Community Engagement

Effective and inclusive community engagement is essential to every major city and county planning project, including general plan, housing element, and zoning code updates. Often, the interactions, communication, and collaboration between community and business members, interest groups and organizations, advisory committees and commissions, staff, and other decision-makers end up being as important, if not more important, than the resulting plan or code. The three key components for every successful community engagement program are: education and information; engagement and interaction; and validation and direction. 

Education and Information

Project Logo and Branding. At the outset of a major planning project, it is important to establish a project identity with which community members can become familiar. This helps people recognize the project as it proceeds through various phases of issue identification, visioning, evaluation of choices and options, and adoption. Branding typically includes a simple logo that may represent the project themes and a consistent color palette for e-blasts, newsletters, and reports.  

Project Website. A project website is an essential communication tool for most planning projects. A website serves as the hub of project communication and information, including an overview of the project, announcements about upcoming meetings, information on past meetings and events, a documents library, an overview of the schedule, contact information, and any other relevant information.

E-Blasts. Periodic emails to disseminate project information to residents, businesses, and stakeholders are a key communication tool for planning projects. An email contact list is built as a project progresses and more people provide contact information. An established interested-person email contact list can be used as the initial e-blast contact list. An email template for the e-blasts that is unique and consistent with the overall project brand is effective. Throughout the planning process, agency staff can then regularly distribute emails to communicate with residents, businesses, and stakeholders to keep them current on the process. 

Social Media. Today’s successful outreach programs often include a social media component. If a city or county regularly uses social media to communicate, periodic posts regarding the project can generate increased interest and project participation.

Newsletters. At key points in the process, newsletters can be used to summarize project milestones and keep the community informed of upcoming meetings and workshops. Newsletters should be highly graphical and include succinct text accompanied by maps and illustrative figures. A digital version of each newsletter should be posted on the project website. Hard copies can be distributed throughout public agency offices and libraries.

Informational Kiosks or Displays. The same project materials that are used for community workshops or open houses can be organized in compact informational displays, which can be placed at strategic public locations, such as city or county administration buildings, libraries, or schools. The kiosks can include the most recent project newsletter, business cards, informational posters, and surveys.

Business Cards. Business cards with the project logo and website link are an easy way to get the word out. Agency staff, advisory committee members, decision-makers, and others can hand out the business cards to interested community members. This is an effective way of creating interest and getting people to visit the website.

Press Releases. Press releases describing project meetings and milestone documents can help educate and inform journalists about the planning process. They also help ensure accurate project coverage and eliminate confusion.

Articles in Other Newsletters. If a city of county regularly publishes other newsletters to communicate with its residents and businesses, periodic articles about the project can help keep multiple different audiences informed. The newsletter can publicize the website, announce upcoming meetings, and summarize key documents. 

Announcements in Utility Bills. For cities that mail hard-copy utility bills, including communicative inserts in those bills provides another way to inform and educate the community. Similar to newsletter articles, inserts can publicize the website, announce upcoming meetings, and summarize key documents.

Translation Services. Translation services are essential to ensure effective, inclusive, and accurate communication to all community members, particularly in the San Joaquin Valley. There are two basic types of translation services for the project: verbal translation and translation of written materials. Presentations, posters, handouts, and all other written materials should be produced in all languages that are prominent in the community. Verbal translation services should be provided at all public meetings and workshops and advertised as such. Sometimes individuals are more comfortable participating in the planning process when a local community group or organization is involved. If appropriate, agency staff should work closely with local organizations and individuals to reach out to non-English speaking communities and ensure they are engaged in the process.

Engagement and Interaction 

Online Community Workshops. Virtual and online informational webinars, opinion and visual preference surveys, and GIS mapping tools help staff obtain community input on what they want to preserve and what they want to change. They can also be used to present key project results and documents. Key workshop components, such as slideshow presentations and surveys, can remain posted on the project website for a sufficient amount of time to allow for the broader participation of those who are unable to attend the initial event.

In-person Community Workshops. In-person workshops are a traditional, time-tested community engagement activity.  They should be held at convenient places where people feel comfortable gathering. Workshop sponsors should offer food, translation services, and child care to make the meetings more accessible to families and non-English speakers. 

For planning projects, typically one of two workshop formats is used: open house or interactive. The open house format is most useful to provide information and getting high-level feedback. They often consist of a welcome table, a presentation followed by Q&A, and a series of information stations with poster boards and handouts covering a range of topics.

Stakeholder Workshops. Planning projects such as housing element updates or environmental justice elements often require outreach to specific interest groups and organizations. Workshops focused on a single issue and that target a specific set of stakeholders can be effective in some circumstances. These workshops would generally be organized similarly to the community workshops described above, but more narrowly focused on a single issue and on specific attendees.

Charrettes. A variation on interactive workshops is the planning and design charrette. These are typically multi-day, interactive events that include a large team of planners, urban designers, and planning specialists who focus on ideas and options for change in a particular area, often a neighborhood or downtown. The charrette typically includes structured time for the public to hear presentations and provide reactions and input. Often, interested community members can simply drop by and observe the planning process.

COVID-19 and Community Engagement

The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally and permanently impacted the way we publicly communicate with others, particularly as a part of our local government participatory democracy. Many cities and counties have temporarily transitioned to Zoom or Go-To-Meeting virtual platforms for public meetings, experiencing varied degrees of success. While virtual meetings are no substitute for in-person communication, many have discovered that in some circumstances, virtual platforms can be just as effective and even more efficient that in-person meetings. Specifically, virtual meetings allow participants to stay at their home or office to participate, and in many instances, participate in online surveys or view presentations at any time that is convenient for them. Interactive online exercises, educational and informational videos, live webinars with Q&A sessions, visual preference surveys, and stakeholder interviews are all examples of virtual outreach that is just as effective as in-person events.

The interactive workshops may include some or all of the open house components but should emphasize participant interaction in either facilitated discussion groups or exercises designed to gain information about particular topics, such as the community vision; issues, opportunities, and assets; and alternatives and options. The workshop exercises should be engaging, encourage dialogue among community members, and provide meaningful opportunities for input. 

Front Porch Gatherings. A more focused approach to engaging the community are “front porch gatherings.” These are meetings designed to engage small groups of residents in their neighborhood.  They focus on neighborhood assets, issues, and opportunities related to the planning project topic (e.g., housing, traffic, health, schools, parks, other community facilities).

Community Group Presentations. Community interest groups and service organization meetings represent an excellent opportunity to inform, educate, and get meaningful feedback. Presenting a specific topic or project to community groups and organizations at their regular meetings can increase community interest and participation.

Pop-up Booths. As an extension of community workshops, information booths where people gather can be used to provide the same information or interactive exercises that are presented in the traditional workshop setting. Common locations for pop-up booths are farmers markets, youth sporting events, and community fairs.

Online Engagement. As noted in the sidebar on how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted community engagement, there are many opportunities for online engagement. There are also several online platforms that specialize in such activities. They allow an agency to engage with the community through surveys, opinion polls, discussion forums, photo sharing, mapping exercises, and more. They also offer analysis and reporting tools to understand who is participating and easily summarize responses. 

Speaker Series. Speaker series are a way to bring creative and knowledgeable speakers to engage the community at-large in big-picture discussions about issues facing the community. Well-known experts are invited to speak on topics of interest followed by a Q&A session.  Such events can provide educational opportunities as well as set the stage for future community dialogue and policy development.

Downtown Storefront. A downtown storefront can be established as temporary “home base” for a planning project such as a general plan or specific plan. A small, vacant storefront in a downtown or planning area can open periodically and have displays that provide timely information on the planning process and posters exhibiting current developments. A storefront allows residents to drop in at their convenience to provide input, ask questions, and learn more about the project.

Youth Engagement. Young people are often overlooked in the planning process, even though the results of the effort may have significant influence on their lives. Partnering with school districts on planning projects can be effective. Civics classes can give students credit for participating in community engagement events, particularly workshops. Planners can make presentations to classes about the planning project. Pop-up booths can be a part of school events. Meeting notifications can be provided to parents through existing school contact systems, General Plan event flyers in the front office, and by sending home flyers and notices with students. 

Direction and Validation 

Stakeholder Interviews. A key tool for developing an early understanding of project issues and opportunities is stakeholder interviews. A broad range of individuals and groups familiar with the community are interviewed one-on-one or in groups, generally for about an hour. Questions are typically provided in advance to frame and direct the interview discussion. 

Meetings with Agency Committees and Commissions. Members of local government commissions and committees represent some of the most engaged, committed residents and businesspersons, given their willingness to devote time and energy to the community. Depending on the planning project subject matter, some or all of the standing commissions and committees should be periodically engaged in the process. 

Advisory Committees. Project advisory committees made up of interested community members may be established to provide input and direction on a planning project. Advisory committees help ensure that the interests and values of all community stakeholders are represented effectively in the planning process. They typically serve as a sounding board for agency staff and consultants and provide recommendations to the planning commission and decision-makers.

Focus Groups. Focus groups typically comprise community members and agency staff with expertise or interest in a specific topical area, such as mobility, economic development, housing, natural resources, or climate change. These groups meet periodically to help identify issues and opportunities, discuss options, and provide feedback on policies and programs.

Technical Advisory Groups. Technical advisory groups typically comprise city, county, regional, State, or Federal staff with expertise in specific topical areas. Cities and counties may form such groups with staff from each department to provide internal review on project documents such as existing condition reports, technical analysis, and policy documents. 

Study Sessions. Working sessions with planning commissioners, city council members, or county supervisors at key points in a planning project enable decision-makers to provide informal advice and direction, particularly to narrow options and choices. Typically, no formal actions are taken at study sessions. Instead, informal consensus is sufficient. Joint study sessions may be held to include both the planning commission and the decision-making body. Joint study sessions are most useful early on in planning projects when they include more educational and interactive components.

In tackling public engagement related to housing reform, the Institute for Local Government (ILG) encourages the use of the International Association for Public Participation’s (IAP2) Public Participation Spectrum (Figure 30). The spectrum includes five components for effective public participation: 1) Inform 2) Consult; 3) Involve; 4) Collaborate; and 5) Empower.

Figure 30. International Association for Public Participation Spectrum of Public ParticipationSource: International Association for Public Participation, 2018. 

In summary, the Spectrum encourages local governments to go beyond simply sharing information by allowing community members to provide input in multiple ways and through multiple avenues throughout the engagement process. The benefits of this approach include:

  • Creating a better understanding of the true housing needs of the community. For example, residents may not understand that new affordable housing could directly benefit them or their families, including aging parents or younger families. 
  • Creating an understanding of the potential trade-offs of various policy decisions. 
  • Increasing community ownership of the completed plan.

Additionally, with successful community buy-in of new land use policies during the plan update process, community members are less likely to raise concerns about individual projects that are consistent with the stated goals of the updated plan. 

Survey Results 

According to the SJV REAP survey, many respondents (approximately 54 percent) are likely or very likely to be interested in technical assistance for community outreach and education. Respondents felt that outreach is an important tool and one of the primary ways property owners and developers find out about plans, especially through the website, social media, and newsletters. A variety of mediums is preferred.

Stakeholder Interviews 

Stakeholder interviews indicated opportunities for community engagement include:

  • Communicate with Stakeholders on the Ground. The State needs to coordinate with agencies, authorities, and non-profits that have been working on housing issues for decades, identify their needs, and then find ways to assist.  
  • Support Advocates. Provide support for collaborative advocacy groups to share ideas and support the people doing the work.  Give these groups a voice in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.

Partnerships: MPO Directors emphasized the importance of collaboration and partnerships among the MPO, local jurisdictions, housing authorities, and nonprofits.


California Environmental Justice Alliance/PlaceWorks, SB 1000 Implementation Toolkit (October 2017). 

California Environmental Justice Alliance/PlaceWorks, SB-1000-Planning-for-Healthy-Communities. 

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, HCV Landlord Guidebook Education and Outreach. 

California Department of Housing and Community Development, Public Participation. 

Institute for Local Government, Housing and Public Engagement Toolkit.