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.