Typical community engagement strategies often lack thoughtful intentionality and are not designed to nurture the trust and relationship building that is necessary for long-term commitment.
Get to know the place and its people. Take time to pause, listen and build relationships through a consistent presence in the neighborhood and activities like walk and talks, front yard gatherings or potlucks.
In Detroit, the team’s work is concentrated in a quarter-square-mile neighborhood in Northwest Detroit called Fitzgerald. With this neighborhood-based focus, it has been critical for the project’s success to provide ongoing opportunities for local residents to engage with the work.
Led by the City of Detroit’s Planning and Development Department with core nonprofit partners Live6 Alliance and Invest Detroit, the team’s strategy centered on building a high-quality public realm, starting with a park in the center of the neighborhood. The initiative grew to include pedestrian and cyclist improvements to the commercial corridor, McNichols, and construction of the Fitzgerald Greenway, a critical connective link through the neighborhood.
To inform the work, the team spent countless hours on the ground in the neighborhood to reach more people than might come to a traditional community meeting. Strategies like hosting a bounce house party or Hustle lessons in the vacant lots that became the park, a street corner pop-up grill with free hot dogs, and a bike lane pilot project along the commercial corridor created informal and frequent opportunities to connect with locals and foster relationships between team members and neighborhood residents.
Creating a permanent space for these relationships to develop, a vacant storefront was transformed into HomeBase, a community hub, that now anchors the blossoming commercial corridor. Operated by the local community development organization Live6 Alliance and open every weekday, HomeBase delivers services that improve economic opportunity for residents and, significantly, provides a dedicated space for community gatherings and conversations. Through regular programming such as exhibitions and a holiday market, the space is both by and for the neighborhood. It hosts business and block club meetings and gatherings with city officials, fostering collaboration across silos and spirited conversations about the future of the neighborhood. HomeBase is also the place for residents to regularly engage with staff members dedicated to the neighborhood, day-in and day-out.
Avoid preconceptions and commit to an iterative process. More easily reach people by combining engagement with existing local activities.
Sometimes the best way to engage with communities involves an unexpected twist on traditional methods. In Akron, Ohio, the team took door-to-door community engagement to a new level. As part of the HUD Choice Neighborhoods planning grant, partners tapped into another traditional door-to-door activity — Halloween trick-or-treating. Armed with clipboards, wearable sandwich board signs and perhaps a costume or two, surveyors gathered input from residents of all ages and raised awareness around the planning process.
Case studies produced by the Sustaining Robust Engagement & Stewardship Working Group of the Civic Commons Learning Network.
Lead image credit: Bree Gant