Reopening Our Cities in the Midst of COVID-19 Calls for Inclusive Community Engagement
Whether you live in a city that is still in the thick of lockdown procedures, or one that is beginning the cautious transition back to some semblance of “normalcy,” now is the time to think about what the reopening process will look like for your community. Be it from a top-down or bottom-up perspective, community engagement and insight-gathering can, and should, play an essential role in the process. This is an uncertain time, there is no blueprint, and we will need to rely on community-led and evidence-based solutions in rebuilding efforts now, and in the phased economic recovery process in the future.
Though public life has been put on pause by the COVID-19 pandemic, the recovery period is predicted to bring a sequence of phases returning us gradually into public spaces with varying levels of social distancing as Coronavirus cases decline. But even with a rough framework, questions abound:
- Will we rush back into public spaces and main streets with reckless abandon, or with caution?
- How will transit function and bring back its ridership going forward?
- Will restaurants have the capacity to open to socially distant diners, despite what will undoubtedly be a reduction to their seating capacity?
- And how will our communities respond to what is sure to be a dramatically different landscape than we once knew, considering store closures and continued public health restrictions that will change our way of life for months, and maybe years, to come?
If we want citizens to return to work in our buildings, to use our public transport networks, to engage with our services, and to utilize public and private spaces, we have to consult with them. We have to develop an understanding of how they feel as this new reality unfolds so we can meet their evolving needs via evidence-based decision making.
We hope to provide a framework for addressing the challenges that will come with building back our necessary social infrastructure, by and for the community. From our perspectives as an urban anthropologist at THINK.urban and as a director of stakeholder engagement firm Connect the Dots, we see the following key points as a good place to start. We aim to continue to collaborate across sectors and communities to build on the ideas outlined below.
1. Co-create solutions with transparency and reciprocity.
The way to recovery is through collaboration; across sectors, across stakeholders, and across equity gaps. We believe that the careful engagement of all voices, in a collaborative, thoughtful way is critical when forming solutions to the challenges we are facing and to moving forward with confidence and trust. Consider going back to the intention of the town hall; to listening without limit and inviting all stakeholders to share their input, and from there, collaboratively develop solutions.
Across the board, we are seeing barriers being broken down and creative, effective partnerships being built in their stead. Project Restoration in Lake County, California, is a wonderful showcase of what can happen when various levels of expertise come together. Lake County is one of California’s poorest counties, and the area’s hospital has only 25 beds. From police to health care to EMS to behavioral health agencies, the County is working to develop a rapid response infrastructure to the current crisis, through community outreach that improving health outcomes and decreasing hospital utilization.
Before the pandemic began impacting our city of Philadelphia, plans were in the works to create a pop-up community center to work on the visioning process for the South Street Headhouse District (BID) through co-creation and community sharing. Just as we were prepared to launch this Center, the lockdown prevented the face-to-face connection that would have facilitated the visioning process, leaving us to put the physical space on pause. We are now reimagining our plans through creatively engaging small businesses remotely to coordinate a set of small-scale interventions to the public realm to help Main Street survive in the short term, and feed into longer term recovery.
2. Don’t discount the qualitative.
With the reliance on digital engagement, we run the risk of seeing online surveys become the default way to gather data. Concerted effort is needed to capture data in a more equitable and comprehensive way. Social distancing may prevent focus groups from sitting around a table, but online video platforms can help fill the void. And if you can’t get access to personal contact information, good old-fashioned hardcopy mailers or community call-in radio shows could always do the trick. You can get more creative with digital dinners, social media like Facebook Live, offline-online surveys, installations at key community nodes, and more. For example, Nicetown CDC in Philadelphia is focusing on connecting via email and telephone (banking) about needs and key resources, while the City of Philadelphia Planning Commission is working on reimagining key advisory neighborhood meetings hosted by Resident Community Associations (RCOs) in virtual formats.
Even observations, especially as we return again to public life and create new networks of open streets for commuting and exercise, can be safely done from a distance and provide immeasurable insight into how we can reopen public spaces. For example, GEHL architects has been conducting Public Space Public Life surveys in New York and Copenhagen (while maintaining social distancing) to understand current challenges and potential opportunities around designing and managing public space coming out of this crisis. In the same vein, once restrictions begin to ease, we will be working with an urban park in Philadelphia to gather insights throughout its transition back into use, similar to research we have done pre-pandemic as well. The insights we gather via consistent observations and engagement will enable the park to iteratively design interventions and elements that help potentially anxious visitors to feel comfortable again in public space.
3. Be consistent in gathering feedback.
Consistency is critical to developing a deep understanding of the needs of your stakeholders. New Jersey TRANSIT is sending weekly questionnaires to customers to understand their feelings on transit and their use of transit for essential travel. It will take time and effort to gather the individual information and to understand what people think, but checking in during key milestones allows us to review and revise as necessary, based on observable behavior and direct insights gathered. As NJ TRANSIT explains in the request for information, “Your responses will help us track improvements, make informed decisions, and put our resources where you, our customer, determine they are most needed.”
Similarly, the Downtown Development Authority/Main Street program in Rawlins, Wyoming is engaging the public in order to evaluate needs and concerns of residents, as well as gather their thoughts on various potential solutions such as their feelings on curbside pickup, their thoughts on virtual programming, and more. As many cities, including Philadelphia, begin considering the use of street space for café seating, a similar need for consistent engagement arises. The goal will be to ensure that residents and business are comfortable with the changes, and that the changes meet the needs of economic recovery.
4. Think outside the box to meet people where they are.
To conduct this kind of research, the outreach and engagement will need to be adaptable, tailored, and far more creative to have meaningful and equitable engagement. Considering the impact of the digital divide, this may mean repetitive, more personalized and more varied outreach to ensure that voices are heard. Or it may mean capacity and confidence building in using software, or a deeper reliance on trusted community ambassadors to enable engagement efforts. And if the engagement is digital, as many community board meetings have become, it’s not enough to simply post the details on social media and expect that people will show up. It’s critical to ensure you’re making an effort to provide equitable outreach and opportunities for participation.
Connect the Dots has been translating their community outreach & consultation services to a robust remote engagement process, involving digital and nondigital tools, adapted for each project and each community, across abilities and backgrounds and digital access. Jacobs Engineering Group has been focusing specifically on digital tools including a virtual event space that is fully customizable to each project, and includes options for set event hours, information displays, zoom-in maps, live webchats, space for comments, and more.
Lead with compassion.
More than anything else, the recovery process will remind us to really listen to the needs of the community so we can get through this together. In many ways, reaching out during the pandemic is equally a gesture of support as it is a means for data collection. This is as much about building community ties and trust as it is taking stock of current realities and strategizing for the future. We can take notes from design thinking concepts, and focus on empathy first and being compassionate above all.
The role of engagement and research specialists will be to remain adaptable, flexible, innovative and understanding. Contributing to research during this time can potentially be an added stressor for community residents. By building trust through participation and compassion, we can also do the double work of building resilience for the next time of crisis. We can only hope for a renewed emphasis on empathy in engagement processes and in designing resilient cities and public spaces shaped for and by the people who inhabit them as we move into the uncertain recovery period in the future. And when we’re done with the recovery research, we can continue this practice by leading with empathy when we do anything else as well.
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