Community processes such as community meetings and public hearings have long empowered people to fight for change in their neighborhoods. But current approaches to community meetings enable some residents—typically those who are wealthy, white, and older—to hamper reforms, such as housing development, that could make communities more equitable and sustainable.
Drawing on my experiences with land-use planning and reform as the former director of the District of Columbia’s Office of Planning, below I recommend seven changes to community processes that can help make local policymaking more inclusive while combating attempts to thwart needed policy changes. Ultimately, these reforms can help residents address pressing challenges, including those related to housing, climate, and equity, without requiring significant funding and other resources.
- Ensure communities have multiple options for providing feedback and tailor them to residents’ needs. Numerous virtual and in-person tools and platforms can facilitate resident engagement in community processes. Given differences in access to and comfort with technology, any virtual tools should be paired with in-person approaches. In DC, we sought to create another venue for people to provide feedback on our citywide land-use plan (PDF) in a minute or less while trying to interest them in engaging more deeply in the future, such as by attending a community meeting. By going to events across DC and asking people to drop a ball in a bowl that best aligned with their values, we reduced the time and travel commitments required of residents. In turn, we increased overall engagement and diversified the voices represented in the plan.
- Proactively reach out to those who aren’t represented. Creating many ways for residents to engage is integral, but historical inequities in community processes leave some residents skeptical of the value of engaging. Overcoming these inequities requires proactively engaging with members of historically underrepresented communities. By mapping key groups and stakeholders before starting to gather feedback, officials can track who’s participating and then reach out to those who aren’t. This may also require overcoming barriers like a lack of time or trust among community members.
- Compensate underrepresented residents who provide feedback. Though budget limitations may complicate this, it’s important to recognize the value of underrepresented residents’ time. In my work in DC, we found we weren’t hearing from young people, so we offered gift cards to youth ambassadors who reached out to their peers for focus groups and surveys.
- Structure community meetings around specific questions and disagreements. With a structure and parameters for feedback, meetings become less about vehemence of views and more about considering concerns, questions, and potential mitigations. Breakout groups and subcommittees can also allow for more detailed and nuanced conversations among community members; with controversial proposals, these small-group discussions can also encourage productive dialogue to resolve technical issues. Combining these approaches with new machine-learning tools can help ensure groups are diverse in their viewpoints and support efforts to build consensus.
- Avoid open mics. Open mics with broad audiences often encourage performative feedback and those with the most fervent views, allowing people to take advantage of participants’ discomfort to guide policymaking. Having residents report out in groups or provide written feedback can ensure more views are shared and emotions don’t factor into decisionmaking.
- Be transparent about the purpose of community meetings and clarify they are not a vote or referendum. Many people believe community meetings are a voting process, where those with the loudest voices should get what they want. In reality, they are one tool for guiding policymaking. To better inform participants, officials can share that community meetings are just one of many ways of gathering input and that each piece of feedback is one data point. They can also contextualize the decisionmaking process by sharing contributing factors and broader goals and policies.
- Make input collected from all channels available publicly. One concern many people raise is that the outcomes of community processes have already been decided and, unless they get their way, community engagement isn’t authentic. To combat this and ensure all participants see their voices reflected in decisions, officials can make all input publicly available. Though this has traditionally been hampered by time and resource constraints, AI technology makes it easier to collect, publish, and analyze feedback. Being transparent about the feedback gathered can also allow officials to better respond to queries about the process and share how they considered various views, especially those not incorporated in the final decision.
Though current community processes are flawed, the ideas above show that we have resources to improve how we use these processes to address critical needs while increasing the level and diversity of community input.