thoughts on our urban future

How do you really engage with the community?

Engagement brings agreement and certainty

The planning system in most countries relies on community consultation to ensure that residents, business owners and other stakeholders are aware of future plans for their area and are able to offer objections to these proposals. Depending on the impact of these future plans (whether an extension to a residential property or the coverage of a new city masterplan), community consultation may focus on a few neighbours, or the whole of a city. Community consultation aims to communicate plans before they are enacted.

Community engagement builds off of this concept. It aims to work with the community (however defined) in being an active participant in the formation of future plans. Planning is a process, and it must resolve, compromise and address competing interests. It also helps to provide certainty about future change. It may limit types of uses, materials, building heights or place other limiting factors to more narrowly define future change. This provides an understanding of what can be developed where. If the planning system is too strict and prescriptive, it may limit future opportunities (and prohibit any development and sterilise land). If it is too loose, it will inevitably create conflicts, for example, between groups wanting to protect historic buildings versus developers wanting to maximise development and redevelop sites to a higher density. One side usually becomes bitterly disappointed, often after prolonged periods of conflict.

There are many actors that affect our towns and cities, and through community (and stakeholder) engagement, these various actors can come together to define a vision for change collaboratively. Working with recent projects, from citywide masterplans to neighbourhood plans, we have raised awareness in each place and asked anybody who is interested in improving their place to attend meetings and workshops. The people that show up constitute the place’s Town Team. Through this process, anywhere from 20 – 100 people participate in a series of evening and weekend events to identify local issues, promote themes for change, create a spatial strategy and identify short to long term projects.

The process is quite successful, with a book (the Town Charter or City Vision) published to guide future decisions. While each team works slightly differently, it is essential that the local authority facilitates this process (and is a willing stakeholder), and that the local community actively leads the process after the publication of the charter.

There have been some great successes coming from this process, which gives a greater responsibility to the local people to lead, promote and guide change. But, how do you judge success? In every process I’ve either led or participated in (whether it was a token gesture community consultation or a full hearted meaningful community engagement process) someone throughout the process is frustrated as they only recently heard about the process. They would have liked to get involved sooner, and they may disagree with previous community decisions.

Surely a small fraction of the community does not fully represent the whole neighbourhood, town or city. While I haven’t seen other processes as successful as this, I wonder what else could be done to ensure our communities come together in a truly democratic way to plan their community’s future? Or, should we not be expected to give up our time to make sure foolish decisions aren’t made; if planning departments truly had the right skills and expertise, should we expect them to make better decisions leading to fewer frustrations with the overall process?


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  1. It’s a problem that will probably never be solved. With infinite time and money, you may be able to ensure that absolutely everyone who mattered was consulted, and that the importance of the decisions being made was conveyed to them and that they understood and had their say. But unfortunately, I don’t think any project has the resources to attempt that, nor do I actually think it’s necessary.

    I think part of the crucial aspect of community engagement is being honest with the community about what they can affect and what they cannot. Or, if they cannot affect it through the consultation process, at least to educate them as to what other methods are available for them to influence planning decisions in their area. Sometimes there will be a great opportunity for the community to have input, and sometimes there will be less. I think a huge element to ‘successful’ consultation is to be very clear with the community what they are being asked for, and then be able to show them how their input has been reflected in the final decisions.

    All that being said, I am also wary of belittling what professionals do- all the training that architects and designers undertake to suddenly assume that a community will be able to do all that work themselves if only they had the right outlet. Most people in a ‘community’ have a job already- why should they be expected to have or develop this knowledge and training on top of their own professional skills? As a society, we specialize and trust (or hopefully trust) in the skills of those who have specialized to do their jobs correctly. For example, you wouldn’t really want ‘community medicine’ or ‘community emergency rooms’. And yet when it comes to spatial design there is this real issue of some sort of general opinion that ‘anyone can do it right’.

    So as much as I am hugely in favor of community consultation (and have done a lot of it myself, which, as a designer, I have gotten a huge amount out of the input gained from the communities I have engaged with). I think it has limits, and that we should not try to suggest that it could ‘all be done’ by the community and rather focus on the areas and methods where community input has the most impact.

  2. In my opinion, community (stakeholder) consultation is a vital component for successful projects. Despite the pros and cons, I think the main problem is when community consultation is left out of the process, or just tagged on towards the end of the project as a box ticking exercise. So the main challenges I see are: first, to convince practitioners to adopt community consultation; and second, to go about doing the consultation properly.

    From an engineering perspective, one way approach is to create a multi-criteria decision matrix composed of all the issues/options, and then allow the community to weigh and score each issue before analysing the results. Albeit, this is a very technical approach, and caution should be used to ensure that qualitative feedback isn’t lost.

    Tricky subject, but in my opinion vital for engineers, architects, and urban planners to accept.

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