It’s no secret that community engagement is a necessary part of planning that includes citizens in the ways that their communities are shaped. What is a secret is the best way to run community engagement processes. Planners have had varying success with engagement plans when balancing how to include as many voices as possible with getting feedback that is valuable to planning projects.
Typically community engagement is done face to face at community meetings, however it’s difficult to engage with the entire community at community meetings when there are many restraints such as time commitments, lack of accessibility, and pessimism about the ability to make a difference. There are also several drawbacks to traditional forms of engagement like public forums and charrettes, including high costs, lack of effectiveness, and being too exclusive.
While becoming increasingly frustrated with trying to navigate the Town of Chapel Hill’s website to learn more about a recent planning project, I couldn’t help but think that there has to be a better way to design websites that provide information but allow for the collection of feedback from the community. With a fair bit of research I found myself in a field of technology that I had no idea existed in the planning world: Online Community Engagement Tools.
This developing technology has allowed for towns and planning departments to increase their community outreach in the form of mobile apps, websites, or social media platforms that utilize methods of providing information and collecting feedback. These tools can be significantly cheaper, reach more people, and collect significantly richer data than traditional engagement. In recent years there has been valuable research on why we should be using technology to improve community engagement, however there hasn’t been much research on how we should be using this technology.
There are many different types of online engagement tools being developed and not every tool is ideal for specific engagement efforts. With so many different types of tools, it makes it very difficult for planners researching engagement tools to know which one is the best to pick, or even to understand all their options. Finding a list of 50+ tools on a blog post from OpenPlans, a software incubator, I decided to focus my master’s project, a year-long project as part of my degree requirements for a Masters in City & Regional Planning from UNC-Chapel Hill, on researching best practices for using these tools and creating a user guide that would assess each tool for practical use by planners.
My master’s project critiques typical community engagement efforts, explores the current field of community engagement technology, and analyzes three online engagement technology case studies to analyze best practices for using digital tools developed for community engagement. From this research, I created the user guide, assessing the 23 tools that are still publicly available, organizing them into five categories (surveys, message boards, mapping, budget simulation, and website builders), and developing a chart for each with the findings. This user guide is available to anyone interested on a website I created.
I hope that by creating this guide and making it available to planners it will assist communities in improving the ways that they engage with residents, making it easier to provide meaningful engagement opportunities and getting more citizens involved in the ways that their communities are shaped.
About the Author: Sarah Parkins is a master’s student in UNC’s Department of City and Regional Planning, concentrating in housing and community development. She has a bachelor’s degree in architecture, and her current academic interests include affordable housing and placemaking. When not working at the Carrboro Parks and Rec department, Sarah is baking and DIY-ing her way through Pinterest.