Planning Magazine

This Easy-to-Use New Tool Helps Planners Tackle 5 Community Engagement Myths

Shake up your practice and build trust with the Transform Your Practice deck from Reimagining the Civic Commons.

Article Hero Image

The new card deck that identifies five community engagement myths — and offers solutions — features case studies, including this activity where the community gathered to paint a Detroit neighborhood bike lane. Photo by Alexa Bush.

Myth #1: traditional community engagement is always effective.

While working in the Fitzgerald neighborhood of Detroit, planners found that typical community engagement strategies wouldn't cut it. Rather than relying on traditional meetings, the team used creative solutions to meet residents where they were. A bounce house, dance lessons, a pop-up grill with free food, and a bike lane pilot project offered frequent, informal opportunities for residents and planners to connect. They found that ongoing opportunities for residents to engage with practitioners facilitated the trust needed for long-term success.

"If the focus is on the relationship, the project or outcome will come naturally," says Daniel M. Rice, president and CEO of the Ohio and Erie Canalway Coalition and co-executive director of the Ohio Erie Canalway. Rice is one of a diverse working group of representatives from planning, architecture, government, higher education, and the nonprofit realm that developed the Transform Your Practice deck, a new tool for planners from Reimagining the Civic Commons, a national initiative that invests in public spaces.

The deck — available as a free download — is organized into five myths about public engagement, each followed by fresh ideas and space to document outcomes.

In addition to the assumption that traditional community engagement is guaranteed to work, the resource addresses four other popular beliefs: there will be a golden moment of harmony, everyone comes to the process in the same way, the "community" turns up, and getting "input" from residents should be the focus.

Each myth is explained and accompanied by a case study that show the solutions in action. Planners can use the deck to assess current practices, learn new strategies, and more. "[We] seek to acknowledge the challenges of relationship building and encourage practitioners to reevaluate their approach to focus on building trust," says Rice.

The deck includes questions to evaluate community engagement practices and update or change them, if needed. Image courtesy Reimagining the Civic Commons.

The deck includes questions to evaluate community engagement practices and update or change them, if needed. Image courtesy of Reimagining the Civic Commons.

"We knew that community engagement as a practice had become a check-the-box activity, and that constituencies and practitioners were frustrated by the process and results," says working group member Paul Bauknight, president and founder of the Center for Transformative Urban Design, owner of the Urban Design Lab, civic scholar-in-residence at Minneapolis College of Art and Design, and spatial justice and social equity fellow at GGN Landscape Architects. "We wanted to help those doing the work do it better by developing a simple tool that could be used in the field."

Bauknight stresses that rethinking public engagement is especially important in reaching historically underserved communities who may have a history of struggling "with traditional engagement strategies, many times because of distrust."

Are you only hearing from a few dominant voices or naysayers? Are your meetings held in hard-to-reach places? You might be operating under the myth that the "community" always shows up. This deck gives varied and practical solutions. Use it as you identify supporters and begin working together to create a shared vision — and don't forget to feed them!

Kati Woock is a freelance editor and writer based in Michigan.