Community Engagement Trends

Counties, cities, and sites – oh my! Planners gear up for all scales of community engagement

April 18, 2024
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If your organization regularly engages communities, or if this type of work is on your horizon, you may wonder how to tactfully choose engagement tools that fit your project lineup. Every community and every project is unique – what community engagement tools can adapt to different projects and scale across different levels of detail?

As a complement to traditional public participation methods, the Maptionnaire Community Engagement Platform has contributed to successful planning and design projects of many scales: regional, citywide, neighborhood, and even more detailed. Our users have equipped themselves with Maptionnaire for planning metropolitan transportation networks and modest library renovations alike. Dare we say that the rise of digital map-based community engagement could mark a new era, where no project is too broad or detailed for meaningful community engagement? We dare!

And won’t you dare with us? In this article, we'll share with you how the Maptionnaire platform meets the unique challenges of each planning scale. Along the way, we also have tons of tips to help your projects succeed and inspiring examples of real projects from our users. 

What is map-based digital community engagement?

Before we dive deeper, here are some key terms used when referring to community engagement: 

  1. Community engagement is the process of involving a community in decision-making about planning and city development. It is traditionally done with an array of online and offline participation methods. 
  2. Digital community engagement is the part of the engagement process that uses online methods, such as online surveys and digital voting tools. It can offer meaningful engagement and produce digital data that’s easy for planners to work with.
  3. Map-based digital community engagement is GIS-based public participation. It enables the gathering of geographic information that is based on the experiences and perceptions of community members. It’s a fun and engaging way to create useful data for planning.
  4. Maptionnaire is a digital community engagement platform for creating and sharing maptionnaires (map-based questionnaires), analyzing results, communicating projects, and more.

How to use map-based digital community engagement at different project scales

Working with regions? Cities? Neighborhoods? Maybe even all of the above? A flexible engagement tool is an ace up the sleeve, adapting to the community engagement challenges and opportunities of any working scale. 

Regional, county, and state

A public transportation plan for a multi-city region, a countywide land-use plan encompassing dozens of rural communities, a coastal access study spanning an entire state’s shoreline… What do these have in common? They are projects where community engagement can happen at a grand scale, geographically much larger than the average city. And what a grand opportunity to plan something incredible with communities when you’re equipped to overcome the engagement challenges at this scale, like reaching difficult-to-access communities, bringing a human scale to vast planning questions, and processing potentially thousands of responses.

Challenge: Deeply engaging all communities across a geographically large area 

Tip: Supplement in-person interactions with a digital mapping survey option to enable even the most remotely-located residents to participate meaningfully.

When engaging communities in a large, spread-out area – especially rural regions with smaller populations – digital mapping really shines as a resourceful engagement tool. When planners at Mintier Harnish engaged rural communities across Trinity County, California, Maptionnaire enabled thorough and inclusive participation without breaking the bank.

When engaging a large and highly-populated urban area, we’re talking about an even bigger opportunity for community dialogue. In regional urban projects like the López Mateos Avenue project in Jalisco, Mexico, a hybrid approach to engagement yielded thousands more responses than in-person methods alone. By reaching more people, a digital mapping approach builds a more robust and trustworthy foundation for planning. 

Of course, you can’t rely on just reaching people – the interaction needs to be fruitful, which can be tricky in complex regional projects.

Challenge: Bringing focus and human scale to vast regional planning questions 

Tip: Guide respondents to their places and topics of interest, using an adaptive survey that jumps to the relevant questions and map locations.

There’s no need for participants to squint at small features on a table-sized printed map and try to stick push-pins into places just beyond reach. In a digital interactive map, respondents can zoom comfortably, empowering them to give precise and detailed insights about the places they know and care about.

Maptionnaire users zooming in and out of a map
In the Maptionnaire platform, respondents can comfortably zoom out to orient themselves to the context and then zoom in to interact with their areas of interest.

It’s great when community members get to learn about the big picture of the regional planning process, but we don’t want to overwhelm or bore them with questions about every park, neighborhood, and mode of transportation. Can one survey cover the breadth and detail of a region, without being overwhelming for respondents? Absolutely! There are many ways that regional map-based surveys can be focused and engaging, so you get the most relevant and high-quality responses from participants: 

  1. Maptionnaires can display a regional map that clearly highlights the areas in question – like all of a region’s parks – so respondents can freely zoom, navigate, and add their insights to the map. 
  2. Maptionnaires can prompt respondents to select areas of interest – like their neighborhoods or community centers – before automatically centering the map to those areas and presenting area-specific questions. 
  3. Maptionnaires can prompt respondents to select topics or categories of interest – like cycling or walking – before automatically presenting the relevant map layers and survey questions. 
  4. Regional maptionnaires can also present a very focused topic – like pinpointing traffic safety concerns in the region – to add valuable yet uncomplicated insight to the planning process.

After successfully reaching and engaging residents of an entire region, you may find yourself with the “positive problem” of more responses than you expected!

Challenge: Processing high volumes of responses 

Tip: Organize, analyze, and visualize results quickly and easily by collecting digital GIS-based responses.

A digital map-based survey can not only collect digital responses from online participants, it can also be an integrated part of in-person engagement. When all of the remote and face-to-face responses are digitized, this gives a cohesive, easy-to-analyze, GIS-backed dataset. You can analyze data directly in the Maptionnaire platform or export GIS-compatible files to use in your planning software of choice.

City and town

Citywide engagement projects usually revolve around the city's planning backbone and strategy for future physical development: the comprehensive plan. Whether you focus more on land use and zoning; parks, recreation, and open space; or transportation and mobility, citywide planning always requires extensive knowledge of the community and broad-based support from community members. It can be challenging to access diverse community insights that represent a city’s different neighborhoods and demographics, and to open an inclusive dialogue that builds trust and support.

Challenge: Having a limited understanding of the city, based solely on hard data like  traffic and census data

Tip: Use digital map-based surveys to collect “soft” data, like people’s perceptions, feelings, and habits.

The city cannot be comprehensively developed using only hard, quantitative data. Hard data may tell you where people travel within the city, but not the reasons why, or if they’d rather travel another way. That’s where soft data comes in. Residents have invaluable experience, local knowledge, and understanding of their places. Tap into this knowledge with digital community mapping by asking residents…

  1. Essential qualitative questions about the city’s character, assets, cherished places, and places of concern
  2. Project-specific questions, like preferred routes and destinations, perceptions of heat exposure, or experiences with traffic safety
  3. Open-ended questions that invite unexpected community insights – you never know what you might learn from the community!

A great example to follow is the City of Denver, Colorado, which has incorporated Maptionnaire into all of its citywide planning processes. The Maptionnaire platform helps combine location-based soft data with quantitative GIS data – the perfect foundation for city planning.

Challenge: Seeing beyond aggregate citywide data to understand the needs of different community groups 

Tip: Use Maptionnaire to collect, analyze, and filter map-based data by neighborhood or demographic.

Designing just and equitable cities requires more than an overview of citywide data. In the Maptionnaire platform, responses about services, accessibility, safety, health – anything, really – are easily linked to respondents’ home areas. This gives planners critical information about the needs of different neighborhoods. 

Maptionnaire also enables an understanding of different demographics. This could be through a separate survey for a certain group, like a youth survey for developing a child-friendly city, or one inclusive survey that includes earmarked questions for certain people, like business owners or people who use wheelchairs. Either way, this enables planners to understand and communicate the needs of different community groups across the city.

Once you understand the community’s situation and needs, the next step for a well-grounded and well-supported plan is co-developing ideas and solutions with the community.

Challenge: Bringing together ideas and solutions for the city’s development in a workable and coherent format

Tip: Use digital map-based engagement for constructive problem-solving and co-design

In the Maptionnaire platform, planners can present an interactive palette of amenities, zoning types, or other project-related interventions. Respondents then have creative freedom to locate their preferred interventions – or perhaps their own new ideas! – on the map. Digital mapping enables all kinds of interaction and drawing: points for suggesting new playgrounds, lines to suggest new transit routes, and polygons to suggest new housing areas. With map-based questions, there’s no more guessing and interpreting the community’s written suggestions; place-based ideas export directly into mapping software and offer straightforward guidance for planning.

Suggestions for transit lines compiled in the Maptionnaire platform
Respondents’ suggestions for new transit connections are easily compiled in the Maptionnaire platform, or they can be exported as GIS-compatible files. Either way, they offer straightforward guidance for planning. 

Speaking of housing, map-based engagement is the perfect way to open a dialogue about growth. Gamified mapping can make challenging topics fun and constructive. Respondents can first learn about the expected needs of their growing city, and then a mapping "game" challenges respondents to meet those needs by placing new developments on the map. Easy-to-analyze digital results show planners the community's most accepted development types and locations. Gamified mapping constructively points towards citywide solutions while building shared understanding between planners and residents. 

Campuses, neighborhoods, streets, and sites

As we zoom in, community engagement projects tend to blur the lines between planning, landscape architecture, and architecture. Some have large footprints, like master plans, campus plans, and neighborhood-wide Safe Routes to School. But think also of transit stations, parks, streetscapes, and community buildings – a site doesn’t need to be large in size to have a strong meaning to the community or an active pool of eager participants. The beauty of community engagement at this detailed scale is that we can discuss more tangible, human-scale topics. Often, the challenge is offering a detailed, multi-media dialogue in an inclusive and empowering way. 

Challenge: Inclusively engage stakeholders 

Tip: Offer a digital engagement option, so stakeholders have more equal opportunity to participate and a more equal influence in the process.

Public engagement is especially valuable for sites that have a large number of stakeholders. However, it may not be feasible to have in-depth, face-to-face discussions with so many people. Adding a digital engagement option allows the broad and inclusive participation that your project needs. Plus, when digital engagement consists of visual and interactive spatial questions, your online participants will have a similarly deep and engaging experience as other participants. 

When there is a small number of stakeholders, different inclusion challenges arise. In-person meetings can sometimes feel imbalanced or even intimidating for community members. Digital mapping uniquely offers the depth of an in-person mapping workshop, with the empowering feeling that participants' ideas are received and considered equally. For public park designers in Finland, that was just what they needed to make residents happy in a tricky neighborhood park engagement project.

Challenge: Digitizing and analyzing community input on non-GIS materials, like plans and illustrations

Tip: Use Maptionnaire to communicate, collect feedback, and analyze results with all kinds of interactive visual elements.

Visuals for detailed projects come in many formats besides GIS-based maps. That’s why we designed Maptionnaire to work just as well for floor plans and site plans as it does for maps. Plus you can easily add photos or videos of existing conditions, or inspirational images of new amenities and site characteristics. Imagination is the limit when adding visual materials to maptionnaires, so you can open a clear and detailed dialogue about the project. Results can be analyzed directly in the platform, so there’s no need even for GIS expertise.

Heatmap of maptionnaire responses in a building floorplan
Respondents can give precise spatial feedback on images, like their favorite spots in a community building. Responses are easily analyzed in the Maptionnaire platform – no GIS knowledge necessary.

Main takeaways

Planners face different challenges and opportunities when engaging communities in regions, cities, and sites. In a nutshell, here’s how they cope:

  1. In regional engagement, planners use Maptionnaire to engage those difficult-to-reach populations and capture big GIS-backed datasets. Though regional topics may be vast and complex, Maptionnaire enables an engaging, user-friendly way to participate.
  2. In citywide engagement, planners use Maptionnaire to synthesize a cohesive picture of residents’ concerns, wishes, and constructive ideas for the city’s future. By linking responses to neighborhood and demographic data, planners also promote equitable and just development in cities.
  3. In more localized engagement, planners, landscape architects, and architects alike flex the wide variety of visual tools in Maptionnaire. Planners offer more equal and inclusive participation because Maptionnaire enables a digital option that is just as engaging, graphic, and detailed.

Looking to build a more flexible and versatile community engagement toolkit?

Explore the Maptionnaire platform

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