Public engagement is a key component of the planning process. Selecting and analyzing methods of public engagement has become particularly important during the COVID-19 pandemic, as traditional methods of outreach may no longer be sufficient to reach all audiences, or may no longer be possible due to health restrictions. Online engagement, community centered outreach, and in-person meetings \ are public outreach strategies that municipalities may want to consider.
Online public outreach has become increasingly common, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Communities throughout the nation, including Chester County have seen increased meeting attendance in recent months, in part due to the availability of online and virtual meeting formats. A variety of online resources can be used for public engagement. Notably, many meeting formats have moved to video conferencing programs such as Zoom (see Southern Chester County Trail example below).Video conferencing can be used as a primary meeting format, or may supplement in-person meetings to accommodate individuals who are unable or unwilling to attend otherwise. There are a variety of benefits to utilizing video conferencing software for public meetings, as this format may allow for participation from a wider variety of community members, or those with schedule constraints that do not typically allow them to attend in-person meetings. Municipalities that intend on holding a meeting via video conferencing should be aware of potential software constraints such as capacity limits on the number of individuals who can attend a meeting. Meeting hosts should be aware of these constraints and should review their software subscription and planned meeting attendance prior to the scheduled meeting date.
Other online resources for public outreach may include social media, interactive web mapping (see Brandywine Water Trail example below), crowd sourcing, and media to be uploaded to a municipal website. For example, the presentation of a project for a public open house can be recorded prior to the meeting and placed on the municipal website for residents to review and provide comment (see Parkesburg example below).
Active outreach for online engagement is essential. Municipalities should advertise online meetings using a variety of methods in addition to the municipal website, including reaching out to local neighborhood groups, posting on social media, and publishing physical meeting notices throughout the community. Outreach should indicate what will be discussed at the meeting and technical information for meeting access.
Community centered outreach
Community outreach (via means other than online methods) can occur while complying with social distancing best practices. Items can be placed throughout the community to inspire interaction, and to provide locations for residents to provide feedback in a method other than online engagement (see Atglen example below).
Many of these outreach methods may evoke traditional community outreach methods, such as placing project flyers or summaries in popular destinations in the community. Physical copies of documents to be reviewed by the community can be placed in key community locations such as the municipal building or library to provide access to these documents for individual review. Comment boxes can be left in these locations as well to provide opportunities for residents to submit project comments or to submit physical copies of engagement items such as survey responses.
Types of community-centered outreach are ever evolving, and can be inspired by the values of the community. Some suggested outreach efforts may include locating interactive items in the community and integrating public art, renderings, and illustrations into outreach. Examples of this may include installations or posters which contain electronic QR codes for residents to interact with and provide comments digitally, or poster boards for community members to record comments on. Outreach materials should be placed in locations of importance and high use in the community, such as municipal buildings, parks, and trailheads.
Encouraging equitable outreach is particularly important and municipalities should implement outreach methods to best engage all members of the community. While specific outreach needs may vary based on the makeup of the community, some common best practices in equitable outreach may include: drafting outreach materials in both English and Spanish (when appropriate), appointing community ambassadors to assist with outreach, and reaching out to leaders in underrepresented communities to participate in plan outreach or on the plan’s task force or advisory committee.
Meetings that are held in-person should comply with all current rules and regulations regarding social distancing, facial coverings, and venue maximum capacity limits, which will likely mean adjusting the format or location. If a municipality feels an in-person meeting would be useful and is permitted under regulations, the meeting should be planned to ensure regulations can be met and be able to adapt to accommodate any last minute changes in regulations. Municipalities should develop strategies for the enforcement of social distancing and mask requirements such as requesting the presence of a community police officer or other similar individual at in-person meetings. All social distancing and mask requirements should be clearly stated before the meeting, and reminders such as posters should be located throughout the venue describing these regulations.
Regarding location, a municipality may choose to hold a public meeting outdoors, or within a firehouse or public works building with doors and vehicle bays open. Municipalities should consider accessibility of meetings in these locations, and should provide weatherproof tents or overhead covering for meeting participants. Other meeting logistics should also be considered, such as the potential need for a sound system, or the method in which materials will be safely displayed in a spacious, and potentially outdoors, meeting setting. Larger indoor venues such as educational facilities, community theaters, religious facilities, and gyms may be available for municipal use, although access to these facilities may be restricted due to COVID-19 restrictions and protocols. If a meeting is held in-person, it is suggested that an electronic alternative is still provided for those who cannot physically attend.
For all methods of outreach, municipalities and consultants should plan for the way in which draft project or plan documents will be shared, and how comments can be received (such as through email, comment box, or video conferencing). Offering multiple means of access to plan documents and diverse opportunities to comment is important for effective outreach. While COVID-19 has changed the dynamics of community outreach, embracing new and multiple methods of communication can engage a wider variety of community members.
The following are projects in Chester County which featured diverse means of public engagement:
- Atglen Borough – 4Parks Plan (Consultant: Salt Design Studio) – Outreach methods for Atglen Borough’s 4Parks Plan consisted of an interactive scavenger hunt in the community and a socially distanced public open house which took place outdoors on a closed block in front of the Borough’s former fire house. The open house provided contactless interactive activities, weatherproof canopies, and provided personal protective equipment (PPE) alongside project display stations.
- Parkesburg Borough – Comprehensive Plan (Consultant: Chester County Planning Commission) – For the Parkesburg Borough Comprehensive Plan, the project presentation (which would traditionally occur at an open house), was pre-recorded and placed on the Borough’s website ahead of the public meeting. This pre-recorded presentation allowed Borough residents to view the project summary outside of a formal meeting setting, providing additional time and flexibility for residents to provide feedback.
- Brandywine Water Trail (Consultant: Brandywine Conservancy with assistance by the Chester County Planning Commission) – This plan had a number of outreach methods, including interactive online mapping exercises offering respondents the opportunity to provide spatial data regarding potential trail access locations, known hazards, points of interest, and improvement and stewardship opportunities.
- Southern Chester County Trail (Consultant: Chester County Planning Commission) – A public open house was held via Zoom for the Southern Chester County Trail feasibility study. 165 people attended this meeting, with an additional 45 views of the meeting, which was broadcasted on Facebook Live. The virtual open house featured a project overview and comment session, and breakout sessions with Chester County Planning Commission staff to facilitate further conversation and feedback.
- The American Planning Association (APA) offers a number of resources to planners regarding best practices in communication. Specific resources provided by APA include their Communications Guide, and the APA Knowledge Seeker Blog, which is regularly updated with timely planning information including topics addressing COVID-19 and associated outreach.
- Impact by Design’s Impact Lab provides content on how to promote engagement and equity. This article by Impact by Design provides tips on how to successfully conduct a remote workshop.
- Bang the Table is a specialist provider of online stakeholder engagement services. A variety of resources are available from Bang the Table which cover current issues in public engagement. Examples of these resources include: Overcoming Issues in Online Community Engagement, the Guide to Community Engagement, and the Community Engagement Blog.
- Connect the Dots is an organization specializing in civic and community engagement. Their COVID-19 Response Guide outlines a number of resources for online and virtual engagement as well as strategies to increase engagement.