Uncovering JAPA

Integrating Community Animators into Planning

Many municipal governments have departments overseeing community engagement planning. These departments continue to struggle to engage underrepresented communities. Supporting or hiring community animators may help connect community members to planning processes.

In "Community Animators and Participatory Planning: Engaging School Communities in Active School Travel (AST)" (Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 90, No. 2) Ryan Anders Whitney and Trudy Ledsham explore the effects of a community animator in an active school travel project.

Elements of Animation

Community animation is used in international development, health promotion, rural entrepreneurship, tech incubators, and maker organizations. Community animators work closely with local communities to catalyze relationships, provide information, and empower residents over the long term, going beyond traditional project coordinator approaches. They "walk alongside" the community as members, rather than working top-down.

The authors conducted a qualitative analysis of the Families and Educators for Safe Cycling Project (FESC) in Toronto, Canada, during its two-year implementation from 2018 to 2020. The FESC project aimed to engage school communities in planning active school travel infrastructure.

Through the project, the community animator worked with a well-respected local NGO, CultureLink. CultureLink had two established partnerships in place with the local school district: supporting newcomers, such as immigrants and refugees, in a long-term, federally funded program, and delivering cycling education workshops and training to schools.

These ongoing working relationships within school communities ensured that CultureLink was viewed as a trustworthy and effective partner by both the institutions involved and the volunteer champions.

CultureLink helped school communities engage with urban planning processes by providing a direct point of contact through their community animator. Many interviewees noted this as a missing aspect of the city's planning process.

Animation to Expand Community Engagement

Using semi-structured interviews with project staff and volunteer "champions," the authors identified four key elements of animation that were used to expand community engagement:

  • Working from within an established NGO
  • Cross-functional expertise
  • Long-term relationship building
  • Providing and sharing resources

The figures below depict the relationship gap between the planning department and the school community, and how the community animator bridged it through new connections.

They illustrate how community animation addressed a significant gap between city staff, local NGOs, and school communities. For future projects, planners should map the gap the animator would address.

Figure 1. The relationship gap between the planning department and the school community.

Figure 1. The relationship gap between the planning department and the school community.

The interviews provided strong evidence that community animation, rather than project coordination, was fundamental to the success of the FESC project. Few formalized connections existed between the school communities, local NGOs, and city staff before the FESC project.

The authors showcase how community animation bridged an important gap in the planning process. The ability to connect interested organizations and individuals is one of the key benefits a community animator can bring to a project.

Figure 2. The connection gap between the community animator, planning department, and the school community.

Figure 2. The connection gap between the community animator, planning department, and the school community.

Animating Other Processes

The FESC project was not conceived to prove the validity of community animation in planning. More examples of planning interventions using community animators are needed before firm conclusions can be drawn about their potential within urban planning.

Community animation offers the potential for diverse planning projects. Underrepresented communities, disproportionately impacted by climate change and excluded from planning processes, could benefit. Deploying community animators could aid in long-term climate action planning, especially for historically excluded and vulnerable communities.

Establishing a network of community animators, either employed or contracted, with deep knowledge of marginalized communities, such as schools, queer groups, and racialized communities, may improve equitable engagement processes. However, it's important to note that these animators alone cannot dismantle larger institutional power structures.

Community animators have the potential to facilitate more meaningful urban planning engagement processes among a wider group of residents, particularly those from traditionally underrepresented communities.

Top image: Photo by iStock/Getty Images Plus

Grant Holub-Moorman is a master's in city and regional planning student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

June 13, 2024

By Grant Holub-Moorman