforts were needed. We gained momentum with all stakeholders and reached consensus at the end of the project. This resulted in a plan that gave a clear direction to implementation, readied the corridor for new transit and development, and set the course for a corridor-wide transformation that continues to this day.

2. Get to know the people

People are the core of our TOC projects. Without understanding who they are, we run the risk of missing the mark. As an engagement plan is developed, cultural and socio-economic sensitivity is key. Ask questions like: Who lives here? What is their history with projects of this type? What is their level of trust in local government? What hours do they work? Do they work multiple jobs and can’t engage with traditional meetings? All these questions and many more should be considered when devising an engagement strategy. 

Walking tour for 25Connects Transit Oriented Development Plan in Cleveland, Ohio.

For the 25Connects Transit-Oriented Development Plan, the corridor is home to the largest Latin American and Spanish-speaking population in Ohio. We focused on cultural sensitivities to boost input and involvement. Our bilingual outreach included parallel engagement occasions. These included bilingual flyers and translation at community events, a Spanish-language portal, and Spanish-language events.

This was the largest scale bilingual engagement ever undertaken by the GCRTA and the City of Cleveland. Many participants expressed feeling more comfortable providing feedback in a Spanish-only environment.

3. When it comes to engagement, sometimes more is more

Community members should be able to provide input during all stages of a project and through a variety of means. This allows them to find an avenue of voicing their opinions that that works for them. During the New Bern Avenue Station Area Planning project, we used a highly graphic, web-based tool called StoryMaps. The tool provided a “self-service” interface where community members could explore the project area’s history, demographics, housing, and many other topics. We provided links to surveys, survey results, and other project materials as they were developed, making it a one-stop source for up-to-date information. 

For a successful TOC plan, we must engage the community to inform the process, clear any ambiguity, and build consensus.

ArcGIS Survey 123 is a tool that works well across many of our projects. It includes a platform for creating, sharing, and analyzing surveys, as well as in-person workshops and smaller-group activities (e.g., user experience tours and coffee chats). To ensure everyone can access the information, we test all digital tools across platforms and present the same information in a mobile-friendly version when needed.

Offering multiple touch points and options for engagement brings the community along for the project journey. It allows us to gather better input and yields better public acceptance in the end.

4. Be honest about change

When leading TOC discussions, we must accept that fear of change and the unknown is a common and legitimate concern. Established communities, especially outside of downtown cores, worry about losing their unique character. Longtime residents and business owners have concerns about being pushed out by rising property values and rents. There may be mistrust of government, developers, and consultants.

We all know that change is inevitable. The goal of the TOC project is to direct and guide that change to positive outcomes for the community. We identify areas of change and areas of stability, verifying where change is desired and where it isn’t. And we talk about acceptable levels and types of change to ensure all parts of a study area share in both the impacts and the benefits of TOC.

As part of the New Bern Avenue Station Area Planning, our team explored various sites along the bus rapid transit corridor for new development, which could include a mix of housing, small scale retail, and second story office/commercial uses.

5. Leverage visual storytelling to make complex ideas accessible

When identifying likely areas of change, we pay attention to the socio-economic makeup of the community. That includes whether the project is likely to result in displacement or other negative outcomes. We often emphasize the importance of affordable housing and diversification of residential products. And we work to make proactive changes to policy, using resident and community involvement.

To overcome communication barriers, we prioritize visual storytelling to engage with our audience more effectively. It helps them understand the content we show and captivates their imagination of what a TOC could be. Visual storytelling is particularly useful in communities that have experienced ambiguity, misunderstandings, or disappointments on prior projects—or those that fear losing their neighborhood identity. Perhaps one of the most important benefits of graphics and illustrations is showing integration of new development within the existing neighborhood context. It allows viewers to see the retention of the elements that people hold most dear.

In the end, it is all about the community

Community members must be the main driver as cities and their consultants develop TOC plans. As soon as the project starts, prioritizing a robust, flexible engagement plan is key. We must evaluate the effectiveness and reach of engagement throughout the process. And we need to involve the community in both creating and assessing the program. It needs to be clear how their input is reflected in the final plans and suggestions. We should thank communities for their input, encourage them to feel proud of and share the vision they’ve created, and celebrate a successful project with fun events.

Transit planning has a profound, decades-long effect on communities. Putting the area’s residents and business owners at the center of the planning process will help drive public acceptance, equity, and economic benefit. Let’s get started.

  • Craig Sklenar

    Like any good storyteller, Craig sees the big picture–he uses stories from residents, clients, and stakeholders to help craft a design that is a physical representation of their biggest ideas and serves their ultimate needs.

    Contact Craig
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