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3 public engagement practices for holistic urban planning

January 27, 2021

By Shai Roos and Steve Kearney

Working closely with all stakeholders helps expedite projects and meet community needs

When we talk about urban planning and design, we talk about connecting people to the places within their communities and improving the quality of life. These projects are often huge with a myriad of stakeholders involved, each with their own idea of how the finished product should look.

Unfortunately, the process is often fragmented, with some stakeholders not joining in discussions or planning until a project is well underway. In some cases, community members find themselves left out entirely, either through poor planning, a lack of adequate outreach, or lack of resources due to personal circumstances.

Developing a project that works for all requires everyone have a seat at the table and have their voices heard. A holistic approach to urban planning ensures that projects meet most of a community’s needs while often expediting project completion. Here are three keys to holistic urban planning:

Urban design rendering for Hudson, New York.

1. Build a realistic vision with the community

First and foremost, creating an urban development plan must begin with community engagement and understanding what residents are excited about, what is most important to them, and what they are most concerned about. Once enough information is gathered, we can examine the feedback and make a list of suggestions that makes up a vision for the community.

While building this community vision, we emphasize making one that is realistic and focused on implementation. While working to identify needs and what can make a difference in people’s lives, it’s important to create a vision that goes beyond the conceptual (e.g., what would be nice to have) and design plans that have the greatest chance of being adopted and funded. When our team evaluates community input to make our recommendations to the client, we keep in mind what types of projects will entice private developers and what types of projects will require different partnerships to make the project happen. Developers need to know they can hit a specific return on investment before they can sign on to a project.

Having a vision that is grounded and community support makes it easier to get a plan fulfilled down the line. 

Developing a project that works for all requires everyone have a seat at the table and have their voices heard.

2. Focus on inclusion and diversity

To create this vision, we must ensure that the entire community is represented in the engagement process. Thus, a focus on inclusion and diversity is paramount when conducting community outreach. In many cases, our team will partner with a local engagement specialist, someone who knows the area and its people well, to help us build relationships and trust with community members.

It’s also important to have a team that is reflective of the area as much as possible. Designers and consultants that have shared experiences with the people they’re designing for are more likely to understand and account for their needs within a plan.

As we mentioned above, the goal of urban planning and design is to connect people to places. Having diversity in community input is what makes that possible. This is especially true of divided communities.

For example, our team designed a downtown revitalization for Hudson, New York—a city that is popular with affluent “weekenders” and has a large low-income population. These two groups share little in common when it comes to how they engage with places. There was, however, one exception—the waterfront and park system. With this in mind, we focused on using available state funding to redevelop these shared spaces to create a recreational environment that the entire city could enjoy. 

Completed waterfront park project for Hudson, New York.

Accounting for language barriers is often a significant challenge in community engagement and one of the most important to overcome. If you conduct engagement events and meetings with handouts and meeting outreach only in English for an area with a large Hispanic population, it’s impossible to get a complete picture of the community’s needs. Our team encountered such a challenge on our project for the Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC).

The H-GAC Livable Centers Study was conducted in collaboration with Houston’s International Management District—one of the city’s most diverse communities with majority first generation immigrants from over 68 nations in this area. This alliance aimed to improve safety and traffic flow while creating a shared multimodal system of buses, bikes, and pedestrians.

For 15 years, various stakeholders wanted to construct a gateway into the area, but there was always opposition from one side or another. Rather than scrap the idea, during the study our team worked to include native speakers of the languages and team members from the cultures represented in the area to ensure that everyone felt included. In doing so, we were able to address a broad array of issues and build agreement among the people, so much so that the long-opposed gateway was one of the projects that was approved for construction.

3. Involve all stakeholders at the outset

Urban planning projects start and end with the members of the community themselves. They are, after all, the ones who will have the most interaction with these spaces. To get a project off the ground, however, we need to have champions with the capital to support implementation. Once we have engaged with the community and created a realistic vision, we then take the proposed plan to everyone who is involved on the execution side. This includes consultants, developers, city officials, transit system officials—essentially, project “owners” who can provide funding and support the initiatives.

Since we’ve started using this holistic approach, our team has had projects start for most plans we’ve led before the plans were formally adopted. In our work on the H-GAC Livable Centers Study, for example, 8 of the 15 recommended projects were underway within 9 months of the plan being adopted, and 1 recommended project was underway 3 months before the plan was even complete.

This approach not only helped H-GAC and the International Management District connect their residents, improve access to transit, and enhance the community’s aesthetic and quality of life, it also accelerated the process and helped meet everyone’s needs.

This holistic approach is not only the most effective way to plan and design urban environments, it also provides the greatest benefit to the community. Even now, as we continue to work amid the COVID-19 pandemic, we can leverage digital tools to connect with people, hear their desires, create shared visions, and see them through to fruition—connecting people to places, allowing them to build bonds and find belonging.

  • Shai Roos

    Shai is a municipal planner with two decades of experience helping cities create and implement comprehensive plans and development regulations

    Contact Shai
  • Steve Kearney

    As a project manager and senior planner, Steve focuses on urban revitalization plans at both neighborhood and district scales

    Contact Steve
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