10 Guidelines for Inclusive Community Engagement

July 6, 2023
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Truly inclusive community engagement emphasizes the participation of all demographics, as well as an equitable distribution of climate mitigation strategies.

But it is also much more than just reaching out to the whole diversity of social and cultural profiles — engagement activities should underpin environmental and economic sustainability. And finally, inclusive citizen engagement must drive a tangible impact on planning decisions and be transparent for all stakeholders. But it is also much more than just reaching out to the whole diversity of social and cultural profiles.

Here are 10 actionable guidelines for inclusive community engagement designed by participation professionals, planners, and academics. These tips help you organize and manage the engagement process, especially in city planning and climate mitigation projects.

10 Guidelines For Citizen Engagement with a Focus on Inclusivity and Climate Justice

1. Start with community mapping

Community mapping enables you to learn the target communities and understand their needs and perspectives even before engaging them in the planning or decision-making process. It will help you consider the specificities of the context, place, time, and people.

2. Define your target groups

While engaging the whole spectrum of demographics within a community is laudable, you often need to emphasize the ideas of those who are the most vulnerable and carry the biggest climate risk. Or you need to understand the key stakeholders (aka gatekeepers) who directly influence the success of the project. Knowing the precise target groups will enable you to tailor engagement activities and empower usually hard-to-reach groups.

3. Co-create engagement activities and questions

Why not invite some of the stakeholders to co-design a broad engagement process, for example, an online map-based questionnaire? Local organizations, NGOs, and residents will help you design activities that reflect the language, culture, and context of the place you’re working with. As a result, the activities will be better accepted by the locals, leading to better representativeness and larger impact.

4. Tell a story of a common future

Establish a common future narrative — yes, that’s that storytelling skill. Share these stories that picture a desirable inclusive and sustainable future, and they will mobilize individuals and communities towards participating and embracing behaviors that lead to this common goal. But be mindful of some groups having distinct future narratives — so either create a few scenarios or work hard to find a common denominator.

5. Go digital in your engagement activities

Digital tools not only reach more people but also help generate actionable data that is more meaningful, impactful, and useful throughout the planning process. From this data, you can gain insights, identify trends, and make informed decisions. Maptionnaire, for example, produces GIS-based data that is directly integrated with other data layers used by planners. Or you can use an in-built analysis tool for spotting trends, exploring the data, and creating reports. Jalisco's community engagement plan that combined digital and in-person participation involved more than 45.000 residents.

6. Be where the people are

Use different communication channels for reaching out to potential participants and stakeholders: in-person activities and digital channels attract different groups. Also, promote engagement opportunities where your audience and stakeholders actually spend time, whether it is digital or analog.

7. Maintain transparency throughout the process

Clearly defining the process, including when, how, and why decisions are made, helps foster trust and encourages active participation from stakeholders and residents. It’s also crucial to communicate why citizens should be involved and what are the engagement possibilities. Finally, plan for follow-up and feedback activities once the project is wrapped up.

8. Manage expectations

Quite related to the transparency tip: state how the engagement activity will impact the decision and what the overall scope of the project is. Is voting binding? Can any of the suggested ideas be implemented or only within a certain budget? By the way, participatory budgeting (or budgeting gamification elements) helps communicate the constraints to participants.

9. Explain role and influence opportunities

Outline the roles one can have in different stages of the process. This way, participants can knowingly contribute to the process and have a meaningful impact on shaping sustainable initiatives.

10. Assess the impact

Move from defining tangible outcomes to assessing the experienced impact. Showing the impact of the whole project (and not only engagement activities related to it) in an approachable format and contextualizing the results helps in making them more understandable for non-professionals. This way, seeing positive changes that the project brought about will keep residents and stakeholders motivated.

Who is Behind These Guidelines?

Why should you even take these guidelines into account? They were created during a workshop that Maptionnarie organized with BLOXHUB, the Nord Hub for sustainable urbanization.

We’ve invited engagement professionals, academics, and city planners from 16 organizations in Europe to discuss the best practices and underlying principles of inclusive community engagement that also promotes environmental, social, and economic sustainability. The participants worked on real cases from Copenhagen and Viborg where citizen engagement is an essential part of solving the problem.

guidelines for designing inclusive community engagement based on the case from copenhagen
The Copenhagen case focused on household waste placement and the challenges of accommodating all citizen preferences (presented by Frans la Cour, Senior Consultant, København Kommune).
Viborg case for workshopping inclusive community engagement
The Viborg case highlighted the difficulties of involving people in rural areas due to the long-term nature of planning processes. At the same time, the energy transition goes against established traditions of land use, and this conflict should be accounted for in designing engagement activities (presented by Peter Sig Kristensen, Project Manager, Viborg Kommune).

More Tips for Inclusive Citizen Engagement

The discussions were many, so here are additional tips that will help you design engagement processes that are impactful and inclusive.

  1. Don’t scare away from using digital tools: be it participatory mapping, digital surveys, digital ideation boards, or voting tools. They help involve local stakeholders at scale and create a sense of empowerment among citizens.
  2. Sustainable futures are created only when people are engaged in the green transition.
  3. Define and follow KPIs for the engagement process (not just demographics). And community engagement metrics don’t have to be only numerical.
  4. Speak in the language of the people (in other words, drop professional jargon). Understand local culture and traditions.
  5. When meeting a dead-end, try changing the perspective when shaping the question and offering a solution. For example, green infrastructure can be fun and pretty (and not presented as an inevitable solution triggering NIMBYsm), while trash collection points can include a reward system and be better integrated into the street design.
  6. Lack of involvement can be due to a lack of the culture of involvement. Make sure to validate local people as valuable collaborators by highlighting that they don’t need to have any professional expertise to be experts in their environment, and their opinions are valuable and will impact the subsequent planning decisions.

Many thanks to all the participants and organizers!

Maptionnaire enables your community engagement acitvities to be impactful and inclusive.

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