Community Engagement: Positioning Projects for Success

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As a firm committed to welcoming, hearing, valuing and offering opportunities to all, Trivers believes community engagement is a critical component of the design process. Trivers team members, including senior project manager and associate Neil Chace, AIA, LEED GA, WELL AP; architectural designer Nakesha Newsome; and senior architectural designer Charity Seyer, LEED GA, have significant experience leading community engagement efforts for a range of projects, from housing and workplace to education and civic.

Community Engagement Leaders: Neil Chace, Nakesha Newsome, Charity Seyer

 

“At Trivers, we recognize that we are designing spaces for people to come together to live, work and interact, and we believe that the way we go about creating those spaces matters very much,” Newsome said.

According to the American Institute of Architects (AIA), community engagement is the inclusion of divergent voices—professionals, stakeholders and end users—to arrive at a consensus about project goals and characteristics, with a positive outcome for all. Although community led projects are becoming more common, there are many building owners and developers who are unaware of what community engagement is.

“For clients who have never undergone community engagement before, you must first explain what it is and why the money, time and effort it requires is worthwhile,” Seyer said. “I think involving community members in the design process is crucial because it shows them their voices matter and choices were not made in a vacuum. This results in a sense of ownership and desire to take care of and protect the building for years to come, which can help ensure the long-term success of a project.”

Some additional benefits of community engagement include helping architects make more informed decisions to balance project goals, community needs and end-user expectations; revealing previously unforeseen challenges and new design opportunities; and enhancing the overall well-being of everyone living and working in and visiting the space.

“Many of our clients are on board with community engagement once we explain the process and all the positive outcomes it leads to,” Chace said. “For example, the leadership team at DOORWAYS had defined goals for their new campus but was unsure how to reach them. Although they had never done community engagement before, they recognized it would yield the best results for their clients.”

Prior to engaging with the community, it is important for the design team to work with the building owner or developer to identify the groups or individuals that must be consulted, determine the questions and issues that need to be addressed, and define the desired outcomes or deliverables. Then they should select the most appropriate methods and tools for engagement, which could include surveys, charrettes, workshops, interviews, online platforms, and feedback forums.

“The way you engage with the community depends on the type of project and your goals,” Seyer said. “When we wanted to get input on the color of and the amenities offered at the new Kiener Plaza Visitor Services Center, our client, Great Rivers Greenway, conducted an online and in-person survey at the plaza.”

A similar approach was taken for the community engagement aspect of the 5th and Missouri Transit Center transformation project in East St. Louis.

“It was important for us to understand how different users—whether they visit the stop every day or only on certain occasions—interact with the space and observe them coming and going,” Newsome said. “The Citizens for Modern Transit team conducted one-on-one interviews and distributed surveys in multiple formats to ensure we heard from everyone we needed to.”

Regardless of the method or tool employed, it is essential to prepare for any risks or challenges that might arise during the community engagement process. One of the most common is a lack of trust among people who do not believe their voices will actually be heard.

“After enduring years of broken promises, it is understandable that many of the residents at Clinton-Peabody Apartments did not have a lot of trust when we first started engaging with them about the current redevelopment project,” Newsome said. “We have been able to build trust by consistently showing up and proving that we were listening to, learning from, and understanding them. They see that we respect their opinions, value their time, and acknowledge their contributions and concerns.”

“Another way we have been able to establish trust is by building a more diverse team here at Trivers that better reflects the communities we are designing for,” Seyer said. “Effective community engagement requires diversity of both facilitators and participants.”

Low participation and overamplification of the loudest or most connected voices can be additional barriers.

“For Clinton-Peabody, Trivers participates in meetings that Preservation of Affordable Housing hosts during different dates and times to account for a variety of work schedules, allowing for engagement with more people,” Newsome said. “During these meetings there are vocal participants eager to share their thoughts and others who are quieter. A representative is stationed at each table to talk one-on-one with those who might not be as comfortable speaking up in a group.”

To ensure effective community engagement, Chace, Newsome and Seyer believe facilitators should:

  • Communicate what is expected of community members before engagements, especially in-person ones such as charrettes and workshops, so they can prepare.
  • Avoid jargon and use clear, simple language that is easy to understand.
  • Remain unbiased, consider all opinions, and be open to adapting designs based on feedback from community members.
  • Make accommodations for community members who aren’t comfortable following the script.
  • Ensure presentations to community members are formatted in ways that facilitate understanding and engagement. This could be through visual presentations, interactive workshops, or even virtual reality experiences.
  • Provide timely and transparent updates on project progress and outcomes.

 

Upon completion of a project, the impact of community engagement efforts should be measured through observations, interviews, testimonials and surveys.

“The DOORWAYS team continues to express their appreciation for the way Trivers listened to their clients, team members and surrounding community to design the new campus they envisioned: a modern, leading-edge facility that is also warm and welcoming,” Chace said. “This feedback shows that taking the time to gather input from an array of different voices leads to better projects, which is good for the community and the client. At the end of the day, undergoing community engagement is like investing in a tailored suit made just for you: It is customized and fits perfectly.”