Making engagement engaging

Jessica Cargill Thompson is a former journalist and editor of the Journal of the London Society. She has recently taken up a post as Community Engagement Officer in the planning policy team of Waltham Forest Council as part of the Public Practice associates' scheme

Community engagement seems to be having a moment. Property group Grosvenor is launching its Community Charter; Centre for London last year published its report into Trust, Design & Community Engagement; the London Society itself is addressing the topic through the ‘Public’ theme of its 2020 events programme; and many forward-thinking local authorities are creating new roles for cross-disciplinary community engagement officers embedded in their planning team, in my own case at Waltham Forest.

Yet the response from most communities when invited to engage in local development plans is generally, 'Why bother?' And they have a point. If you need to look after the kids; work odd shifts; are trying to cook the tea; are a young person with cooler places to be; are someone who feels that you won't be listened to anyway; or are reluctant to speak out in front of the neighbourhood activists, then it's unlikely an online survey or even a community engagement event held in a drafty church hall with only a cup of instant coffee and custard cream as an incentive will be top of your to-do list.

And if your primary worries are more short-term – paying this month's rent, buying groceries, getting a job, meeting a work deadline, or the new fears around Covid-19… – then you probably don't have the luxury of thinking about something that may or may not happen in five, ten, 15 years' time.

Meanwhile residents are convinced private developers just see engagement as a legally obligated inconvenience that will make it even harder to get their scheme built – an image most have been working hard alongside local authorities to shake off.  

But to create great urban spaces and places that enhance London and it's neighbourhoods, it's essential that the local community is involved. Collectively these are the people who can offer the sort of fine-grained local knowledge and practical insight into everyday life that's an invaluable resource for good urban design. They needn’t be the enemy, but critical friends.

So how is community engagement moving beyond a process that ticks a few boxes on a planning application, to something meaningful that can help create better places for us all to live?

Reaching out

Going to the community rather than expecting them to come to you. The much-used phrase 'hard to reach groups' provokes said groups to cry, 'We are here – you're the ones who are in the wrong place.'

In my own experience over a number of years working with community group Action OKR in relation to redevelopment plans for the Old Kent Road we’ve made a point of going to the spaces where people already are, holding event-planning meetings in local pubs, chatting to shopkeepers over the counter, and taking the first steps towards an urban room / neighbourhood hub in an empty unit on the high street.

These places of encounter could also be digital: podcasts, videos, apps, Zoom meetings, social media. Although personally I still think nothing beats a face-to-face conversation (it's probably a Generation X thing), the current health crisis means this won't be possible for the foreseeable. On the plus side, these digital platforms could, if used well, offer ways to engage with those 'hard to reach' Gen Z-ers.

Building relationships

Waltham Forest Council is committed to involving all sectors of the community in its plan-making and application process; teams across the authority have been exploring a raft of ways to build relationships and reach some of the often overlooked groups. This includes both digital and non-digital methods to ensure the process remains democratic and accessible to all, even during Covid-19 restrictions. Last year's London Borough of Culture status has left a legacy of strong community networks and creative thinking to build on. And the festival continues to bring people together virtually during lockdown.

Making engagement engaging

Is it possible community engagement could actually be fun? A growing number of dynamic architects, artists, urban designers and community activists think so and have been using creative activities to bring local people on board. Assemble, We Made That, What-If: Projects, Muf, Morag Myerscough, Resolve Collective, The Decorators, to name a few.

Again with Action OKR, some of our most successful events have been activities people actually want to spend their time doing anyway, with some community engagement questionnaires slipped in as a side order. Things like model making, guided walks, and kids' craft workshops. Or exhibition evenings and open days that sit project boards and provocations alongside table tennis, beers from local microbreweries and, on one occasion, a kazoo orchestra.

Listening to what people say

It's a two-way process. 'Engaging' is not the same as 'showing', 'telling' or 'presenting'.

 but accepting you might not like what you hear

Be big enough to admit you may need to make improvements. Be able to say: 'You said… we did…'

… and that you can't please everyone

However hard you strive to be fair and balanced, there will always be winners and losers. What London’s local authorities such as Waltham Forest are at pains to ensure, however, through stringent Equalities Impact Assessments, is that it's not always the same members of the community getting the fuzzy end of the planning lollipop.

Of course all of this takes time and resources. On the part of the professional design, planning and development teams, obviously, but also from local people and community groups being asked to give up their spare time and personal insight for free.

Effective engagement isn't a quick fix, off-the-peg solution to give the illusion that places are created by all; it means putting in the legwork to really understand intricate local ecosystems and reach out to sectors of the community that are often overlooked. And we all have a responsibility to make it work. It's a long-term investment in the city and urban life, which is why 'community engagement' must be more than just today's buzz-phrase.

We are grateful to the London Society for their help in commissioning this essay and always championing these issues.

The views and opinions expressed by the author in this blog are the author’s personal views and opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions, policy or position of any member of the Grosvenor Group. The Grosvenor Group has not independently verified the information contained in this blog or the completeness and accuracy of it.

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