Community Engagement in Times of Quarantine

by Allysha Lorber, ASLA, and Elisabeth McCollum

image: photo by Sue Zeng on Unsplash

Just a few weeks ago, we didn’t anticipate being told to “stay-at-home” in quarantine while a global health pandemic ravaged public health and the economy. For those of us who work in the transportation industry, we’re used to projects lasting for years with a schedule of milestones set in place, one leading to the next. Spring is a time when many projects reach that critical milestone of a public meeting. Community engagement is part of the critical path, and project decisions can’t be made, allowing the project to advance, without meaningful opportunities to hear public input. How can we engage with communities when we must be “socially distant”?

Projects across the country are being put on hold, unable to reach that critical milestone of a public meeting while our constituents are safely staying home, busy working overtime performing an essential service, or worse—battling sickness themselves. However, public engagement can still occur—even if it’s in a different form than we originally planned.

Virtual public meetings aren’t new, but now more than ever, they are being embraced as an effective tool to engage with community members and project stakeholders. Meetings can be hosted on a variety of platforms allowing presenters to share presentations and discuss ideas with small groups of community members. These meetings can be advertised in all the same ways that traditional in-person meetings are publicized—on websites, through the press and social media, and by mail. Paid advertisements can also be effective at getting the word out and directing people to a website where they can connect.

Before deciding if an online meeting is appropriate for your project and its audience, the following considerations should be made:

  • size of audience,
  • level of participation,
  • ability to effectively manage participants on a virtual platform, and
  • desired outcomes.

Online meetings are most effective with smaller crowds, and could be limited to a certain number of attendees and hosted more than once to allow for everyone to participate effectively.

Facilitating a meeting online does introduce new challenges. It’s very important to plan ahead and establish ground rules, such as:

  • Have a designated technology help number for people to call if they’re having trouble so as not to disrupt the meeting as it takes place.
  • A platform that requires sign in and collects participant information should be used for capturing basic attendee information for the public record (name, organization, email address).
  • The meeting agenda and structure should be published ahead of the meeting, and it should clearly note when the public may comment. Instructions on how to do so should be clearly provided.
  • Each presenter and participant should introduce themselves before speaking.
  • Participants should type a questions into a “chat” function and wait to be called upon—this helps keep track of who’s speaking and helps to avoid multiple people speaking at once.
  • Comments can be made during the online meeting, but should be formally submitted in writing via email, online web form, etc., to count towards the public record.
  • Meetings should be recorded with video and audio to keep a public record, and participants should be told at the beginning of the meeting that it is being recorded. As a best practice, the recordings should be made public to ensure people have access to project information if they were not able to attend live. In these cases, the project team should also provide an opportunity for the public to provide supplemental comments, and the time period when comments are being accepted should be clearly defined.
  • The facilitator should be responsible for enforcing the meeting rules, and make sure the meeting dialogue is respectful, that no single individual dominates the discussion, that everyone has the opportunity to talk if requested, and that people are engaged and able to offer their comments.

Websites and social media can also be used to provide information and engage interactively with the community. Online surveys, wikis, and mapping tools can be highly effective at sharing detailed information that people can review and provide input at their own pace.

It’s important to recognize that online public engagement is not always a substitute for in-person meetings, and that this method does exclude people—those who do not have computers, internet access, have limited technological capabilities, etc.—from the process. The digital divide still prevents some constituencies from gaining equal access to information, and some jurisdictions have ordinances in place requiring more traditional public meetings for these reasons. Every project will have its own unique issues, and whether or not to integrate different “virtual” engagement tools should be considered on a case by case basis.

For more on this topic, see The Dirt for “How Can We Design with Communities While Apart?” by Deb Guenther, FASLA, a design partner at Mithun, and consider registering for MetroQuest’s April 23 webinar “Reimagining Public Engagement for Planning During COVID-19: A Peer-to-Peer Exchange.” Visit asla.org/COVIDResources for additional resources ASLA has pulled together, including business tools, virtual learning tools, and important updates.

Allysha Lorber, ASLA, PLA, AICP, is a Senior Associate at Johnson, Mirmiran and Thompson, Inc. and an officer and past co-chair of ASLA’s Transportation Professional Practice Network (PPN). Elisabeth McCollum is Senior Associate / Director of Strategic Engagement at Johnson, Mirmiran and Thompson, Inc.

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