People define place. We know this, because as designers and community builders, we seek to create places that attract people, and eventually future investment. But those working in community development are equally familiar with the tense dynamic of public meetings, and the disjointed processes that are supposed to provide a direct connection to the people we ultimately serve.
The disconnect leads to cities that do not serve residents’ needs, and policies that do not include residents’ voices. So how can we as neighbors create places that reflect our collective values? The answer lies in learning to listen, and the best place to start is at the beginning of a neighborhood’s story.
The relationship between communities and developers did not fragment because of one failed project. Many communities have experienced more than a century of structural racism and discriminatory housing practices, leading to generations of mistrust toward new projects. In particular, African-Americans have witnessed consistent underinvestment in local schools, parks, and public infrastructure, in addition to being forcibly dispersed throughout the city during large beautification projects. In Pittsburgh, communities such as the Hill District, Homewood, and Larimer continue to pass down the traumas of displacement and violence, and the realities of those impacts still weigh heavily on family’s future wellbeing.
On the other side of the relationship, developers operate within a particular set of professional obligations that are largely transactional in nature. Their work is restricted by financing sources and governmental approvals, and timelines often only provide time for a few select public events. According to Bill Gatti of Trek Development, “Many developers don’t necessarily make the emotional link between the history of a place and where we are today. Because they likely did not have a direct role in the policies, they are less likely to feel a responsibility to right past wrongs.” Operating within tight schedules, many project teams default to one source of approval in the community, with little attention to delivering an appropriate and meaningful result. As President and CEO of the Homewood Children’s Village Walter Lewis describes, “We are often provided an elaborate plan in small font being projected in a poorly lit room, and then we’re expected to provide immediate feedback. You have checked the box, but it’s not authentic engagement.”
CHECKING OUTSIDE THE BOX
At the intersection of these stories lies mistrust and missed intentions, all condensed into an uncomfortable time frame. Just as no singular real estate deal is identical, each community has a unique set of visionaries and alliances to harmonize, while taking into consideration the history that brought them to life. Based on residents’ experiences in the neighborhoods of Homewood, the Hill District, and Larimer, the following principles are foundational to creating a lasting partnership.
There is no one voice
In gathering public feedback, there is a tendency to designate a “leader” of the community, a collective representative who will answer, negotiate, and deliver every element of the process. As Jerome Jackson from Operation Better Block (OBB) explains, “In the old way, projects would come to our organization for ‘community approval.’ If we signed off, the project could move forward. In the new way, residents approve the project then OBB signs on.” Homewood has already started to shift this dynamic, and their Cluster Planning Process has engaged 500 residents across 31 meetings, in addition to door knocking and online engagement when residents can’t attend.
Be clear about what you’re asking
Often “public engagement” and “public information” meetings are proposed as the same process, whereas their outcomes are radically different. To restore faith in the partnership, organizers must be deliberate and transparent about the purpose of the community’s participation, whether it is informational, for constructive feedback, or for broader visioning. “It can no longer be, we heard you but we’re going to keep moving in the same direction,” Jackson explains. “When residents are partners at the table, there has to be greater accountability.” This will also impact who you invite to the table, and what preparation participants must undertake.
It might take more than 3 meetings
Much like developers juggle countless factors in a proforma, community engagement also requires a delicate balance of relationships, voices, and competing interests. In practice, that means it likely requires more than three attempts to connect. More than any one action, authentic community buy-in is a product of smaller points of collaboration throughout a concentrated period of time, with a dedicated person who keeps communication lines open throughout the entire process. If this sounds more expensive, it likely is, but as Walter Lewis CEO of Homewood Children’s Village articulated, “You can pay now, or you’ll pay later through the blight, challenges, and push back from the community. And then in 20 years you’ll do it all over again in some other part of the city.”
We all bring something to the table
The traditional notions of professional ‘experts’ and community ‘audience’ often intimidate and in many cases exclude the very people with much needed insight. Hill District resident Sharnay Hearn Davis emphasizes, “No one is an expert on every aspect of a community, and there is nothing less inviting than talking to someone who assumes they know the answers.” Hearn has seen development in the Hill from multiple perspectives, including as the City of Pittsburgh’s Community Affairs Liaison and as a Masters candidate in Community Leadership. She’s found that simply break bread together can often shift the unequal dynamic. “In the sharing a meal, you realize, I’m a mother, you’re a mother. I care about this community, and you care about it,” says Hearn Davis. “So how can we work together and move forward?”
Public engagement doesn’t end with design
The most consistently asked question from community participants is “whatever happened to that project?” Meetings have concluded, foundations have been laid, but those closest to the project are left wondering about the impact of their input.“People think about community engagement as a phase before and after, but it’s really throughout the entire construction process,” explains Hearn Davis. Residents must be able to trace the incorporation of their ideas throughout the project’s evolution, providing greater context for the compromises and concessions that will be made. With check-ins at every milestone, communication continues beyond the project’s initial design process (where it typically happens) to include approvals, the site groundbreaking, construction, and finally to the grand opening.
PROGRESS IN PROCESS
Public engagement at present is an individual choice. If a project team cares to partner with the community, they will invest the resources to do so. Trek Development for example has been piloting an intentional networking model called Bedford Connect, which brings together residents of the Hill District’s Bedford Dwellings and the broader community to share concerns, brainstorm ideas, and ultimately get to know their new neighbors. Beyond the normal monthly meetings, the development’s full-time Community Builder organizes a variety of pop-up lunches, dances, and coffee shops, all ideas of Bedford Connect residents themselves. As Bill Gatti explains, “If we provide space for residents to become active neighbors and lead the conversation, we create a community that is easy to engage in the planning process because they are already proposing projects and collaborating together. We become trusted partners, and residents also find partners in their new neighbors.” Trek is going a step further and sharing their results with other developers and property financing bodies, in attempts to create a body of practice within the field.
But to develop a city of authentic neighborhoods, every plan and every design must incorporate an effective engagement process. Pittsburgh’s Department of City Planning is taking steps towards developing a standard protocol to guide all future projects’ engagement. The new procedure, aptly named the Public Engagement Plan, will be designed with a working group comprised of residents and professionals in the field. In cities like Austin and Boston, this type of process has fostered greater ownership of a variety of neighborhood plans, and has provided clear steps for private companies to emulate. Pittsburgh’s first test will be on its 10-year Comprehensive plan.
True public engagement is as complex as the communities we seek to serve, and its success hinges on the foundations of any partnership–trust. More than one conversation or one project, trust takes time, and there are no shortcuts. As Walter Lewis wisely stated, “All easy paths to trust lead to distrust.” Throughout the lifetime of a project, every time you sit across from a community partner or a neighborhood resident is an opportunity to restore the shared belief in each other’s good intentions. And if you turn the table around, it’s not hard to advocate for a place that you call home.