Community engagement is about a whole range of ways of communicating. On the one side, local communities are hugely diverse – in any one area affected by a development proposal or a new strategy, there will be people of all ages, ethnic groups, religions and levels of education. On the other hand, the objectives of planners or developers can be hugely diverse – they may genuinely have a blank canvas (unlikely though that is) or they may have aspirations and objectives they want to communicate.
Let’s take it as read that everyone understands that engagement is about far more than simply consultation. (If you’re interested in the difference, you can read more about the lowly position of consultation in the hierarchy of citizen empowerment in this seminal article by Sherry Arnstein from 1969, containing ‘Arnstein’s ladder of participation’.) In other words, whilst consultation might involve making a plan showing how an area could be developed for a new community, engagement could discuss with people what they want to see happen to that area, ask them whether it could be developed for new housing, what other facilities and uses would be required to make that work, and what else would be needed to make the proposal work and be of benefit to them. Crucially, engagement would also broach the wider strategic context – for example, how development in one part of town can complement wider objectives of economic growth and sustainability.
Really engaging with people requires a range of skills. I’m a great believer in the need for good listening skills. Planners and facilitators must be able listen to people’s aspirations and concerns. If they aren’t sensitive to what people want, how can they then feed their wishes into planning and design? This might sound obvious – but all too many people do not listen well. Just think of people you work with and come across in your daily life: how many of them are really good listeners? That’s probably a typical cross-section of society.
At the risk of distracting from the fundamental importance of listening, I’ve increasingly become aware of the importance of having a good range of ‘broadcasting’ skills too – to go back the other way. I use that term deliberately to encompass the whole range of techniques for communicating key messages. Not just broadcasting in the colloquial sense of using TV and radio, or yelling at people: but sensitively selecting combinations of media from the range of techniques available, as a marketing professional would do. There’s a huge array of techniques available from innovative uses of technology, art and performance through to the more conventional, but ever-present, need for negotiation and persuasive argument in writing and speech by talented individuals.
Planum, the online journal of European planning, has recently begun to post video clips on planning and regeneration on its website. Leonardo Ciacci’s introduction to a number of videos prepared by the government of Barcelona is particularly illuminating. Barcelona’s massive regeneration plans in the 1980s and 1990s relied heavily on private investment to come to fruition – a clear similarity with the current scene in the UK. As Ciacci points out, the city realised that engendering a sense of local ownership in the regeneration proposals was fundamental if they were to avoid unacceptable risks to programme timetables and costs (in a UK context, most likely via challenge at public inquiry or through the courts) – so much so that the city put communications at the very heart of its planning and regeneration strategy.
These passages from Ciacci’s article put it very well:
The management of communications is the real innovation in the whole story. The need to share decision-making processes, the need to attract investors and to avoid obstacles arising from possible hostility to the project and the interest in increasing support for individual enterprises, have produced a radical reversal in the project and construction process and have led to the adoption of a procedure based, from the earliest stages, on its complete publicity…
…the experience of the Barcelona development plans, from this point of view, raises a question of central importance. A public administration which wishes to maintain control over the outcome of activities that it has to hand over or share to a large extent with private shareholders, has as its only practicable option that of taking control of information and the public channels for publicising its initiatives… [click here for entire article]
Therein lies a lesson for many planners and developers in the UK. Not just for projects of the scale of Barcelona’s regeneration, but every project where there is a risk of delay and increased cost through community hostility, however large or small. With planning reforms in Scotland and the rest of the UK putting increasing emphasis on community involvement in the planning system, the need for effective community engagement is increasing all the time.
To see for yourself the power of Barcelona’s imagery, take a look at this 30 second clip from one of the Barcelona video on Planum. If you’re sceptical, bear in mind what Ciacci says… You can believe that or not, but it works.